Wine connoisseurs are no longer the only ones obsessed with terroir. As popular brands went off the shelf during lockdown, many turned their attention to single estate teas for their region-unique flavours
Beverage connoisseurs are always on the lookout for something better. It is in this quest, during the lockdown, that many stumbled upon single estate teas.
Though it is not a new type or grade of tea, it had a niche following, until March, when COVID-19, and a string of lockdowns made grocery shopping a challenge. Kausshal Dugarr, founder and CEO of Teabox, a premium tea brand, says that as the popular tea varieties went off the shelf, single-origin tea gained visibility.
Kausshal explains, “Single estate teas are nothing but leaves that are harvested from one estate. It is not blended and is usually sold under the name of the estate. It focuses on taste and flavour that is mostly dependent on where the estate is.”
Single-origin/estate teas are indicators of a specific region that produces specialised tea, and should not be confused with organic teas. “Not all single estate teas are organic,” says Kausshal. “We saw the highest sale of growth of single-estate tea during May-June. It was a surprising eye-opener as the customer profile pointed to a very young crowd. Tea, as a beverage, is bracketed with ‘older people’,” he adds.
- Did you know white tea is known to be the most delicate tea variety? Minimally processed white tea is harvested before the plant’s leaves open fully. The tips selected for this tea should have fine white hair on it, from which it gets its name. They are handpicked and dried with utmost care and are not allowed to oxidise like the leaves for green or black teas.
- The longer tea leaves are exposed to oxygen; the darker the leaves become, the deeper the flavour profile that is developed. The different processes used to create and control oxidation include rolling, shaping or crushing the leaves to speed up oxidation, and steaming, firing or roasting the leaves to stop it.
- Ever wondered why tea is prepared and served in a glass or steel pot? That is because glass and steel do not bleach when water is boiled.
Meghalaya-based Lakyrsiew single-estate tea grower, Nayantara Sawain, adds, “The sweet, milky chai sold in clay cups on street corners around India remains the staple, but in line with trends abroad, the Indian tea consumer is also becoming more adventurous. The tea trade is responding, albeit slowly, by broadening its offerings. India has all it takes to succeed: the range of quality, distinctive teas made in India’s traditional tea-growing regions of Assam, Darjeeling or The Nilgiris is exceptional. And more and more producers are moving away from low-cost, low-quality mass production and converting to more natural or organic methods while broadening the range of teas they offer. Meanwhile, tea is now grown in new regions like Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, where it offers unique characteristics of flavour and appearance.”
These unique characteristics are the key appeal of such tea, not aspirational branding.
Elaborating on what makes single-origin tea different from other premium teas, Nayantara says, “Even when the tea bushes, and the production processes are similar, local climate, soil type and garden altitude can change how the teas taste.” A powerful, malty cup of Assam has very little in common with that pale, grape-scented cup of first-flush Darjeeling, or an amber-golden, cocoa-scented Lakyrsiew second-flush tea despite being made with similar tea leaves.
“That local distinctiveness — the French call it ‘terroir’ — can be even more pronounced with single-estate teas. Flavour and appearance of tea vary during the growing season: a bright, almost green first flush tea from Darjeeling or Meghalaya is very different from the darker, fuller-bodied teas made in the same estates during summer. But the discerning tea drinker will always be able to recognise ‘terroir’ in the single-origin teas,” adds Nayantara.
Amrit Duggar, tea connoisseur and owner of the tea room Morsel and Tisane in Hyderabad, explains, “Single-estate tea also highlights the skill and craftsmanship of the people that produce the tea. The origin is one of the deciding factors that contribute to its specific flavour.”
Online shopping for teas show that although single-estate teas come under the ‘gourmet’ or ‘premium’ label, they are not necessarily more expensive than better known blends. (100 grams of Bermiok costs ₹649.) “The process of blending tea itself adds significantly to the cost,” explains Kausshal. As a tea businessman, he makes another point: “To be clear, every tea, whether produced in Assam, The Nilgiris, the Dooars or in Kangra valley, starts as single-origin tea. It will depend on the middleman who decides to include that tea in a blend or to sell it as a single-origin tea.”
Kausshal adds that single-estate teas operate similarly. “Generally, they market their best under their label, while any surplus or lower-grade leaves, may be sold to blenders who will sell it under their brand names.”
The advantages of single-estate teas are that the drinker learns about (and tastes) the terroir of the estate apart from how it is produced, which offers greater transparency at a time when sustainability and environmental awareness are more important than ever before.