On March 28th I stopped drinking chai.
The same time last year, I was going through four to five cups of chai on any given day, the first two being within a 45-minute window of tumbling out of bed. I could perform the routine blindfolded. From measuring out a cup of water to straining my strong black brew, I had programmed myself to make the perfect chai while feeding my cat and scrolling through my email simultaneously, all with my eyes the size of quivering slits.
I haven’t completely quit. I just realised that ironically, the beverage that woke me up was also the one I’d been drinking with my eyes closed.
The precise moment of realisation was during a crash course I received from a tea sommelier, the day before I was slated to conduct a tea ceremony for popstar Gwen Stefani at the Renaissance Hotel in Downtown Dubai. The trained tea sommelier from Sava Brands, Argentinian-born Macarena Echeguren, took me through tea history and processing as we sniffed on sachets of her white, green, oolong and black “designer” Tchaba tea. Incidentally, all these forms of tea are from the same bush, camellia sinensis, whose invigorating and medicinal properties were first discovered by Chinese. The picking, processing and fermentation of the tea leaves eventually determines what type of tea it will become.
The legend goes that as far back as 2736 BC, the revered Chinese emperor Shen Nong was strolling through a forest with his subjects and stopped to boil water. The breeze swept up leaves from a nearby bush and conveniently deposited them into the bubbling liquid. Throwing caution to the wind, Shen Nong sampled the mysterious foreign brew and found that not only did it not kill him, but that he enjoyed it. From then on, tea became the beverage of choice at the imperial courts.
Over time, as more people around the world poured themselves a cup, the quality of that cup dropped. No longer were people only consuming the loose leaf teas whose rich antioxidant and mood-improving theanine content made it a beverage of health, but soon people were consuming inferior tea ‘dust’ and after 1908, tea bags.
Back to Macarena and her sensationally scented teas, we couldn’t help but wonder what Gwen Stefani preferred as her brand of tea. Macarena deals only in Tchaba, a brand that is the Valrhona of teas. “And what’s yours?” Macarena turned to me, only to be shell-shocked by my answer. I muttered my brand of choice, the same major tea brand used by hundreds of roadside cafeterias and many Indian and Arab families across the city, knowing full well that I might potentially lose my gig as tea host for one of the world’s most famous popstars.
To cut a very embarrassing and eye-opening journey short (I didn’t lose the gig. Gwen Stefani prefers PG Tips), I realised that all these years I was proudly brewing what Macarena calls the “sausage” of teas, essentially handpicked “tenderloin” tea leaves crushed into an amorphous heap of powder. This dust is the result of a technique called Crush Tear Curl, more commonly known as CTC, where tea leaves are passed through rollers to crush them into fine particles in a much shorter timeframe than is required to process traditional full-leaf, or “orthodox” teas. The CTC machines rupture the leaf cells far more and faster than the traditional orthodox rolling process, catalysing oxidation and producing a product that can yield a stronger, more richly coloured cup than whole leaves in the same timeframe. For this reason, CTC also produces a greater quantity of saleable tea from a batch of tea leaves—100 grams of tea leaves can be stretched over more cups of tea when brewed as dust versus when used as whole leaves.
So be it loose particles brewed over a stove or tea bags dunked into hot water, CTC was the answer since the 1930s to a growing global thirst for tea and a diminishing appetite to spend time and money brewing it.
Tea aficionados look down on CTC for various reasons. Macarena shudders at the very thought that precious baby buds of the tea bush would be destroyed between indiscriminate automated rollers. Mita Ray, a tea-loving friend who swears by her orthodox leaves, brews her morning chai with Darjeeling leaves and a “drop” of milk. She claims that tea dust guarantees strength at the expense of flavour, because the dust is robbed of the complex and delicate tones of the whole leaf.
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And here I was, all these years, smugly bagging my box of “loose” tea dust on the supermarket checkout line.
Somehow my cup of tea just doesn’t taste the same anymore. Especially not after Macarena spoiled me with a box of silky sachets of orthodox leaf Tchaba teas. The bouquet of scents that swirl out of her whole leaf teas is simply intoxicating and worlds apart from the relatively monotone, albeit invigorating, aroma that wafts out of my jar of tea dust.
Yet I haven’t ever managed to use orthodox leaves to brew a cup that is suitably ‘karak,’ something strong that will not go limp with a steady stream of milk. I am on the hunt for the right leaf, eager but sceptical, and nervous that the answer might cost me a small fortune. Whole leaf teas are always costlier than dust.
And that’s where the problem lies; that I now expect to have four cups of tea a day at the price of petty change.
Macarena and Mita have both promised to help me find my perfect tea leaf but until then, I don’t have the right answer. All I know is the chai I’ve been drinking all these years—that’s no longer my cup of tea.