India is finally learning how to chill out, I suppose. In the last two years, the F&B industry has slowly started moving towards easy, casual dining, don’t-give-a-damn décor and kaleidoscopic menus with something for everyone. There is this crushing need to be “hipster” again. Hence, the CCD mania that had once mushroomed all over seems to be slowing down, and people are introducing themselves to the charm of filter coffee and old-school coffee houses. I have been a regular at Mumbai’s famous coffee houses in the Matunga area for years now, and these days, the number of college students and young professionals at Ram Ashray and Madras Café has almost tripled.
Also, tea is back. While it was always humbly present at home, it wasn’t very hip to go and drink tea outside. With the new culture of taking it easy, tea has become the herb of choice. Tea lounges and bars are opening up across cities, serving interesting concoctions, nibbles and even mains. Moving away from abysmally-flavoured iced tea, cafes and tea houses are also experimenting with tea smoothies, shakes and frappes. Most places serve almost 50 (some go up to 100) varieties of tea, inclusive of leaves, dust, pearls, blends and concoctions. The cafes themselves are easy-paced and make for fantastic watering holes.
Personally, I am a part of this changing trend. While I come from a strictly tea-drinking family (my father has been obsessively using a timer to accurately measure tea-steeping for years), I never took to it. As a college student, coffee shops looked glitzy and attractive enough to spend too much money on bad coffee and oversized muffins. Curiosity led to a slow progression to understanding coffee, and a steady romance with south Indian filter coffee began. Soon, after an accidental evening (I obsessed more about the teas than my date) at the Tea Centre in Mumbai, it was time to come home.
“Tea is an adult drink,” says Pritha Chatterjee, successful ad exec and tea lover. Chatterjee has travelled around the country trying out tea and also dreams of becoming a tea taster some day. She talks about tea like most sommeliers talk about wine. “Coffee is a solid onenote flavour. Yes, there can be blends and notes, but those are subtle and not a priority. While white, yellow and green teas can be beautifully understated and nuanced, other blends can vary from being tropical to woody-oaky- smoky. And then you can create beautiful varieties when you cook the tea with flavours and other herbs. But this is not something you would expect 18-year-olds to enjoy. Tea demands a lazy atmosphere, staying away from your cellphone, actually talking to another human being and not worrying about getting somewhere. Hence, it is an acquired taste.”
While Chatterjee is as hipster as they get, I talk to owners of various tea houses across cities to understand the success of this trend. Mridu Gupta of Delhi’s successful The Team Room Co. thinks that tea is bringing back the original café culture of easy-peasy. Master tea taster Sanjay Kapur, who has been running Aap Ki Pasand in Delhi since 1981 and recently opened the Sancha Tea Boutique, agrees with both Chatterjee and Gupta.
He believes that it is an offering for epicureans and not for those strolling in for a casual cup. Anjoo Tiwari, owner of Thirstea in Jaipur, a city bustling with over 40 tea houses and cafes, thinks that tea is quickly becoming a status symbol, a way of standing out in the crowd. Thirstea serves more than 100 different kinds of tea and is quite a popular spot for meetings, hangouts and dates. Sourabh Bapna, co-founder, Tapri, which offers over 50 varieties of tea, rightly says that the rise of tea is also connected to the rise of health-consciousness in urban India. It has health benefits and is an easier drink for the system.
The thing is, tea was always a cheap, hot beverage in India. Chai and cigarettes were the poor man’s equivalent of going-out-for-a-beer. So, unlike coffee, it was never able to revamp itself as a fancy option. Until now. This new breed of tea houses and cafes are swanky spaces that exude charm and luxury.
One of my favourite places in Mumbai, The Taj Mahal Tea House, is a beautiful Pondicherry-style bungalow, with a collection of antique furniture, books, magazines and musical instruments. Chaayos, a tea café chain in Delhi and Mumbai, has community tables for freelancers to work out of. The Tea Room Co. and Elma’s Tea Room in Delhi are lavishly done up, with well-known designers doing the interiors and the upholstery. And they don’t just serve biscuits, either. From desi appetizers to fusion menus, decadent desserts and scrumptious mains, the tea houses are a wholesome affair. India is the second largest producer of tea globally, and according to data from Euromonitor, its packaged tea market is estimated at Rs. 12,600 crore yearly. By 2019, this is expected to reach Rs 17,600 crore. For every cup of coffee drunk, there are at least 15 cups of tea — and this new trend is definitely helping boost this industry.
Top 5 Tea house picks
Taj Mahal Tea House, Mumbai
Malabari Vanilla Coconut, Kashmir Saffron and Smoky Mountain. Try the teas with the Falafelchaat, Idli burgers and Paneer- Peppermint samosas.
The Tea Room Co., New Delhi
Citrose Infusion and the white teas. Enjoy them with desi pakodas or the super spicy fajitas.
XVII Tea Room, Mumbai
Mulled Apple and Spiced Guava teas. Also try the Chinese ‘Keemun Mao Feng’ along with the expensive Makaibari tea.
San-Cha, New Delhi and Mumbai
Try the Assam Single Malt and the “flowering” teas.
Tea Trails, Mumbai
Tea Sangrias, Bubble teas, Lapsang Souchong and Genmaicha, a Japanese green tea combined with sticky brown rice.