Purple tea potential in Assam

Dr. Pradip Baruah, Senior Advisory Officer (Principal Scientist), Tocklai Tea Research Institute, Jorhat, Assam

Dr. Pradip Baruah is a known name in the Indian tea fraternity and has done extensive research on the Assam tea industry. In this interaction with IBEF, he discusses the potential of purple tea production in Assam and the efforts being undertaken to leverage the same.

IBEF: What are the key health properties of purple tea and what practices need to be adopted for the manufacturing of this variety of tea?

Dr. Pradip Baruah: Purple tea offers a totally new type of tea to the world, which is very attractive with a unique color of the liquor and has many medicinal properties. Purple tea contains anthocyanins, which imparts the purple color to the tea leaves. It thus has all the goodness of tea, with additional health benefits of anthocyanins. It is also low in caffeine content than the normal black or green teas which is particularly looked for by many people. It offers an excellent new diversified product to the tea consumers around the world besides black, green, and white teas with certain high medicinal properties beneficial to human health. Purple tea can be manufactured both as black and green teas with purple-colored tea leaves.

Anthocyanins are flavonoids rendering vivid red to a blue color to fruits and vegetables. Research studies and human clinical trials suggest that anthocyanins possess anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic activity, cardiovascular disease prevention, obesity control, and diabetes alleviation properties, which are associated mostly with their potent antioxidant property. Out of these, cardiovascular disease prevention property is particularly significant. Anthocyanins appear to control cholesterol levels and blood sugar metabolism, as well as fight oxidative stress (a process known to play a key role in heart disease). Some of the important findings of the research on medicinal properties of purple tea presented at the ‘International Conference on Tea Science and Development’ at the Karatina University, Karatina, Kenya last year was – purple tea, besides being rich in anthocyanins also contains lower catechins and caffeine, and is high in antioxidant effects that provide anti-cancer benefits, and improves vision, cholesterol and blood sugar metabolism. Overall, purple tea is found to have cytoprotective effects on external oxidative stressors. In addition, purple tea also has all other enormous medicinal properties of tea, being produced from Camellia assamica.

Anthocyanin supplements are marketed for their health-enhancing properties and are also used as preservatives in the food industry. Purple tea plants with anthocyanin content will, thus, provide an alternative raw material from which these flavonoids can be extracted.

Purple tea potential in Assam

IBEF: Tell us about the potential of Assam to produce purple tea? How can it be leveraged going forward and how can the area under production be increased?

Dr. Pradip Baruah: The purple tea clone released in Kenya for commercial cultivation in Kenya, as TRFK 306 in 2011, was selected from the germplasm stock of Tea Research Foundation of Kenya. This important clone for Kenyan tea was originally selected from Assam and is an Assam variety. Such anthocyanin-rich purple teas are also found in Assam and wild purple teas were recently discovered in Karbi Anglong Hill district of Assam. I am informed of the availability of more such plants in Karbi Anglong Hills near Bokajan. But that area is yet to be visited. Such plants are also available in different tea growing areas of Assam, which are commonly known as ‘oxblood’, because of the color. I have been exploring tea growing areas of Upper Assam and found such purple tea plants in an area near Teok, close to Jorhat town, and another few plants near Dibrugarh. Newspaper reports at the national and international level on the possibility of producing purple tea in Assam have now generated tremendous curiosity and hope among the tea planters and small tea growers of Eastern India. They are eagerly waiting for the right kind of purple tea clone with high anthocyanin content to be available to them so that they can start production.

Tocklai germplasm collection already has several purple tea plants. The Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, tea area also has purple tea plants in it. This area and the plants originally belonged to Tocklai. The scientists have to explore these for their properties and release the best possible plants from these and collections from the wild teas and old tea growing areas, for facilitating commercial production of purple tea, in the near future. Assam being the origin of naturally growing purple tea plants in diversified forms and also has all the favorable agro-climatic conditions, it is well suited for the best growth and production of promising purple tea clones. There is a possibility of even finding better plants naturally growing, in Assam- an area that is not yet explored fully. The particular clone, released by Kenya (TRFK-306) was under development by Kenyan Tea Research Institute for 25 years, but in the case of Assam, it has the advantage of being the origin of tea with large biodiversity and with the possibility of finding even better plants for purple tea production. As the demand for purple tea is likely to increase in India and globally with the better promotion in the near future, the production of purple tea can be taken up by both large and small tea estates. With all these advantages and possibilities, I am chasing a purple dream for the tea industry of India and I am very confident that it would come true very soon benefiting the entire humanity of the world with its medicinal properties. Not only purple tea – Assam and the Eastern India tea have great potential with traditional and handmade organic teas produced by the tribes and the small tea growers which are having exceptionally good qualities.

Purple tea plants in Assam

IBEF: Tell us about the role that the Tocklai Tea Research Institute has played through its R&D initiatives towards improving crop outcomes and farmer income across tea plantations.

Dr. Pradeep Baruah: Tea Research Association is an autonomous R&D organization funded by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, and the tea industry and is one of the oldest organizations in PPP mode since 1964.

Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI, earlier known as Tocklai Experimental Station) is the oldest and premier institution on tea research in the world, established way back in 1911. Over the years, exhaustive research has been carried out in the fields of integrated nutrient management, agronomic practices for young and mature tea crop management including optimum pruning cycles, efficient chemical and biological control measures and testing of new molecules and for bio-efficacy against the major pests and diseases, plant physiology, biochemistry, the establishment of limits for pesticide residues and heavy metals, drainage management strategies, mechanization in tea, tea processing and manufacturing, and development tea by-products, etc. It has also carried out DNA fingerprinting using RAPD techniques in TV clones developed at Tocklai and their registration with the National Bureau of Plant Genetics in the country to protect their identity. Looking at the impact of climate change touching the tea industry also in North East India, Tocklai is working on the identification of physiological parameters influencing drought resistance and in identifying promising drought-resistant germplasm.

One of the major activities of the Tea Research Association popularly known as ‘Tocklai’ has been the strong Advisory Department spread across the major tea growing areas of Eastern India in eight zones. The Advisory officers keep visiting the various tea estates in their areas and provide on the spot advisories on immediate, short term and long term measures to be adopted by the tea estates with regard to various problems faced by them on-field management and to achieve sustainability. These visits and the regular bulletins issued on the practices to be adopted in-field management practices help the tea estates to undertake timely measures on maintaining the tea estate and to boost the tea productivity of the tea estates. Besides attending to the big tea estates, Tocklai supports the small tea growers also to get the awareness of the appropriate cultural practices to be followed to achieve higher tea yields from their small gardens and achieve higher income generation from tea.

However, the major contribution of Tocklai to the tea industry in North East India has been the development and release of high yielding clones and seed stocks for Assam, Dooars and Darjeeling which has helped the industry to improve the total tea production in North East India significantly. To indicate as an example, just in Assam valley the tea production has increased from 201 million kg in 1971 to 574 million kg in 2013.