Indian Tea: A Rich History and an Important Part of Culture

Indian tea

As an avid tea drinker, I’m always interested in learning more about the teas I enjoy. India produces some of my favorite black teas, well-known varieties like Assam and Darjeeling. India has a long and rich history of tea production that stretches back thousands of years. In this article, I’ll explore the story of Indian tea and its deep connections to Indian culture.

Tea plants are not native to India. The Camellia sinensis plant, from which all true teas come, originated in China. The Indian tea story began in the 1830s, when the British East India Company began large-scale cultivation of tea in Assam, in northeastern India. Tea was not a completely new beverage to Indians at this time. Traditional medicinal drinks using indigenous “tea” plants have been consumed for centuries. However, the influx of Camellia sinensis tea plants revolutionized tea production in the country.

Today, India is one of the top global producers of tea. Indian tea is grown across the country, from Assam in the north to Kerala in the south. But the most famous Indian teas come from the far northern regions. Assam tea is bold and malty, while the prized Darjeeling tea has delicate floral notes. The high-elevation Darjeeling region’s combination of climate, soil, and processing methods gives this “champagne of teas” its unique character.

Chai tea
Chai tea

Brewing Methods

Black teas brew well with boiling water, while green and white teas use cooler 175°F – 185°F water. For masala chai, spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper are boiled in water before adding milk and loose black tea. The tea is then strained into cups.

Adding milk, sugar, or honey mellows and smooths Indian tea’s brisk flavors. Ginger is also a popular addition. Brewing times range from 2-5 minutes depending on tea type and desired strength.

Tea Culture and Traditions

From roadside chai stalls to elaborate tea service at heritage hotels, tea is integral to Indian cuisine and hospitality.

Masala chai with milk and spices is the national drink, popular at breakfast and coffee breaks. The spiced, sweet milky tea balances the heat and spices of Indian food.

In eastern India, milk tea is served bubbly and frothy in clay cups or ‘bhar’. Tea is both a comfort drink and social lubricant across all levels of society. Afternoon ‘tea time’ is observed daily. India’s diverse teas reflect its different cultures, climates and history

Tea is more than an economic product in India – it is an integral part of culture and daily life. From strong, sweet masala chai to elegant white teas, tea is woven into ceremonies, food, and social rituals. For many Indians, no meeting, celebration, or religious rite is complete without it. Tea stalls on train platforms and street corners also provide social gathering places where friends can chat over a cup of chai.

India has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of tea consumption. The addition of milk and spices makes chai the quintessential Indian tea experience. The origins of chai are debated, but it likely originated in India in the 1800s as a way to make the bitter black tea more palatable. Masala chai adds warming spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper. Tea is so beloved in India that chai masala spice blends are now sold around the world.

As both a tea lover and world traveller, experiencing the tea culture of India is high on my bucket list. I look forward to one day visiting tea plantations, attending a tea ceremony, and pulling up a stool at a chai stand to chat with locals over a steaming cup. India’s deep tea roots provide so much to explore.

Major Tea Regions

Chinese tea

Turkish tea

Vietnamese tea

Japanese tea

Kenyan tea

Sri Lankan tea