In India, there’s always time for tea. As you travel the country, offers of chai will follow you from train station platforms to street corners, the brew’s signature spicy scent filling the air. In the lime-hued tea bushes that groove hillsides across the country, from Darjeeling to Kerala, workers in straw hats painstakingly hand-pick leaves that are then processed in family-run factories to make India’s national drink. Tea is not only loved across all spectrums of society – an estimated 800,000 tonnes are consumed in the country each year – but India has also become the world’s second biggest exporter after China.
The history of tea in India
Herbal teas have always played an important part in India’s Ayurvedic medicine, derived from native plants that grow wild in the country’s mountainous regions. However, the tea industry as we know it today didn’t take off until after the arrival of the British East India Company in the 1830s. Seeking an alternative to exporting its tea from China, the British planted the first Chinese bushes in Darjeeling and Assam. With later innovations in the refinement and production process, India became China’s main rival in the global tea business.
Despite having roots entwined with British colonialism, India has developed a distinctive tea culture all its own. Tea estates have been passed through the generations and thanks to the Great Depression, when the price of tea plummeted, the drink was marketed to and is now loved by all sections of Indian society. Putting their own spin on the beverage, locals began adding spices for their medicinal value, along with plenty of milk and sugar, serving the drink in small clay pots called kulhars.
Tea is now an essential part of Indian life, slurped at any and all times of day, infused with spices like ginger, cardamom, pepper and cloves. Various blends of black, white and green varieties are available, their taste dependent on where they were grown and how they’ve been processed. Expect to be offered tea everywhere you go in India, from street side chaiwalas and fancy hotels to family havelis, often accompanied by crispy snacks.
India’s top tea regions
Tea will be your constant companion when travelling the country – but where are the best locations to really delve into India’s tea culture?
Assam is set in the north-east of India, with a similar tropical monsoon climate and soil type to China’s nearby Yunnan tea region. This is where the British first cleared jungle in the 19th century to plant Chinese tea bushes and today, Assam produces around half of all India’s tea. Assam is home to hundreds of large estates that grow strong black teas typically used in breakfast blends, with flavour hints that range from chocolate to earthy tobacco. Less popular, Assam also grows indigenous herbal tea varieties.
This ex-colonial hill station lies at the foot of the Himalayas, its steep valleys furrowed with emerald bushes that supply roughly 25 percent of India’s tea. Darjeeling produces the Champagne of Tea, its black brews cherished for their light, fruity, floral flavour. With a distinct copper hue, many describe the taste as muscatel – referencing muscatel grapes. Darjeeling is so famous for its tea that the name is now a registered trademark and only certified growers are permitted to use it.
Discover Darjeeling’s tea culture on a tour of the eastern Himalayas at Glenburn Tea Estate, a colonial-era bungalow set over a thousand acres of forest overlooking the world’s third-tallest mountain, Kanchenjunga. Glenburn is run by fourth-generation owners and offers experiences that allow you to meet plantation workers, join in the picking process and enjoy a decadent afternoon tea. You can also take a walk in Darjeeling with a local, wandering meadows and forests where red pandas roam, visiting Tibetan communities and tea fields.
Kerala may be better known for its lush backwaters, but it also has some of the world’s highest-altitude tea estates that are nestled in the Western Ghats, over 5,000 feet above sea level. Munnar itself is a former colonial town surrounded by rolling plantations, tea factories and views of Meesapulimala, the second-tallest summit in the region. Its tea has a golden colour, with a fruity, slightly sweet tinge.
Take a tuk tuk tour of Munnar’s tea gardens through one of the area’s most beautiful estates, where you’ll learn how the drink is harvested and produced. If you want to explore Munnar further, take some time to hike the Letchmi Hills. A guide will take you from tea gardens to rocky mountain tops complete with panoramic vistas that stretch over the south of India – on a clear day, you can see up to 30 mountain ranges.
The Kangra Valley
Experience the beauty of the western snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the Kangra Valley, where tea has been grown on the slopes here since the mid 19th century. The climate lends itself to Chinese tea plants that produce a similar-yet-stronger flavour to Darjeeling’s tea. Stay at one of the largest working plantations in the Kangra Valley, Lodge at Wah, a 500-acre estate that dates back to 1857.
Family-run, this eco-homestead sits at the foot of the Dhauladhar mountains and has snug guest rooms set in cottages built in the style of local shepherd tribes. Join a tea tour with one of the Lodge at Wah owners, Surya, who will show you the entire production process from bush to cup, complete with a tasting session where you’ll sample 15 types of black, white and green teas. Don’t miss the chance to try their delicious tea leaf pakoras too.
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