Visit any supermarket and you will find two types of standard teas – Indian black tea and Chinese green tea. If you are new to tea, it’s likely you have tried both of them. But, the world of Chinese and Indian tea is huge, and sometimes, even incomprehensible. There are thousands of different types, harvests, grades, colors and flavors, and they are all very unique. What is the difference between Indian and Chinese tea?
What is the difference between Indian and Chinese tea?
Interestingly, once you try at least a few different Chinese and Indian teas, you will be able to tell exactly where some tea is coming from. Both of these countries produce exquisite teas, with special recognizable characteristics. They depend on the terroir, cultivars, production processed and tradition.
Legend has it that almost 5000 years ago, Chinese Emperor Shen Nong fell asleep under the tree and accidentally discovered the benefits of tea. While the exact date when the tea production started is still unknown, scientists may have a clue. A few years ago, they found tea remains in the 2,100 years old tomb of a Jing Emperor Liu Qi.
While the Chinese tea story started almost 5000 years ago, tea production in India doesn’t have such a long history. It began only about 250 years ago when the British people tried cultivating the first tea from the Chinese seeds. Although the first attempts failed, in the early 19th century, Robert Bruce discovered the indigenous wild tea plant, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. And it was the assamica plant that made Assam one of the most important tea regions in the world.
In 2016 China produced about 2.6 million metric tonnes of tea, and that amount is predicted to grow year by year. This is more than double the amount than only a decade ago. However, that same year, only about 355,000 tones was exported to other countries. The same year, Indian total tea output was 1.3 million tones, out of which one fifth or 252000 tonnes were exported.
Both India and China are using two main (but not the only), tea plants – Camellia sinensis var sinensis and Camelia sinensis var assamica. The first one is predominant in China, while the second one is native to India. However, they are both used in both countries. For example, Darjeeling tea is usually made from sinensis tea plant, while Assam teas use assamica. In China, most green teas are made from sinensis tea plant, but assamica is widely used in Yunnan. Both countries have their own unique tea cultivars that, together with terroir, give a special characteristic to tea.
Both Chinese and Indian teas have a distinctive terroir characteristics recognizable in their flavor. For example, Wuyi mountain tea or rock tea is popular for its light mineral note. Low grown Assam is more robust, brisk and grounded, and Darjeeling teas grown on higher altitudes are lighter, more floral and sweeter.
India was first a country of black tea, with Assam and Darjeeling being the most important tea regions – and tea types too. Today, India produces not only black tea, but green, white and oolong too. China has two types more – yellow and dark, mostly including pu’erh. Although Indian green, white and oolong tea are quite common these days, they are far from traditional types, and are mostly produced by smaller tea farms and gardens as specialty teas. They have a unique flavor with a strong characteristic of the terroir and are less light than standard Chinese white, green and oolong teas.
One important tea style produced in India is CTC or crush-tear-curl style, that is not produced in China. Furthermore, Indian tea grading system is very complex and detailed, while the Chinese tea is more difficult to grade. However, the grade they both share is orange pekoe. While all Indian teas will usually be graded, Chinese orange pekoe grade teas are almost always reserved for export.
Most important tea regions
The most important tea producing provinces in China are Fujian, Yunnan, Guangdong, Anhui and Zhejiang, although tea is produced in many other provinces too, including the tropical island Hainan. How many tea farms and gardens there are is impossible to know. With around 80 million people working in the tea industry, China is by far, the biggest tea country in the world.
In India, the most important regions are Assam and West Bengal (Darjeeling), with some other great teas produced in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and a few other states. While the Darjeeling tea is often called a champagne of all tea, the growing area is much smaller than Assam, with only about 87 tea gardens. In comparison, Assam has over 100 000 tea gardens and almost 800 tea estates.
Difference in tea taste
China is the main producer of white teas and some types are are only produced in China, like Yue Guang Bai. However, teas made with pure buds or buds and leaves are made in India too. Although they may look similar to Chinese Silver Needle and Pai Mu Tan, they will have a different flavor profile. You may expect more spicy notes, sweetness, fullness and smoothness. They should be brewed in the western way. On the other hand, to experience the full beauty, freshness and lightness of Chinese white teas, multiple steeping technique is the best choice.
China is the biggest producer of green tea, with hundreds of different types. Every type has a special flavor, but most of them will be pan fired and quite light, sometimes with a bit of stringency and strong sweet aftertaste. The most popular Chinese tea, Long Jing, is light, fresh and has a subtle toasty note. On the other hand, Indian green teas are more robust and dark, giving a strong yellow infusion. However, studies showed that strong Indian tea, may in fact, have more antioxidants than lighter Chinese Long Jing. Almost all Indian green teas will be suitable for blending, while the most of Chinese greens may be better enjoyed pure. One popular exception is Gunpowder. Interestingly, many Indian green teas are very similar to Gunpowder, and have a fresh, sweet flavor with a hint of smokiness.
Indian oolong tea is still quite rare, but if you have a chance to try it, you are in for a treat. They can be both light and fresh, or full bodied and robust, quite similar to Chinese teas. However, they have a dose of novelty, playfulness and freshness, unlike Chinese oolongs that are veiled in sophistication, tradition and layers of subtle flavor nuances.
Indian black teas are usually divided in two categories – full bodied, malty, brisk and sometimes chocolaty Assam, and muscatel, light and fruity Darjeeling. However, there are other types too; Nilgiri with a bit lighter and fruty flavor and some medium-bodied but flavor-rich teas. On the other hand, Chinese teas are less malty and brisk, smoother with often a distinctive chocolaty note. Teas from Yunnan are sweet, a strong but gentle, and very smooth. The most similar Chinese black tea to Indian Assam is Keemum. Chinese black teas tend to have more golden buds than any Assam tea.
Did you know that both India and China produce black smoked teas?
What about tea culture?
Both India and China have a very unique and strong tea drinking culture. Tea is a part of daily life. In China, gong fu tea ceremony is a very important part of cultural life. It can be experienced in any tea shop across China, and it’s the preferred way of drinking Chinese tea for tea connoisseurs. Tea is never drank with milk or sugar.
On contrary, the most popular and traditional way of drinking tea is with milk. Strong black tea leaves brewed in milk, with or without spices are a common sight on Indian streets. This tea is called chai, or masala chai if it contains spices. Traditionally, tea in India is not drank pure. If we look at the history of tea in those two countries, it’s easy to see why drinking cultures are so different. The most expensive and luxurious loose leaf teas mostly come from China. India was historically producing mainly tea for export, often packed in tea bags, rather than loose leaf tea. The beauty of high quality tea leaves, hidden layers of scents, and dry leaf shapes, can best be enjoyed in a pure, unbroken tea leaf form.
Even today, it’s more common to find Indian tea or a blend of Indian and Chinese teas packed in tea bags, than Chinese teas alone.
You should brew almost all Indian tea using a standard western brewing technique. 2-3 grams of tea will give a great cup of tea, and longer 2-3 minute steep will usually give the best flavour. On contrary, Chinese tea almost always tasted better when brewed using short multiple steeping method. Use at least double the amount of tea leaves, no more than 150 ml of water, and very short 10-30 seconds steeps.