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A Short Timeline of India Becoming a Tea-Drinking Nation

India, having tea as its national beverage, of course, has its own pathway through reaching it. For many Indians, an average day starts with a cup of masala chai at home and continues with extra cups from common canteens and tea vendors. India's masala chai, typically prepared by boiling tea leaves with milk, sugar, ginger root, and warm spices like cardamom and clove, has grown to be one of the most well-known beverages in the world. In fact, the word "chai," which merely means "tea" in Hindi, has come to be synonymous with the Indian brewing style in many nations.

The popularity of tea in India, however, is a comparatively recent trend. Many Indians had never had tea, much less masala chai, 60 or 70 years ago. As a beverage of the British colonizers of the subcontinent, it underwent a change that led to its global recognition as a uniquely Indian beverage as a result of technical advancement, the battle for independence, and a number of vigorous marketing activities.

How It All Started, the 1200s - 1600s and Ancient India

Even though it has lately become more popular, drinking tea has long been a tradition in India. Tea was naturally grown in the Assam state in the northeast. The Singpho people and numerous other indigenous communities regularly drank this wild tea for its health advantages and, probably, for its caffeine as early as the 12th century. They frequently wrapped dried, roasted tea leaves in bamboo cane before smoking them to prepare the tea. The Singpho people still drink tea in this manner, cutting off a piece of smoked, tea-filled cane as needed.

Later accounts of tea used in Indian cities close to established trade routes with Europe, the Middle East, and China exist. People in the Gujarati city of Surat, for instance, employed tea brought from China to relieve headaches and stomach problems in the late 1600s. English explorer John Ovington noted that Indian traders drank tea "with some hot spice…with sugar-candy, or, by the more curious, with some conserv’d lemons" in A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689.

The So-Called Rise of Tea, the 1700s-1900 with British rule

Because of the struggle between Britain and China, industrial tea manufacturing started in India. According to culinary historian Erika Rappaport in her book A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, "even as the British and Chinese increasingly viewed each other as barbarians, the British could no longer live without tea" and hence Britain devoured an astonishing 40 million pounds yearly by the 1830s. The British started looking for new sources after China unexpectedly stopped trading tea with them and the two countries' ties descended into conflict. The British stretched their colonial influence into Assam after learning that the Assamese produced their own unique sort of tea, clearing the jungle to make way for tea plantations.

Early on, there was both rapid development and conflict in the Indian tea industry. Tea plantations were started by European, Assamese, and Indian industrialists starting in the 1830s. Tea export demand increased, and planting erupted in a fury. But finding workers for those plantations was another story. Many Assamese people mistrusted the tea industry and refused to work in the plantations or clear the forest for planting. Planters used migrant labor from remote areas of India as indentured servants. These tea workers were stranded on the plantations far from their homes because of illness, starvation, and debt.

Even though the production of Indian tea did not increase much in the late 1800s, few Indians actually drank it. The little that was left on the Indian market was marketed to upper-class Europeans and Indians who had assimilated British social customs. These individuals served their tea with milk and sugar, and made it according to British custom, using specific steeping periods and specialty tea equipment. Indian tea consumption at the time was modest and frequently associated with support for British rule. A number of notable upper-class individuals and Indian nationalists stopped drinking tea as more information about the mistreatment of Indian laborers on tea plantations emerged and the public became more aware of the predicament of plantation employees.

New Styles Coming Hometown, 1900-1930 and Early Days of Indian Tea Consumption

Although there is debate regarding the manufacturing of tea, Indian tea culture began to change in the early 1900s. Tea dealers were suddenly faced with an excess amount of tea that they were unable to sell due to an international economic crisis, which forced them to concentrate on the home market and initiate marketing initiatives that first targeted middle and upper-class Indians. The first commercials largely mirrored the theme of those aimed at Europeans and Americans, emphasizing the refinement of tea, its health advantages, and "correct" British techniques of steeping tea. Early tea packaging attempted to dispel unfavorable perceptions of tea plantations by including photographs of lovely, tranquil tea gardens, much as how factory-farmed meats of today utilize pictures of broad pastures to promote their goods.

Early tea-making instructions were presented in ads, but Indians rapidly devised their own methods. They cooked tea leaves in water or milk without first steeping them in it. Tea leaves that have been broken up or ground up are frequently used to reduce the cost of consumption. Combining these techniques resulted in a stronger, more caffeinated beverage while conserving tea. Indians copied the British habit of sweetening milk and tea, but they went a step further to lessen the bitterness of the boiling tea prepared from crushed tea leaves. Tea vendors boiled the tea with flavorings including fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves to reflect regional preferences. Though its precise ancestry is unknown, current masala chai most likely evolved from these early tea concoctions.

Large metropolitan centers saw a rise in the opening of tea shops in the 1920s and 1930s. In the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, little cafés known as "tea cabins" have sprouted up in areas close to colleges and are selling cheap tea and snacks. They immediately developed into hotspots for news, political rumors, and vigorous debates over cultural issues, and in subsequent decades they were significant gathering places for intellectuals and Indians who supported independence. Parsis, immigrants from Iran who practice Zoroastrianism, developed cafés in Mumbai and Delhi that serve food with a Persian flair as well as their own brand of tea. A wide range of customers was offered "Irani cha," an especially creamy, heavily-brewed tea beverage by Parsi eateries.

So, everything aside, the ordinary, reddish, sour, and sweet to spicy and earthy tea that we drink in a second comes a really long way across the globe, having tremendous adventures within itself along the way, as you can see!

The Great Marketing Push, 1930

The value of tea fell during the 1930’s Great Depression, even as Indian tea estates were generating record quantities. Tea boards responded by launching an intensive marketing push to encourage tea consumption across India. Instead of focusing on certain groups of society, this was a nationwide campaign intended at promoting tea consumption among all customers, regardless of class, ethnicity, gender, or place of origin. Tea was pushed everywhere, from train stations and workplaces to the countryside, by traveling salespeople. They demonstrated how to prepare tea and encouraged people to drink free sample cups or take home single-use sachets during public demonstrations. Promoters urged industrial and office bosses to provide tea breaks to their employees, promising increased productivity. Tea was marketed as a healthy, invigorating, and sensible substitute for alcohol. While tea consumption remained low in comparison to the Indian population as a whole, this marketing campaign was effective in introducing tea to many people, who immediately preferred tea to non-caffeinated beverages.

American Independence Movement and Tea, 1930-1950

The advent of the Indian independence movement impacted tea's popular image. The Indian populace became increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Mahatma Gandhi advocated for Indians to reject British imperial commodities, particularly tea, as part of the Swadeshi Movement, openly denouncing the tea plantation system's poor pay and reliance on indentured labor. As a result, many tea workers went on strike or left tea farms entirely. Similarly, Gandhi spoke out against advertisers' harmful promotion of excessive tea consumption. "Strong tea is poison," he stated, emphasizing the importance of "great prudence in creating marketing."

Despite these concerns, advertising successfully included tea into the nationalist movement for Indian independence. In response to the rising tide of nationalism, they replaced colonial messages with depictions of tea as a Swadeshi beverage, one linked to national identity, commissioning Indian artists to create bold, graphic images of tea drinkers dressed in regional attire, accompanied by text in regional languages. Despite stressing regional diversity, these posters also emphasized national unity, and the message appeared to connect with a populace desiring independence from British authority. With India's independence declaration in 1947, tea marketers issued a statement declaring tea to be a unifying force for the Indian people as well as a future cultural and economic ambassador to the globe. Following independence, the last foreign-owned tea estates were gradually sold to Indian proprietors. While India continued to export tea, an increasing proportion of it remained in the domestic market.

Post-Independence India and Beyond, 1950-1990

In the years following independence, innovations in processing technologies made drinking tea more accessible and common. This was based on the "crush-tear-curl" (CTC) method, which shredded tea leaves and turned them into homogeneous granules. CTC tea boils faster and produces significantly more cups of tea than non-CTC-processed tea of the same weight. CTC processing has been around since the 1930s, but in the late 1950s, a Bengali engineer updated the CTC apparatus to make it more industrially scalable. Machinists all around India violated his patent, and CTC tea became widely available. In the 1950s and 1960s, an abundant supply of low-cost CTC tea led to an increase in the number of roadside tea vendors. Decades later, when Indian emigrants and tourists introduced non-Indians to many variants of masala chai, it culminated in the 1990s with Starbucks and a number of other firms latte-ifying masala chai, giving it a household brand. International variants of masala chai take several liberties, such as adding espresso shots or altogether modifying the milk, sugar, and spice ratios. While Masala chai has become a fashionable alternative to cappuccino, the tea type remains an inexpensive, everyday beverage that powers many parts of life in India.

Works Cited:

"All The Tea (Not) In China: The Story Of How India Became A Tea-Drinking Nation". Serious Eats , 2022,

"History Of Indian Tea - Young Mountain Tea". Young Mountain Tea , 2022,



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