A unique purple tea, which has its origin in Assam, made a memorable debut in India at auction selling for INRs 24,501 ($335) per kilogram, far more than it brings in Kenya which is aggressively marketing a purple varietal.
The 1.2 kilogram on sale was produced by Donyi Polo Tea Estate in Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam. It was sold to Dugar Consumer Products at the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre.
Guwahati Tea Auction Buyers Association secretary Dinesh Bihani said, “This is the first purple tea manufactured in India.” The Guwahati Tea Auction Center, which recently added purple tea to its offerings, sells various specialty teas including golden tips and silver needle.
Purple tea, claimed to have a host of medicinal properties, has carved out a niche for itself in recent years in Kenya in the domestic market and as an export variety. Hitherto Kenya was the only country that manufactured purple tea, which garners three to four times the price of black tea. Farmers there receive $0.14 per kilogram for black tea and as much as $1 per kilogram for purple tea which is expected to one day account for about 5 percent of Kenya’s tea exports.
Pradip Baruah, chief advisory officer (principal scientist) of Tocklai Tea Research Institute, told World Tea News that the purple tea clone developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK) 306/1 originally from Assam. Wild bushes of the tea were recently found in the hilly forested areas in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.
“These teas were originally not considered good for tea manufactured in Assam,” Baruah explained. “The Tocklai germplasm collection also has purple tea plants which are commonly known as ‘ox blood’,” he said. Baruah delivered the keynote address at the International Tea Conference at Karatina University in Kenya last year. The visit enabled him to study the tea.
Kenya’s purple tea is rich in anthocyanins and contains lower catechins and caffeine and is high in antioxidants that provide anti-cancer benefits and improve vision, lower cholesterol and blood sugar metabolism. Baruah said there were 51 varietals planted in Kenya of which 41 share an Assam heritage and six are Assam-China hybrids.
Purple tea was first introduced in Kenya around 1903. Early introductions were of an Assam variety grown from seeds.
“G.W.L. Caine first took tea seeds from Assam and planted them in Limuru, near Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Those first tea bushes have grown into large trees on what is now Unilever’s Mabroukie tea estate,” he said.
Baruah said the Tea Research Institute of East Africa was established in 1951 followed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya in 1980 (now called Tea Research Institute, Kenya). Researchers worked there on developing elite planting cultivars through breeding and selection. “The first set of improved tea clones of Assam variety characterised by general vigour, high density of plucking points and large shoot size were released in 1964,” he said.
Baruah said most of the practices of tea cultivation and production and common words used in tea plantations were of Indian and Assam origin. “Almost the entire terminology used in tea production and manufacturing are similar to those of Assam as are some of the commonly used words,” he said.
Baruah said Assam has tremendous potential to produce purple tea, as it is the tea of the future as far as health benefits are concerned. The Tea Board India has also recently stressed diversification in plantings.
“Assam is very rich in tea germplasm being a place of an original tea variety. Wild teas are still available in Assam and because of natural hybridisation by open cross pollination a large pool of germplasm exists in the state, many of which are still untested and to be collected for preservation,” he said.
The purple tea developed in Kenya has boosted economic growth in the agricultural sector. “It’s time we took a leaf out of Kenya’s tea book,” he said.
The tea is made from plants rich in anthocyanin, which give the leaves a distinctive reddish-purple appearance. Anthocyanin is a flavonoid, which is said to provide health benefits through its antioxidant effects. Purple tea is said to have 15 times more anthocyanin than wild blueberries by weight, that is 1.5 percent compared to 0.1 per cent in blueberries.
Senior manager of Donyi Polo tea estate said that around 10,000 purple tea leaves are needed to make a kilo of purple tea. “It tastes like green tea without grassy and vegetal notes,” he said.
He said the purple tea plants were found in a forested area in East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh a few years back.