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Tea and coffee at war over national drink status

Published: 14th May 2013 09:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th May 2013 01:14 PM   |  A+A-

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India's tea and coffee planters are at war over which is the national drink – with the government reluctant to back either one for fear of sabotaging the other.

For more than a century India has been associated with the Assam and Darjeeling teas on which Britain has survived. In recent years its dominance has been challenged by the rise of home-grown Western style coffee bars and the Indian middle class love affair with the café latte.

So intense is the battle that the head of one major coffee firm asked not to be named.

"There is no doubt that coffee has gained significant popularity across India in the last few decades," he said. "Chains like Cafe Coffee  Day, Barista and others have a widespread presence in all Indian cities, which makes it evident that people in India like coffee.

Coffee has a history and the decision to make coffee or tea the national drink should be left to the people," he said.

Bidyananda Barkakoty, chairman of the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), said tea drinking had deeper roots in Indian culture.

"Tea consumption in north India is more domestic than commercial, while as coffee consumption is purely commercial," he said.

"Tea manufacturing and consumption is three times more than that of coffee in India. Tea is of Indian origin and should get the title of India's national drink."

Until recently coffee drinking has been a south Indian phenomenon which owes its popularity to it being the home of the country's first locally produced plants – a Muslim cleric is said to have illegally smuggled seven beans home from Mecca and grown them in the hills close to Mysore, Karnataka. Today it is grown and drunk in vast quantities in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

India's love affair with tea began as a British Raj gambit to break China's monopoly over its production by developing local plants discovered in the Assam hills. Today it is the second largest producer in the world, it drinks 70 per cent of all the leaves it produces, and mainly consumes it as chai – a thick milky brew infused with cardamom, ginger and spices and sweetened with large spoons of sugar.



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