In May we blogged about the history of the spicy/sweet masala chai so ubiquitous in India and gaining popularity around the world. But what about the tea that is the basis of this wonderful drink?
Thought to have first been discovered in 2737BCE by the Emperor of China, tea has an incredibly long and rich history. From medicine to spirituality, from the drink of royalty to consumption across all layers of society, from the sublime Japanese Tea Ceremony to smuggling, labor riots and political struggles (think Boston Tea Party), tea has played a fascinating role. Today it is said that, besides water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world!
All of the many varieties of green, white, black, oolong and pu-erh tea derive from one species of flowering evergreen shrub: Camellia Sinensis of which there are three common varietals; assamica, sinensis and cambodia. So if the many different flavors of tea all come from one plant, what makes them taste so dramatically different?
The answer is threefold: cultivation, harvesting or “flush” and processing.
Cultivation includes elevation, climate and other conditions. Tea grows best in hot regions, in acidic soils with heavy rainfall (40 inches per year) and often at higher elevations.
Harvesting is usually done by hand since it is just the top two leaves and bud of each branch that produce the best tea. These are plucked by hand by droves of workers, often women, and tossed into wide baskets carried on their backs. Depending on the area, there are 2 or 3 harvests or “flushes” per year. “First flush” is also called new tea and is highly prized for its rich flavor.
The Orthodox method of processing involves four steps; withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. Withering makes the leaves limp and pliable. The softened leaves are then rolled, usually by machine, which twists them and breaks them open which begins the oxidation process. It is the oxidation process that determines whether the tea will be black, oolong or green. Spread out in a climate controlled room, the twisted leaves change color from green to reddish-brown to black. When the right amount of oxidation has taken place, the leaves are fired to stop the fermentation and remove the last of the water content.
Tea Master Barry W Cooper provides a fascinating explanation of the process:
The second method, invented around 1930, is called CTC or Cut, Tear, Curl. This was developed to give a higher concentration of tea by volume. Large machines take the fresh tea leaves and macerate them into small pieces. The “marl”, is then allowed to oxidize using cool air blowers to control its temperature and prevent spoiling. When the right amount of oxidation has taken place, the tea is dried in hot air blowers. This produces three different sizes, little round balls of tea (also known as “mumri”), the smaller cut “fannings”, and “dust” which is almost a powder.
Barry W Cooper gives us a look at this process also:
So what tea is used in chai? The tea most commonly used in India is the varietal assamica, discovered in Assam but grown in vast tea plantations throughout India and processed using the CTC method. The majority of the tea grown and produced this way never makes it out of India. The robust flavor and fast brewing quality of CTC Assam is popular in India because, as Patrick Shaw on chaipilgrimage.com most aptly puts it, “For brewing masala chai, CTC tea works well because its intense character can push its way through the spices and milk.” It isn’t that one can’t use orthodox, green or other teas but you have to adjust the milk, sugar and spices or you will overpower the tea’s flavor.
At Tipu’s Chai, we strive for the most authentic flavors of India passed down from our founder’s grandmother. So the teas that we use are grown in India’s famous plantations and imported. All except our instant tea are organic (we are still sourcing an organic instant of the right flavor and quality, stay tuned). The tea flavor is very important to us, it needs to be rich and robust enough to enhance the spices that we use, dark and very slightly bitter to come through the milk and sweetener that will be added. In our Slow Brews; Original and Decaf, we use high quality “dusts” because they are fine enough to blend with the powdered spices and not separate. (In spite of the name, “dust”, these teas are not of lesser quality.)
Assam CTC “mumri”
We have encountered the assumption in the US that “real” chai blends must be made from orthodox whole leaf tea and whole spices. While they look beautiful, from the perspective of traditional Indian masala chai, the flavor will not be as robust or spicy enough to hold up to milk and sugar. And in most Indian households, spices are freshly ground each morning with a mortar and pestle before brewing chai, to get the most flavor out of them. So if you want that dark, aromatic, spicy beverage like you tasted on the train platform in New Delhi, you will want a masala chai built from ground spices, CTC Assam tea and just the right combination of sugar and milk (preferably from a water buffalo!). While we don’t provide the buffalo milk, you may find Tipu’s Chai will provide the closest thing this side of the Indian ocean.
- Posted by Varada
- 1 Comments