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The Indian Tea Industry

With annual production of 1,081,170 tons (980,8201), India is the second-largest tea producer in the world after China. The tea industry is a vitally important sector of the Indian national economy, directly employing more than a million workers. Before its independence in 1947, India kept only about 30 percent of its output for the domestic -market Today, the reverse is true: a large majority of Indian production is sold on the local market Only 21 percent is exported. Although tea gardens can be found throughout the country, most of them are concentrated in the states of Assam, Western Bengal, Tamil-Nadu and Kerala.

Home to 900 gardens, some of which spread over several thousand acres, Assam is the largest tea-growing region in the world: more than 550,000 tons (500,000. t) of tea are produced there annually, sometimes even glutting the market. Luxury teas, like Darjeelings, are reserved for the export market, japan, Great Britain, Europe and, more recently, North America, are the major importers.

The industry's rapid growth was made possible by the development of highly efficient black-tea processing methods. The CTC method, which consists of grinding the leaves into very small pieces, allows growers to produce a uniform standard of tea - ideal for the industrialized market. This led to the creation of tea bags, a product that is extremely important in the industry today. Very high domestic demand, growing at a rate of 3 percent to 4 percent per year; has encouraged the use of the CTC method, which allows for very high productivity, if not high quality.

In addition to the product destined for local consumption, India produces more and more high-quality teas that are based on seasonal harvests and the specific tastes of importing countries looking for more upscale teas. The Darjeeling region is a good example of this trend.

THE TEA INDUSTRY IN DARJEELING

Although the market it serves represents only 3 percent of the total tea production of India, the Darjeeling tea industry occupies a unique position. Realizing that they could not compete with the high volumes produced in other, milder regions of the world, growers decided to perfect their product in order to produce an exceptional black tea that would give them access to a global market.

A garden in Darjeeling produces about 445 pounds of tea per acre (500 kg/ha) per year; three times less than a garden in Assam, for example. In order to ensure the viability of the industry, growers pay special attention to each harvest throughout the year.

By producing ever more complex and unusual teas, which have allowed growers to demand higher prices, the Darjeeling region has built up an excellent reputation. However, in spite of its reputation, a flourishing international market and the rapid growth of the local market (thanks to an increasingly affluent middle class), Darjeeling tea survives in a fragile context. Political instability and very high production costs have created serious problems for growers. Every year, several gardens are forced to close or are bought out by other owners.

THE DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM

Most of the Indian tea that is destined for export is sold at auction in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). All the tea-producing companies deal with a broker who hires professional tea tasters to evaluate the quality of a harvest and the price that it could fetch. A buyer who wishes to source an Indian tea must go through a broker, who will provide a list of the available teas.

The buyer can then enter the tasting room. Over the following days, the buyer will decide which batches he or she would like to purchase. The buyer will then attend the auction and bid on the chosen batches.

Taster-importers, who enjoy a privileged relationship with growers, can visit the gardens directly. They can thereby sample and buy the growers latest batches before they are even sent to Kolkata.

A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INDIAN TEA TRADE

Total growing area: 1,429,400 acres (578,458 ha)
Total annual production: 1,081,170 tons (980,820 t)
Principal growing region: Assam, with 537,373 tons (487,497 t)
Percentage of production by type of tea: CTC, 90%; orthodox, 8.9%; green tea and wulong 1.2% Average production yield: 1,521 pounds per acre (1,705 kg/ha)
Annual exports: 223,900 tons (203,120 t)
Source: 2008 data from the Tea Board of India. (Values in imperial units of measure supplied by publisher.)

TEA IN BAGS

The invention of tea bags is attributed to Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea trader and distributor. In June 1908, as he was preparing several samples for prospective clients, Sullivan came up with the idea of putting a little of the tea leaves into small silk bags. To taste it, he thought, they would just need to remove the tea from the bags. But when the clients received the samples, they plunged the bags directly into the boiling water. Pleased with the result, they asked Sullivan for more tea "in bags." From there,the idea took hold.

Today, some 130 million cups of tea are brewed from tea bags every day, but the packaging was modified many times before it achieved popular acceptance. This was the case particularly in England, where deeply ingrained consumer habits had to be changed. Thomas Sullivan himself made one of the first changes, when he replaced the silk with gauze, which was just as effective but less expensive. Another important change originated in Boston, where, in 1930, William Hermanson invented a bag made of heat-sealed paper fibers. But the greatest change came after the Second World Wan when Joseph Tetley and Co. (1953) began mass-producing tea in bags. Ever since, the tea-bag market has continued to flourish. Tea bags have taken on new shapes, round, pyramid shaped, etc., and now contain many different varieties of tea.

TEA TASTERS

The world of tea could not manage without tea tasters. They make significant contributions throughout the production process of tea, right up until marketing, especially in relation to the evaluation of a harvest and the processing methods. Tea tasters can fulfill many roles, depending on the different needs of the companies. Some of them, who are also called "tea blenders," specialize in the creation of blends, such as when a uniform tea is required or to test the quality.

THE APPELLATION SYSTEM

India is currently trying to apply the first tea appellation system in the world. Developed by the Tea Board of India in collaboration with the Darjeeling Tea Association, the system has been put in place in response to copies of famous teas, such as those of Darjeeling. Note that the market currently offers approximately four times as much tea under the Darjeeling label than is actually produced in the region every year. In order to increase volume, teas from other more productive regions, such as Assam, are added to Darjeeling teas. The appellation system obliges growers to indicate the geographic origin (garden), the name of the cultivars used and the processing method used for any given harvest. In spite of the good intentions of the tea producers, a lot remains to be done to ensure that this standard is respected.