The Telegraph
| Sunday, September 15, 2013 |


Classy brews

Tea sommeliers are introducing chai-crazy Indians to the finer flavours of their favourite drink, says Chitra Anand Papnai

  • Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (left) recently rustled up dishes (below) infused with blends of teas created by Anamika Singh (right); Pics by Jagan Negi

It's a tea lover's dream come true. The tables have been set for high tea and the porcelain cups are in place. Tea sommelier Anamika Singh introduces her audience to the finer points of sipping the cup that cheers and also to the aromatic infused flavours of her own classic and handmade brews.

The audience at the Delhi-based state-of-the-art Miele experience centre listens to her spellbound and everyone looks fiercely concentrated as they take sips of the different types of tea on offer. "For tea enthusiasts it's a great way to learn more and to drink a selection of teas they may not have been introduced to before," says Singh.

Belgium-based tea sommelier Neetu Sarin was nail-bitingly apprehensive when she conducted her first tea tasting session at the Delhi-based gallery, Art Positive, last year. But to her surprise the audience drank deep of her words of tea wisdom and she now frequently travels from Belgium to India to conduct tea tasting and appreciation sessions. "Today, there is a tremendous amount of interest in tea and all its different varieties," says Sarin.

Singh and Sarin are part of a new and growing breed — tea sommeliers. They're like wine sommeliers, who pick selections of the best wines for hotels and restaurants and advise customers on what might be best to try out. Tea sommeliers do the same with different varieties of tea. In addition, they also hold tea appreciation sessions and educate chai-crazy Indians — and foreigners — about the finer flavours of their favourite drink. Some sommeliers even put together their own tea blends for customers who want a taste of something special.

These sommeliers come armed with knowledge and a thorough understanding of tea and its history, processing methods and preparation.

Cut to Mumbai, where tea sommelier Radhika Batra holds elaborate 'tea ceremonies' for select audiences. She makes sure to impress the folks who gather for her ceremonies with fancy tea-making equipment like gaiwans (the Chinese lidded bowl used for infusing tea leaves), teacups, kettles and sampling shot glasses.

Batra has held tea ceremonies at hotels, gourmet stores and even banks. And on one occasion she held a 'Victorian-themed' tea party for an industrialist's wife and her girlfriends in Rajkot. For this event, Batra also flew down her food partners along with 54kg of raw materials. So the guests nibbled on scones, muffins, biscottis, cheese straws and different desserts along with different teas.

  • Apart from selling teas, Neetu Sarin sources tea-ware like Moroccan tea glasses, Japanese teapots and Chinese cups from all over the world

Every tea tasting and appreciation workshop has the sommelier educating her audience on everything from the art of tea-making to flavour identification and the history of the beverage.

For instance, Sarin, at her appreciation sessions, offers four to five different types of tea for tasting. "I encourage the audience to ask questions and describe and discuss different flavours," says Sarin.

But tea sommeliers with their trained palates are being called in for other tasks too. They are, for instance, being asked to recommend tea and food pairings.

That's where Roma Gadi comes in at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, where she helps to guide guests through complex food and tea pairing combinations.

Gadi was sent for training to Darjeeling and when she came back she was on the path to being a tea expert. "That's when I learnt that tea isn't just a balance of water and tea leaves, but involves the right temperature, right amount of tea and right steeping time," says Gadi.

  • Radhika Batra holds elaborate tea ceremonies with the best porcelain cups, sampling shot glasses and fancy tea- making equipment like gaiwans
    Pic: Gajanan Dudhalkar

For Snigdha Manchanda, her love for tea started as a child. While other kids collected stamps or cosseted their Barbie dolls, Manchanda collected teas from various parts of the world and stored them in a trunk that belonged to her father.

So, it surprised nobody when Manchanda headed off to learn about tea at the Tea Sommelier Academy in Sri Lanka, where she was trained by famous Japanese tea master, Nao Kumekawa.

After obtaining a certificate as a tea sommelier in 2011, Manchanda trained as a tea taster, specialising in creating hand-blended teas.

So Manchanda and Singh have focused not only on spreading the word about good tea, but are also packaging and selling their own blends.

Having realised the potential of the tea market, Manchanda has created six signature blends like lemon green, ginger black, rose oolong, east Himalayan black, vanilla black and moon white tea. She sells these blends under her brand, Tea Trunk.

  • Snigdha Manchanda loved tea even as a child and trained at Sri Lanka's Tea Sommelier Academy
    Location Courtesy The Pantry, Mumbai
    Pic: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Manchanda usually shuttles between Mumbai and Goa, where she has a villa-cum-studio and where she works on creating new blends. And in Mumbai, she organises tea appreciation sessions and also chai walks. During these walks she takes chai lovers to iconic places connected with the tea industry around south Mumbai. She also throws in key inputs from prominent historians on the city's history and architecture. The cost of a chai walk is Rs 500 per person and that includes tea and snacks.

Manchanda charges anywhere between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500 per person for tea-tasting workshops depending on the number of teas being tasted.

Sarin's company, Tea of Life, sources rare green, oolong and white teas from various parts of India and China. "We blend these teas with natural ingredients like flowers and spices and fruits to give them a special flavour," says Sarin.

Apart from selling teas, Sarin even sources tea-ware like Moroccan tea glasses, Japanese teapots and Chinese cups from all over the world for tea and tea-ware collectors.

Similarly, Batra's company, Radhikasfineteas And Whatnots, retails the finest tea leaves around the world and also tea-ware sourced from Yixing, the pottery capital of China. She also sells tea accompaniments from the kitchen of famous hotelier Sanjay Narang as well as books on tea and tea-related gifts.

Up north, in Dharamsala, Singh's tea estate exports orthodox tea along with the other several kinds of varieties, like white tea, oolong, handmade needle tea and flowery green, to big luxury tea companies. Using the same classic and handmade teas she exports, Singh has crafted seven blends of green tea and black tea with various flowers and herbs from the Himalayas under the brand name Anandini Himalaya Tea.

As the demand for premium teas zooms, Singh will be opening her first Anandini Tea Boutique in Shahpur Jat in Delhi, next month. "It is going to be an exclusive tea place, where people can come, taste and learn about different teas and pick the ones which appeal to their taste buds," says Singh.

Like Singh, Manchanda too intends to open a tea room in Mumbai where lovers of the beverage can gather.

While for most of these women, it was just the sheer love for tea that led them into studying tea, for someone like Singh it was both passion and a natural progression of sorts.

Singh grew up on a tea garden in Darjeeling, where her father Abhai Singh was the director of 20 tea estates. Singh learnt the tricks of the trade at a very young age and now runs the Manjhee Valley Tea Estate in Dharamsala.

Similarly, Batra's father was in the shipping business and that enabled her to buy various different types of tea leaves and also learn about the brewing rituals of distant unknown regions.

If Batra has mastered the brewing rituals, Gadi, on the other hand, has created a food and tea pairing menu for Taj Mahal Hotel's famous Indian restaurant Varq.

There are different pairings offered with different teas. For instance, dishes like varqui crab, which is layers of crabmeat and tandoori shrimp on crisp filo sheet, and varqui khumb, which is layers of spiced mushroom on crisp filo sheets, are recommended with hibiscus cold tea (with flowery sour undertones).

  • Roma Gadi has created a food-and-tea pairing menu for Taj Mahal Hotel's Indian restaurant Varq; (Below) apple kheer, jalebi and khaas malpua are recommended with van gulab tea
    Pics by Jagan Negi

While desserts like apple kheer, jalebi and khaas malpua are recommended with van gulab tea (a collection of exotic flowers having a sweet woody flavour and a heady fragrance of wild roses.)

Similarly, chef Sabyasachi Gorai (better known as Saby) has created food items to go with Singh's teas by infusing her teas in them.

There are pairings like Anandini green tea infused with rose petals, lavender flowers and mint served in tall champagne flute glasses with chef Saby's poached-apples moist cake, which he has infused with green tea, chamomile and rose hip (fruit of the rose plant).

Also, he teamed up Anandini classic Lapsang Souchong tea (which is infused with pine needles to give it a smoky flavour) with chicken sandwiches and vegetable sandwiches (infused with green tea, fire-flame bush and mint) along with chicken (smoked and infused with First Flush tea with lavender, lemon grass). This smoky tea, also paired with chef Saby's chocolate mousse, is a big hit.

Batra takes tea trail enthusiasts to Darjeeling for home stays at well known plantations. Manchanda, too, has started tea trails in an effort to bring tea cultures of the world under one roof. "We know tea in just one avatar — that's chai, but there is a world of tea left to explore," says Manchanda.

So, if you are keen on a tea experience then maybe you can give a break to your chai ritual and participate in the tea revolution these sommeliers are brewing in the country.