India is one of the birth places of the tea plant, but commercial production of tea only began 200 hundred years ago. The tea plant, the Camellia sinensis, had been growing wild in Assam in the north-east for centuries and is believed to have been used for generations by the Singpho and Khamti tribes for eating, drinking and medicinal uses.
It was not until the early 1800s that The British East India Co, the mega trading company of its time, became desperate to break the Chinese monopoly on the lucrative tea trade and started to look for an alternative source of tea in India. Despite the discovery by the Scotsman Robert Bruce of indigenous tea bushes (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) through the Singoho tribe in Assam in the 1820s, they were not officially acknowledged as "tea" until 1835.
At first The East India Co. wanted to replicate Chinese tea by replanting Chinese plants in India. To do this, they recruited the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune who disguised himself as a Chinese merchant to penetrate the heartland of tea to learn the Chinese methods for manufacturing tea and sneak out tea plants and seeds.
It was these Chinese Camellia sinensis sinensis seeds effectively stolen by Fortune that were first planted in the Darjeeling region. It was by sheer luck that the Chinese plants happened to thrive in the cool, high elevations. In contrast, the same Chinese bushes failed in the warm humid lowland region of Assam.
It took a few more years of trial and error to cultivate the native Camellia sinensis assamica varietals. Seeds were collected from the wild jungle trees and planted out in new estates across the plains of Assam. In 1838 the first successful shipment of Indian tea from Assam was sent to London and well received by consumers.
From that time on, the tea industry in India really took off. More tea estates were established In Assam, and then Darjeeling, the Nilgiri Mountains, and onto Sri Lanka in 1867. In less than fifty years India went from having no commercial production to becoming the world’s largest producer.
In these early days, the rapid growth of the Indian tea trade was fueled by increasing demand from the British market. As production of tea in India rose, the price of tea came declined and became more and more accessible. This demand was met by the creation of large-scale production by the East India Co., with the formation of the estate or plantation model which relied heavily on an indentured labour force brought in from tribal communities in neighbouring regions.
Under this model which still lives on today, the tea fields and factory were owned and operated by a private company allowing a centralised management team to control quantity, quality and cost. Regrettably, it has meant that tea workers were, and still largely are, entirely dependent on the estate owners for everything from housing, to food, healthcare and education. The problems of this are well known.
In the first 100 years of commercial production, tea from India was considered a high-status product, and traditional orthodox tea (made from leaves that are withered, rolled and dried) was favoured. Gradually the thirst for inexpensive tea in the world market took hold. This was intensified following World War II when the British market became used to rationing and afterwards ever cheaper tea. By the 1960s, the majority of producers in Assam and the Nilgiris had switched to the crunch, tear and curl (or CTC) method of industrial production more suited to the tea-bag which became the norm. This has created a dependence on chemical inputs and a vicious cycle has ensued.
Over the past 50 years, the price paid for fresh leaves has fallen steadily and failed to keep up with rising costs. Many growers in India have fallen prey to a price slump driven by mass market tea. The price for teas today is so low that many growers have been forced to give up and abandon gardens, along with the workers in them.
Given the growing awareness that the conventional system of tea production in India is untenable, a new generation of individual tea growers are breaking away from the large monoculture plantation model and producing high quality tea on small plots more sustainably and in harmony with nature. These small farms benefit from a sense of ownership. They encourage entrepreneurship, can enrich the local economy, and are more incentivised to upgrade the quality of their leaf. When you remember that all tea (black, white, green, and oolong) is made from the same raw leaf, the potential is huge.
At The Karma Tea Co., we aim to support these small independent growers and tea makers across the region who are paying their workers fairly and growing their tea using sustainable methods. As consumers we can also do our part to bring about a positive change and become more connected with the origins of our tea, one cup at a time.