The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 27, 2007


Does anyone remember Tea City, that New Delhi-based chain of tea stores where customers could blend their own personal creations? This was a brief vogue in the late 1980s. My friend Guru, a tea maven, used to frequent it, mixing an Assam with a Sikkim and a Ceylon with a Clonal, and various Platinums and Golds. He would then retire to the college residence and make himself a fine cuppa, and wax eloquently on its bouquet and delicate flavour, its colour and its dynamic range. He made it sound like a Montrachet propelled via a graphic equaliser.

I don't think the outfit lasted very long. There had been branches of it all over Delhi. When it was first launched, the well-designed interiors were impeccably clean. Automatic dispensers allowed customers to select their choice of leaf, and mix and match as they liked. Housewives and interested salary-men would flock to it to grab a couple of hundred grammes of their favourite infusion. Slowly, however, dust began to accumulate. The crowds dropped off and the branches closed.

About a decade later, every street corner now is crowded with Starbucks clones and Barista chains and similar exemplars of coffee culture. Certainly there are chai bars popping up all over as well. I don't think anyone can make personal blends any longer, though. A little bit of creativity once open to a consumer has been now eliminated.

Meanwhile, tea is becoming a fancy competitor to coffee in the decadent West. A few years ago, a Chinese friend, Jenny, took me and the wife to a tea bar in San Diego. It had been started by some Taiwanese expats, and was popular mainly among the Orientals in the area. It purveyed such interesting tipples as boba, a milky tea with tapioca balls. The usual masala chais were available too for the occasional desi visitor. Slowly, the fame of the bar and its cousins grew.

California, as usual, was ahead of the curve. Perhaps the overwhelming presence of rich tea-drinkers drove the market quite unlike in the rest of the country. Now I find that Chicago is getting its own chain of exotic tea bars. Called Argo Tea, it has been quietly (with enthusiastic word of mouth) spreading its influence over the Windy City with its iced teas and Armenian mint infusions. Interestingly, the people behind this venture are not of the ilk of your popular view of tea-drinkers. They are Armenians, ex-software types who decided to get into the business when they realised that the dot-com bust meant they needed to look at fresh avenues to make their millions.

In London, too, there are fine tea outlets. Of course, tea is a long-standing tradition in these parts. One of the first places where the cup that cheers but does not inebriate was available was Garway's Coffee House on Change Alley in Cornhill. From 1658, men (but not women) were able to procure a cup and a newspaper there for the princely sum of a penny.

A couple of years ago, there was a lot of buzz about the India Tea Board intending to advertise its products worldwide. They talked of opening outlets and bars, and creating a cutting-edge brand in tea, wanting to make it the tipple of choice for every discerning person. I suspect the effort fizzled out rather quickly. Indeed, today, the best-known Indian tea bar in London is possibly the only one: part of the famous Chor Bizarre restaurant, it is cunningly named Chai Bazaar. It is fairly expensive, but does a nice selection of interesting teas. The Darjeeling is especially delicate and well-made, and the two or three Nilgiri blends are pretty flavourful as well.

Not to be undone, the Orientals have staked their claim. Yauatcha in Soho has set the standard for your oolongs and Jasmines, while East Tea in Borough Market purveys fine Japanese greens and fermented Pu-erh, a rare Chinese tea.


Sad to report, however, that tea growers in India are getting poorer, malnourished and a target for human traffickers. Tea prices worldwide are declining, and there's competition from East Africa and Sri Lanka, where labour costs and more efficient operations undercut India's vast plantations. As ever, things will have to get a lot, lot worse before they get any better for the impoverished tea-pickers in desh. I am not too optimistic.


Anonymous said...

Very enticing!
I highly recommend 'Make Tea Not War'
By eve11
It seems just hundred years back the brits were offering free cups of tea in Chennai street corners just to popularize the drink!
Do you think the trend of upmarketing is going to help the tea scene in India?

Fëanor said...

Kulls: Didn't know about free cuppas in Madras? Source for the info?

As for upmarketing tea, I'm not too sure: after all, we like to ape the West in many things, so coffee bars are taking off first. But that's just the cynic in me.

Anyway, the supposed blitz by the Tea Board doesn't seem have yielded any results as far as I can tell.

Guru said...

your chai knowledge has me on my knees! Have you tried lemon grass tea? I have finally settled on Lipton green lable which is strong to my taste although greatly diluted from its erstwhile avatar.I can't recall you having missed out on anything. Tea City probably never took off. Tea bars are also yet to hit India though Coffee bars have taken over and quite a craze - I think its west-aping.

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