Hostess Anamika Singh first offered water and rice cookies to "cleanse the palate" and then handed out little shot glasses filled with 'Firdaus', a green tea blend. "Notice the hint of saffron, marigold and cockscomb flowers," she said, showing them how to take a loud, slurping sip to appreciate the Pahalgaminspired flavours. For tea quaffing Indians, a good cup is one filled with the viscous doodh-kam-patti-tez concoction. Or milky, sweet chai, flavoured with crushed ginger and assorted leaves and roots. But tea evangelists are trying to give urban Indians a taste of more elegantly flavoursome gourmet brews. Tea lounges have opened at malls and five-stars, and fine-dining restaurants such as The Table in Mumbai and the Diva chain in Delhi are even offering tea and food pairings. There are tea appreciation workshops where you learn to tell the oolong from the black, and travel trails to Assam and Darjeeling estates. "Tea is not just the new wine. It is the new champagne. It is not about drinking a cup every morning, it is about the experience," says Kaushal Dugar, founder of Teabox, an online retailer of premium leaf teas. Teabox is among the several recent start-ups catering to the growing demand for luxury teas. Launched three years ago, the company has since shipped Rs 2 crore worth of tea to customers in 75 countries. Over the last 12 months, orders have grown 10-fold. Though only a small percentage of Teabox's customers are based in India, Duggar says the market is growing rapidly.

Delhi-based brand Anandini Himalaya Tea sells at least 150 tea cans across NCR every week while Goa-based Tea Trunk claims it is "inundated" with orders for its handcrafted blends such as Marigold Green Tea, which uses real marigold flowers. The teas sold by Tea Trunk, Teabox and Anandini are priced anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000 for a 100-gram pack. The tea we ordinarily buy costs just Rs 200 to Rs 350 per kg. Tea industry experts say that Indians are beginning to appreciate the idea of milk-less brews. When one of the earliest players in the premium-tea zone, Chaado, opened its first outlet in Mumbai in 2008, customers would stare incredulously at the tea jars and quibble about coughing up Rs 40 for a cup. "We survived because of expats and Bengali customers who appreciated fine teas," says Amit Mehta, who heads Chado's India business. Today, Chado has nine outlets across the country and even its most expensive tea — white pearl jasmine tea which sells at Rs 64,000 per kg — finds ample takers. Pune-based software engineer Anirudh Joshi is a dedicated Teabox client and spends at least Rs 1,000 every month, picking a variety of leaves on offer. "The teas taste much better than the kind one gets at grocery stores," he says. When the parcel arrives, Joshi makes it point to sit down and read the evocative text at the back. "Balanced malty nuances, alongside mild mineral hints which round out the flavors perfectly, leaving a pleasantly nutty and medium,length finish on the palate" — going by the prose, the 2015 Frost Blend Nilgiri Black Tea could well be a bottle of rare whisky. In fact, just like whisky traders who boast of their single malt collection, Anamika Singh, too, proudly informs her customers that Anandini teas are 'single-estate' — they are sourced from her estate near Dharamsala. Everyone who comes here gets a bit of tea gyaan — never, for example, to stew tea or how to look for one that matches your needs. When singer Shubha Mudgal walked in recently and asked for a light tea she could sip through the day, Singh gave her a handmade flowery green. Tea Trunk's owner Snigdha Manchanda hosts workshops and tea tastings for hotels and corporates. The session starts with three bowls of tea — Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri. "Nine of ten participants can't tell the difference," says Manchanda, 31, who has trained to be a tea sommelier. .

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