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The Indian attitude to tea

Have you noticed how much fancy hotels are spending on sommeliers, on wine cellars and on procuring expensive wines?

I’ve often wondered about the logic behind that expenditure. In the West, the sommelier prepares the wine list. He orders interesting wines from the far corners of the world.


He packs the list with bargains and knows which vintages to order and which ones to avoid. He has tasted every dish on the menu and can suggest pairings.


   In India, nearly all of this is impossible to do. It is extremely difficult to source wines from abroad, so most sommeliers are at the mercy of a few major importers and have to choose between the wines on their list. Nor do the importers have it easy. There is so much needless government over-regulation of this sector, that importing and selling wine can be a nightmare. So, we end up seeing the same wines on every list.


   All this is by way of background to my real concern this week. Why do hotels which spend so much money on this pointless sommelier exercise pay so little attention to tea or coffee? Think about it. My guess is that even at a top luxury hotel, only 20 per cent or so of the guests will order wine. But at every hotel in every category, something like 95 per cent (or more) of the guests will order tea or coffee. And yet, most hotels pay no attention to the sourcing of tea or coffee. Few people in the F&B section actually understand much about tea and until recently, it was nearly impossible to get a good cup of real coffee at a hotel.


   Why don’t Indian hotels (and the top standalone restaurants) take tea seriously? Why is it easier to get a tea menu (like a wine list) at a hotel in New York or Paris (both cities with no great and widespread tradition of tea drinking) than in India?


   Some of it, I think, has to do with the Indian attitude to tea. I wrote some months ago that tea was not an ancient Indian drink. It was cultivated in India by the British who brought the plants from China. The boom in domestic consumption only began in the ’50s after the Tea Board, tired of depending on export markets, ran a campaign to persuade Indians to drink tea.


   Our own special Indian-style chai, with lots of milk, sugar and (sometimes) masala, only caught on in the ’50s. And because we ‘cooked’ tea rather than making it the British/Chinese way, we were less concerned about the quality of the tea leaves.


   But though, Indians may not care too much about the leaf itself, a strange thing has happened over the years: India grows some of the world’s finest tea. Like wine, tea is an agricultural product and depends on terroir (soil, height, micro-climate etc.). And we have some of the best terroir in Darjeeling, home to some of the planet’s finest teas. Nor is the tea from elsewhere in India bad either – it is actually the one agricultural product that we beat the world with.


   When you think about it, there’s really no comparison between wine and tea. Even the average Indian tea is better than the best Indian wines. It is cheaper. And even the really expensive Darjeeling teas (Castleton, Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, etc.) are cheaper than most high-quality imported wines.


   So why do Indian hotels ignore a reasonably priced, first-class domestic product that nearly everybody drinks and waste so much time and money on bogus wine consultants, useless sommeliers and dodgy imported wines, which are often spoilt or oxidised by the time they get to the hotel?


   My theory is that we like to ape the West without taking pride in our own world-class products. Western hotels make a fuss about wine and so we followed their lead. And though Western hotels, restaurants and shops are now all getting excited about tea, we have missed the point and stick to serving oxidised white wine and dubious red.


   First things first. What do we do wrong with tea?


   Well, as you probably know, something like 80 per cent (or maybe more) of the tea sold in India is processed using a method called Crush, Tear and Curl (CTC). This primitive industrial process is usually used for lesser grades of tea. It is a method that yields a fragmented, almost powdery tea which when cooked, homogenises all the flavours that make good tea so distinctive.


"Biki Oberoi cared enough to have a special Oberoi blend created for his group but other hotels just use any tea bag that comes in fancy packaging and does not look too much like Lipton’s."

   The only way you can actually enjoy CTC tea is to add lots of milk and sugar, which is the way most of us drink it. It doesn’t really make a difference how you cook it (whether you boil the tea leaves with water and milk for instance) and because the taste is largely irrelevant, all the poorer quality teas go into CTC production.


   The CTC process came to India in the 1950s and suited local tea companies, because CTC teas are cheap and easy to dispose of in the local market. For the export market, however, we use leaf teas (using processes with such names as ‘orthodox’) which yield a more delicate flavour.


   The reputation of Indian tea, as you may have guessed, does not rest on the CTC stuff but on orthodox teas.


   So, unless a hotel is particular about not using CTC teas (and many don’t even know the difference), the tea served in room service and at restaurants is, by definition, third-rate.


   But there is second-rate tea too. No real tea-lover will use a tea-bag. And the tea companies, recognising this, tend to put very ordinary quality (and often CTC) tea into bags. Any hotel that serves you tea from a tea-bag has no right to call itself a luxury hotel. And yet, so many do.


   In an ideal world, a deluxe hotel would only serve leaf teas, made with love and care. Because each plantation yields a different kind of tea (the distinction is similar to the way in which wine differs from vineyard to vineyard), guests should be allowed to choose their teas by plantation and they should be offered information about each tea they are drinking (origin, first flush, second flush, etc.).


   But, of course, this hardly ever happens.


   There are happy exceptions. When RK Krishna Kumar, a tea-man, took over as the head of the Taj group, he made it his mission to remove tea-bags from all the Taj pantries. He was genuinely mystified that so many luxury hotels thought it was okay to serve CTC or tea-bag tea and it was during his tenure that the Taj finally developed a tea culture and offered an interesting tea menu. Some of the restaurants opened in the Krishna Kumar era were designed to serve great teas – such as the lounge at the Taj Land’s End. And others, such as Varq, at the Delhi Taj, made creative use of teas and infusions. (An infusion is what we call herb tea – it has no tea leaves in it.)


   When the Four Seasons opened in Bombay, its first General Manager, Armando Kraenzlin, was so obsessed with India’s tea that he sourced the finest teas for his hotel. But he soon found he faced a problem. Most hotels now place a kettle in your rooms. And guests prefer to use tea-bags when they enjoy a quick cup of tea in their rooms.


   Abroad, the tea companies have recognised that there is a small market for high-quality tea-bags but Armando could not find anyone in India who made tea-bags with good quality Darjeeling. Eventually he decided to buy the Darjeeling tea separately and to find someone who would put it into bags for him. When even that proved impossible – no Indian company would agree to make bespoke tea-bags – he sent the tea to Dilmah in Sri Lanka and got them to make the bags.  So, bizarrely, the only high quality Darjeeling tea-bags available in India at that time had been made-to-order by Sri Lanka’s most famous tea company.


   In the larger picture of how a hotel functions, the choice of tea-bag for the kettle in the room is a small thing. But in the context of luxury hoteliering, that fanatical attention to detail is what marks out a great hotelier from someone who is merely good.


   Sadly, there aren’t too many great hoteliers around when it comes to tea. Biki Oberoi cared enough to have a special Oberoi blend created for his group but other hotels just use any tea bag that comes in fancy packaging and does not look too much like Lipton’s.


   Which takes us back to where we started. Why don’t Indian hoteliers, who make such a tamasha about their understanding of the wine culture, do something that will not only help Indians appreciate one of our great agricultural products, but will also affect the majority of their guests, and not just the minority that cares about wine?


   Damned if I know.


   And as for the quality of hotel coffee, don’t get me started. It astonishes me how, in the era of Starbucks, hotels can serve such disgusting coffee. But that’s another rant, for another Sunday!




  • Noren 20 Sep 2015


    Though I reckon most middle class and even upper Indians are unlikely to favour the leaf tea over CTC. I personally prefer CTC to the original leaf teas I have tried at various plantations. I have started drinking black and green teas, but nothing beats a syrupy cup of chaai

    what to do we are like this only!

Posted On: 19 Sep 2015 06:17 PM
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