Has this year changed the way you view tea? Are you still sticking to chai or have you taken to green tea, or have you switched to its more appealing cousins in the year of pandemic, immunity-boosting teas?

Through the year, I have seen brand after brand come out with immunity-boosting teas. I have wondered if these would take green tea to another level, or supplant it? Or would they come together to promise that irresistible shot of goodness?

We will soon know. But here’s the thing. Health has always played a part in marketing tea, at least from the era of the East India Company. In her book Tasting Qualities, cultural anthropologist Sarah Besky writes about the Company marketing its “Empire Tea” in the 19th century. Sellers of Chinese tea retaliated by dissing the tannins in Empire Tea, blaming it for constipation and indigestion. From the late 1800s through the 1930s, says Besky, experiments were conducted on tea tannins. And by the end of the 1930s, tea was being promoted for its beneficial aspects, particularly if taken with milk (nutrition) and sugar (energy).

It was in the late noughties that Tetley and then Lipton launched their green teas. Today, supermarket shelves are lined with umpteen green tea brands. The range of greens flavoured with tulsi, lemon and ginger seems to indicate a desire to cater to the Indian palate.

A friend of mine, in her early 40s, recently told me she drinks only green tea. It’s good for health, she said, adding a little wistfully that she misses her chai. Green tea, taking wing on its wellness promise, has indeed supplanted black tea as the tea of choice for many. It represents, I think, one of the greatest successes in recent tea marketing. I wonder how many others, like my friend, have replaced their staple black with green based on the strength of marketing alone.

When the pandemic arrived this year, the green tea segment received an unexpected boost. As immunity became the buzzword, many, many tea brands have responded with new offerings. Many of the teas use green tea as a base, while some are purely herbal blends (tisanes). The choice of herbals are age-old do-gooders like tulsi, lemon, ginger and turmeric. I think of them as contemporary versions of the kadha or kashayam, made palatable and easy to brew. In fact, the Union ministry of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) even suggested a recipe for immunity-strengthening blends that uses tulsi, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper.

But we were already adding these to our chai, weren’t we? So what’s different? It’s quite possible, even probable, then that our choice of tea may be a result of the way it was marketed to us. Or what we bought into. Will green tea help you lose weight? I don’t think so. Will an immunity tea make you stronger? I hope so. Can you drink chai if that’s how you really like your tea? That, I can answer with certainty—absolutely!

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @aravindaananth1