Climate Change Makes Indian Tea Taste Different

Tea growers in northeastern India say climate change has hurt the country's tea crop, leading not just to a drop in production but also subtly altering the flavor of their brew.

Tropical Assam state, with its high humidity and lush greenery, is India's main tea growing region, producing nearly 55 percent of the country's enormous tea crop. Overall, India accounts for 31 percent of global tea production.

But a gradual rise in Assam's temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns and a dip in tea production have plantation owners scared.

Rajib Barooah, a tea planter in Jorhat, Assam's main tea growing district, called the changes "worrisome developments," and said they had weakened the potent taste of Assam tea.

"We are indeed concerned," he said. "Assam tea's strong flavor is its hallmark."

The numbers are stark.

Assam produced 564,000 tons of tea in 2007, slipping to 487,000 tons in 2009. The 2010 crop was estimated to be about 460,000 tons, said Dhiraj Kakaty, who heads the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, an umbrella group of some 400 tea plantations.

Mridul Hazarika, director of the Tea Research Association, one of the world's largest tea research centers, blames climate change for the dropping numbers.

He said temperatures have risen two degrees in Assam the past eight decades. "We feel this is leading to a shortfall in production," he said Friday.

Scientists at the Tea Research Association are analyzing temperature statistics to determine links between temperature rise, consequent fluctuations in rainfall and their effect on tea yields.

"Days with sunshine were far fewer during the (monsoon) rains this year, leading to a shortfall in production and damp weather unfavorable for tea," Kakaty said.

Dampness also aggravates bug attacks on the tea crop.

"A pest called the tea mosquito bug multiplies in damp and cloudy weather and attacks fresh shoots of the tea bush, preventing the plant's regeneration," Kakaty said.

Restrictions on pesticide use because of environmental concerns have added to the planter's woes.

But even more disturbing for growers is the change in the brew's taste. They want the government to fund scientific studies to examine the flavor fallout from climate change.

"Earlier, we used to get a bright strong cup. Now it's not so," said L.P. Chaliha, a professional tea taster.