How to appreciate India's CTC and dust teas

In India, about 80% of the tea consumed is CTC that makes warm cups of chai. (Istockphoto)
In India, about 80% of the tea consumed is CTC that makes warm cups of chai. (Istockphoto)


A good cup of CTC will knock all sleep out of you; while dust tea brews quickly, produces a strong flavour and colour—two attributes that many tea drinkers seek

"Are they saying we are drinking substandard tea?" said Manoj Archibald, a planter from the Nilgiris, last week. He was sharing an ad that promoted whole leaf teas while deriding CTC (crush, tear, and curl) and dust teas. When tea brands promote whole leaf as the better tea, couldn’t they do so without putting down other teas, he wanted to know. Not long after that conversation, I read about Assam’s Hookhmol Tea fetching record prices of 1,500 a kilo at the Kolkata tea auction for their CTC tea, achieving speciality status— average prices at auction for Assam CTC is under 300/kilo.

This got me thinking about our perception of tea, and the contradictory world of leaf tea and CTC drinkers. It’s hardly a great divide. I often seek leafy teas but they just won’t do for my first cup, which is milk tea made with CTC. Culturally, we are CTC drinkers. And the numbers don’t lie either—over 80% of the tea we make and consume is CTC.

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In 2009, Dibrugarh-based Bhaskar Hazarika started Hookhmol Tea, making only CTC. His teas have consistently topped the charts at the weekly tea auctions at Guwahati and Kolkata. He lists three attributes as necessary for tea quality—discipline, which is the ability to drive a huge work force to pluck every single tea bush within seven days; knowledge in growing and making tea; and art, for both passion and skill to make a delightful cup of tea.

This is as true for CTC as it is for any other tea. But consider that the CTC machine itself came into the picture in the 1950s and gained wider use by the 1970s. For a price-sensitive new India, cost remained a factor and the CTC production enabled it by facilitating large volume production. “Our per capita income remained very low for many decades after independence," says Hazarika. “Maybe to cater to that need, companies gave up on discipline and art to bring down the cost. The only way to reduce cost was to cut corners. People started associating low quality with commercially produced cheap commodity black CTC tea because that was the only tea we Indians used to drink."

The mass production commoditised black tea and impacted our view of it. And of course, that unfortunate naming of the finest particles as dust grade. It has suffered in reputation, being more prone to adulteration.

Says Archibald, “Dust tea has a higher surface area compared to whole leaf tea, which leads to quicker extraction of caffeine, polyphenols, and other compounds during brewing." It brews quickly, produces a strong flavour and colour—two attributes that many tea drinkers seek in their tea.

It’s easy to take the CTC tea for granted—there’s so much of it around. We seek it for strength rather than flavour—a tea to knock all sleep out of you. Maybe if we just shift our perception of the CTC tea, we will find so much more to appreciate.


Hookhmol, Halmari, Koliabor, Goodricke’s Khaas from Assam; Darmona and Homedale from the Nilgiris.

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series on the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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