Brook37 founder Mou Dasgupta says the new era of tea is not just introducing tea, it’s also explaining how you consume the tea. We are saying that yes, traditionally, you drink tea from a cup, but why not break the barriers and drink tea from a champagne glass or chill the tea and drink it in a martini glass? Make other drinks using tea. Open up your imagination, don’t be bound by the past. Take our old drink, modernize it, and just do fun things with tea.
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Elegance Begins with the Leaf
Mou Dasgupta is pursuing her passion for tea after 25 years of trendsetting corporate leadership in the financial services industry. She developed a love for fine-quality tea while living in West Bengal, India, where she attended university in Calcutta. She trained in the sciences and holds a master’s degree in software engineering. “Brook37 is proud to bring fresh thinking and an ethical and sustainable mindset to all we do,” she says. “Our unparalleled tea selection of flavors, aromas, and colors from around the world, along with exquisite packaging, help you choose a positive and aspirational lifestyle.”
Dan Bolton: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your vision of a new era in tea and how it led to the launch of Brook37, a premium brand sourced directly from suppliers in the most famous of India’s tea-growing regions. What are some aspects of this new era?
Mou Dasgupta: In describing a new era of tea, what I want to talk about is tea reimagined in the USA.
The new era of tea is not just introducing tea it’s also explaining how you consume the tea. So what we are saying is that yes, traditionally you tea drink tea from a cup, but why not break the barriers and drink tea from a champagne glass, or chill the tea and drink it in a martini glass. Make other drinks using tea. Open up your imagination, don’t be bound by the past. Take our old drink and modernize it and just do fun things with tea.
That’s how I feel that the younger generation may find it more interesting. When I go to a friend’s house, they offer me Diet or a regular Coke, or maybe a club soda as a non-alcoholic beverage. I want people to offer tea. It is a non-alcoholic beverage with fantastic health values. So, keep our tea caddy next to your wine bottle and open a beautiful tea caddy when your special guests arrive. That’s how I want to position tea.
Dan: You grew up drinking good tea.
Mou: I moved to the USA from a place that is about 300 miles from Darjeeling about 25 years back, and one of my big struggles was to find the high-quality tea that I used to drink before I moved to the USA.
Over here, you can find great coffee stores everywhere but finding a great tea shop takes a lot of work. Tea is also looked upon as a health drink. It has many health values, but I want to make people understand that tea can bring people together. Tea can reconnect people and rejuvenate, it’s a drink that can elevate the moment, and it’s a non-alcoholic drink with value like fine wine. And you know, in wine, the quality of the grapes, the soil, and the weather drive how the taste and the flavor will vary. Darjeeling tea is exactly like that. I want to make people aware. I want them to taste Darjeeling tea and see that it’s a different drink altogether.
Dan: Many brands position themselves as premium, but only a few succeed in conveying the elegance visible in your color palette, your choice of tins, and a clever pairing of an engraved traditional silver-plated infuser with a modern silver measuring spoon in your gift set Will you discuss your view on what makes a tea premium?
Mou: First, elegance starts with the look of the tea leaves. A high-quality tea leaf is not dust. It’s a long, beautiful leaf, and it is rolled to perfection. It’s dried to perfection. It’s hand-picked at the perfect time. Recently on a trip to Darjeeling, I noticed a tea leaf plucked before the rain can taste and smell different than a leaf plucked after the rain. It’s the elegance of flavor. It’s the elegance of taste.
To that, we added silver accessories. When you drink a high-quality Scotch or a single malt, you could drink it from a plastic cup, but most drink it from a beautiful crystal glass. High-quality Darjeeling tea demands that kind of setting. It is more than just flavor and not just the tea’s color. It’s also the accessories, all of them, that elevate the moment.
That’s where beautiful packaging comes in and where the look of the tea matters. So that people feel it’s a beautiful moment that they’re creating, whether it’s with their children, whether it’s with their grandchildren, whether it’s their significant other, or by themselves. Tea is an elevation of the moment — any moment.
Dan: You have a wonderful founding story, first finding success as a software engineer, angel investor, and executive director of JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley before directing your talents to tea.
Mou: My primary inspiration is that for 25 years, I have been looking for this kind of tea. I had a very hard time finding Darjeeling tea like the tea that I enjoyed in India. In our Country, in the USA, the tea comes through many hands a lot of the time, and every time you open a bag, the quality of the tea goes down.
When I left my job and decided I wanted to do something on my own, something more meaningful, tea kept coming back to me.
I realized this was an opportunity because all the best quality teas get picked up by Germany by Japan right away from Darjeeling. In most cases, they don’t come to our country. We are deprived of that highest quality. Brook37 is buying exclusive small lots of seven to ten kilos of the best Darjeeling offers.
That’s what drove me. I don’t want to just bring the tea; I want to bring the whole experience with it. We call ourselves the Chanel of tea because we present tea as a high-end beverage that celebrates life. We have created a brand that will catch everyone’s attention, all the sensorial organs, the look, smell, touch and feel all of it together. That’s what inspired me.
I didn’t want a company that was all about money or finance. It was not a motivating factor for me. I wanted to have a responsible company. There is a saying that we do not inherit nature or the environment from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
I didn’t want a company that was all about money or finance. It was not a motivating factor for me. I wanted to have a responsible company. There is a saying that we do not inherit nature or the environment from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
The environment that I’m borrowing from my children, I want to give it back in good shape in a conscious way. Hence we are building a conscious brand from day one, plastic-neutral, biodegradable and reusable packaging, certified by 1% by the planet, etc. It must be empowering, and it must be socially conscious.
Dan: Will you share your inspiration for creating a women-led team with listeners?
Mou: It’s not a conscious decision. I didn’t come in saying that I was only going to hire women. But 90 percent of the people who work in our brand happen to be women. We found the best talents who happen to be women. The best tea pluckers are women, and the best tea packaging laborers are women. Our tea sommelier happens to be a woman. Our photographer and videographer is a woman. Even our marketer and our social media leads are women. I just happened to have a team of women I found to be the best at their work.
By elevating Darjeeling tea, we also elevate the people back in Darjeeling. It’s with pride that we produce one of the best teas in the world. I want them to share that sense of pride. Darjeeling should be a name that stands above the rest, not just a tea; it is a distinguished beverage, and hopefully, Brooke37 will give that to them.
Dan: Will you discuss sourcing? That’s a challenge in Darjeeling right now, with many of the 87 registered estates in distress, several recently acquired, and all experiencing an overall decline in production from around 10 million kilos 10 years ago to six million kilos in recent years.
Mou: My primary goal is to bring the best quality tea in my country to the USA. And it is not to promote Darjeeling’s biggest tea growers or tea estates. It’s really to work with anybody who is growing high-quality tea.
We are looking for small growers. We’re looking for entrepreneurs innovating new types of teas and bringing them here at a good price. I do feel that, at times, the prices are compromised. When someone gives 70% to 80% off the price of tea, that is just dust of Darjeeling tea, and calls them Darjeeling; they are diminishing Darjeeling tea to the world. Sometimes the price paid at the back end is too low and unfair to the tea growers.
We are ready to pay $100 for a bottle containing five glasses of fine wine, but we are not ready to pay $100 for 40-50 cups of the finest tea. If we don’t elevate Darjeeling to that point, people in the back end will always suffer.
I alone don’t have the power to eliminate poverty in Darjeeling. I make sure that I at least do my part. I promote their work, I promote their tea, and I promote their small businesses because I am also a small business owner.
Grace Farms Foods CEO Adam Thatcher says that even though slavery was abolished globally nearly a century ago, more than 28 million people are trapped in forced labor worldwide. Poverty and lack of access to education create opportunities for those who stand to benefit from the exploitation of vulnerable men, women, and children. In modern times, forced labor takes the form of work with little to no pay, fear and coercion, and restricted freedom of movement. This often occurs at the beginning of the supply chain when our tea is grown, food is harvested, our clothes are made, and the materials used in our buildings are extracted.
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Ethically and Sustainably Sourced Tea
What makes our line of organic teas unique is that the herbal blends are naturally sweet ? much sweeter than you’d normally expect. They’ve got about 10% organic stevia leaf in them, just as if you were to pick it out of the garden. Since the success with those blends, we’ve been developing a line of black teas, and we’re getting ready to come out with green tea and wellness blends, says Grace Farm Foods CEO Adam Thatcher.
Grace Farms Foundation aspires to advance good in the world, providing a peaceful respite and porous platform to experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith.
Dan Bolton: Adam, welcome to the podcast. Tell us about your mission and vision and introduce our listeners to how the tea you sell plays a key role in improving suppliers’ lives.
Adam Thatcher: Thank you for having me on the program. I’m a big fan and very excited to share our story.
The story begins at this amazing place called Grace Farms. It’s a cultural and humanitarian Center in New Canaan, Connecticut, where we’re free and open to the public, we pursue justice, and where people can come and encounter the arts.
We also foster community at this place. We want to be open and welcoming and inviting to everyone.
Tea has played a critical role, tea being this common beverage that everyone enjoys around the world that conveys a sense of hospitality of welcoming from a host to a guest, but also the comforting nature that when you come to a new place, whether it’s at a friend’s house, or going to a place like Grace Farms, a nice warm beverage helps you lower your shoulders a little bit, find that commonality and then begin the dialogue.
So, our story with tea begins there. We expanded our tea game to another level when we established Grace Farms Foods, a public benefits subsidiary of Grace Farms Foundation created to share our signature coffees and teas with the world. And that’s really where we got started.
Dan: Your range of premium teas seeks to end forced labor and mirrors Grace Farms’ aesthetic: Making the world more just, sustainable, and peaceful. Will you tell listeners about your blends and sourcing strategy?
Adam: Our tea blends are unique because Grace Farms resident tea master Frank Kwei developed them.
Frank has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grace Farms with a warm cup of tea and fantastic conversation explaining what Grace Farms is. Our first line of teas were organic herbal blends that are his own family recipes.
What makes them unique is that the herbal blends are naturally sweet, much sweeter than you’d normally expect. They’ve got about 10% organic Stevia leaf in them, just as if you were to pick it out of the garden. I find it hard to go back and drink a regular herbal tea like chamomile that doesn’t have this natural sweetness. And for us, it’s exciting because we’ve packaged a perfect blend all in one sachet, with no need to add sugar that probably isn’t organic and has been heavily processed.
Since the success with those blends, we’ve been developing a line of black teas, and we’re getting ready to come out with green teas and wellness blends, all using Frank’s expertise to come up with these inspiring blends.
Dan: Where are you sourcing your teas from?
Adam: We source teas and herbals from around the world. So right now, our teas are coming from India and Sri Lanka. We’re now going to begin bringing in teas, green teas from China, and Matcha from Japan. The herbals come from a wide variety of places. For example, rooibos comes from South Africa, lavender from Croatia, and chamomile from Egypt. We are trying to find the best origins from a quality standpoint and then digging into the supply chain to ensure that they are ethically and sustainably produced, sourced, and traded.
Dan: Let’s talk about your concerns about forced labor and the problems associated with child labor. Describe for our listeners what can be done and how.
Grace Farms Foundation is a not-for-profit organization, and its stake in the ground is to end forced labor worldwide. It has a particular focus on supply chain analysis and a priority on the building materials supply chain because it sits at the interesting intersection of architecture and human rights.
Tea has given us this new opportunity to not only demonstrate through building materials, which is a very unconsumed friendly industry, right? You build a building once, and it lasts for 50 years, whereas tea is something that’s consumed daily. So, when we decided to start Grace Farms Foods, we ultimately decided to start it with three goals. The first is to share our signature teas with everyone. The second is to demonstrate and educate about ethical and sustainable supply chains. And the third is giving back 100% of the profits to support Design for Freedom. This initiative began at Grace Farms to stop forced labor in the architecture and construction industry.
We began building a program to demonstrate and educate about ethical and sustainable supply chains during the pandemic. The opportunity to travel to origin wasn’t an option, to begin with, so we started by saying, okay, how do we have some reassurance that we’re not participating in forms of child labor but also make sure that human rights are being respected and, and that fair pay is being given to those farmers or those tea workers for the work that they’re doing?
So, we looked at Fairtrade certification and changed our Fairtrade certifier to partner with Fairtrade International and the US branch of Fairtrade International, which is Fairtrade America; it’s the most globally recognized Fairtrade certification around the world. It began in Europe and works with FLOCERT. We saw this as an opportunity to lead the conversation in the tea industry here in the United States by partnering with Fairtrade International to become Fairtrade America’s first US brand to use Fairtrade-certified ingredients in our teas.
Fairtrade International has more rigorous standards, and it is producer-led. It focuses on smallholder farms and includes those stakeholders in every conversation, from setting standards to paying premiums and minimums to the ecology and environmental practices exhibited by these certified farms that we sourced from, so that was the beginning for us. But then that’s just using a third party to say, Okay, there’s been an audit, they’ve met our standards, but then there’s this need for what I think is the most important is that first party audit you going to the origin, meeting with the tea pickers, talking with the team managers, and making sure what they’re saying aligns with what the factory worker is saying, as you’re asking these questions, and getting to really immerse yourself in the culture. Tea in some of these areas around the world, like Darjeeling, is more than just a job or an industry. It is life. It is culture. And so, for us to experience that was incredibly validating. It creates an opportunity for long-term relationships when you find a partner with values alignment like your own.
Dan: Two-thirds of the transaction price is concentrated toward the retail end of the tea supply chain. How do you bridge the gap between a consumer paying a higher price and a producer not fully benefitting from that well-intentioned purchase?
Adam: As I mentioned, partnerships are the cornerstone to creating a fantastic and sustainable product, not only from the conventional view of sustainability, environmental and from humans, right said but also from a business side, right, because as you develop a stronger relationship and partnership, then you find more efficiencies, and you’re able to supply even a larger market. Our partnership began, ultimately, with a fantastic individual by the name of Kunall Patel, who is the owner and CEO of Davidson’s Organics.
In my opinion, all tea needs to be organic. It is crazy that the wide, very large share of the tea market is grown with pesticides sprayed on it and synthetic fertilizers put into it. This is a very, very lightly processed product that is put in a cup with boiling hot water poured on it. Then you drink it. So growing tea organically addresses two issues, the consumer’s health and the lasting effect on our environment.
Organic farming practices have been proven to protect soil health, improve water retention, create more resilient plants, and create a more reliable crop year after year. So that should be the non-negotiable, lowest common denominator the entire tea industry should be moving towards.
Now, beyond that, right? Let’s be honest, deforestation is also occurring because there is not a proper living wage for small farmers which is the reason they need to continue expanding their growing areas. The last consideration is whether the suppliers are using biodynamic practices. Biodynamic farming is essential. Intercropping with native species of trees and other shrubs that attract different types of microorganisms and insects that all benefit the soil health, not only helping to trap carbon tea, is actually a very effective plant at absorbing CO2 and trapping it in the soil. Biodynamic farming practices accelerate that process.
So, that’s where there needs to be buy-in, and that does have to come from consumers. Right? Consumers need to stop buying tea that’s not organic and does not meet those standards.
Our commitment is that the tea source will meet these minimum requirements. One of the reasons we chose to partner with Fairtrade International is because they have a whole Climate Resilience Program that helps educate the producers at origin on how to create more resilient farms and how to use more organic practices that will combat climate change.
As we grow and we’re able to generate a profit, nothing would make us happier than to continue to strengthen those relationships with the producers where we’re sourcing our teas.
Grace Farms: The Season of Light
During the winter season, Grace Farms offers opportunities to reflect and engage in programs for people of all ages, from afternoon tea on Wednesdays, served by expert Frank Kwei, to helping those in need to listening to improvisational arrangements of seasonal music, to participating in one of our many programs related to our initiatives of nature, arts, justice, community, faith, and Design for Freedom.
As in all seasons, visitors are invited to explore our nearly 80 acres of natural landscapes and walking trails. For those interested in a deeper understanding of nature and our universe, there are a variety of facilitated programs such as bird watching and astronomy. Grace Farms is open and free to public six days a week.
Rudra Chatterjee, the dynamic managing director of Luxmi Tea, has expanded and diversified the venerable 30-million-kilo bulk tea producer into direct-to-consumer retail. Luxmi, which operates 25 estates in India and Africa, has shortened the supply chain to deliver fresher tea and now sources herbal infusions and inclusions for blends locally. Chatterjee discusses with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman his vision for rebranding the company as Luxmi Estates.
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Fresh Start: Luxmi Seeks to Shorten the Supply Chain
When I last spoke with Rudra Chatterjee, Managing Director of the 110-year-old Luxmi Tea, he discussed a pivot to selling the brand’s offerings direct, as COVID brought more consumers online. Two years later, Luxmi Estates has launched as a significant business vertical. The retail brand offers a range of teas with a subscription program. In this interview, Rudra provides an update on future plans and explains his reasons for rebranding.
Aravinda Anantharaman: It’s been a while since we last spoke. Luxmi Tea has undergone a rebranding. Do talk to us about it.
Rudra Chatterjee: I sense that there are two, or three aspects to it. There are some right-at-the-top marketing aspects to it, but below that, I think there are some layers to it. I always joke that this company was born in some sort of revolution.
So we want to do something new, whether planting new bushes in Africa or in – although it wasn’t part of Luxmi then – Makaibari going organic. So it has a lot of DNA for trying new things. There are a few aspects to it. Number one is more than any other product, that tea is best fresh. But the supply chain isn’t designed to make it as fresh as possible. I think that’s something that we would like to start and we would like many other companies to follow: to make the tea as fresh and have it, using technology, to the customer as soon as possible.
The second aspect, which is I think even more worthwhile, is tea estates have become monocultural spaces but it’s important to grow other herbs. For good or bad, tea is considered a healthy, hot beverage. And so if even a company for a hundred years as tea growers, we have decided to say that, you know, there are amazing places that grow turmeric right next to Addabarie tea estate. And that is a high curcumin level. Frankly, we are not inventing any herb. All the herbs that we are using are the ones that people for hundreds of years know are good for you. So whether it’s turmeric, whether it’s ashwagandha, whether it’s tulsi, whether it is masala chai, lavender, all of these are well-known herbs. But my goal is to source as much as it locally, whether from our own estate or by using farmers near our estate. So African rose from Rwanda, turmeric from Addabarie, we are using Himsagar mangoes, and Gondhoraj Lebu… all these things which are part of our culture. And so nothing that is just pure flavor, these are herbs.
And along with that, we’ve obviously started our website, and one of the focuses is on the estate. And that’s why we call it Luxmi Estates. We are Luxmi Tea Company, that’s the official name of the company, but the brand is Luxmi Estates because I want to say that these teas are from estates. These teas haven’t been bought by someone and packed and sold.
The second aspect is using the hand to say our Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth) is the plucker, and it’s her hand. When I think about the issues in the plantation sector of the tea industry, I think a lot of it is solvable. I’ve said that in an interview with you before if we can sell the tea if I can say that part of the revenue – and that part should keep going up – will go to getting a good impact on the farm. We’ve spent more than ten crore on education within the tea estates (a crore is 10 million rupees, approximately $125,000 in US dollars). We do not have the budget to keep going higher unless we find another source of revenue. So I think all of it comes together, the monocultural aspect, the freshness of the tea, and the lives of workers. I’m quite confident that we will succeed. The reason is, who doesn’t want a better product, fresher, at a fair price? You’ll see the prices are good, and the tea is nicely packaged. And we are not trying to reinvent what is good for you. You know what is good for you. You know turmeric is good for you; you know tulsi is good for you. We will find the best source of it; that is what we are good at – going to the farm and creating the best source, making sure it’s vacuum packed, and it’s shipped to you very quickly. And that’s one reason why we – because we are starting in the winter – we started with the herbal teas. We will add some of the regular teas also, but we wanted to start the regular teas during the first flush and the herbal teas now because this is the time for this kind of herb. So that’s my long overview of what we are trying to do.
Aravinda: When we last spoke, it was also about how you were excited by the conversations you were having with the consumers via social media and the interaction that you were having. And that has really sort of driven a whole shift, isn’t it, in how you’re looking at retail, how you’re looking at direct-to-consumer and all of that?
Rudra: Absolutely. The most important thing is the difference between selling to an invisible hand. You see the prices on the screen, but you hardly know who’s buying, and you don’t know how many steps it will go before the consumer comes. And I had said, I think at that time, even if we can sell 1% of our teas to consumers, we know and hear their opinion and what they like and what they don’t like. It’s great to hear from customers who love that Rugabano* is bright and that it steeps at three minutes, instead of four minutes. And that carries on to this conversation about turmeric and whether green tea will go with it.
I’m open to experimentation. Only I am enough of a purist not to add raspberry flavor or something through the tea because I like the tea as it is. But if it is something that goes with green tea, one plus one is greater than two as it adds something and makes it easily accessible to the customer, and I know that the money is going back to the farm. It is not being taken away from the farm. This is good for the industry. Whether it’s ginger that is produced in Assam, the oranges and lemongrass of Makaibari, or Addabarie for ginger, there’s never the damage that monocultural crops extend to the tea estate. So it’s very good to have many other things along with tea and create other income streams, whether from flowers, honey, or herbs for workers. Like we did, we are doing homestays in the tea estate.
This needs an imaginative solution. It is not a competitive solution. And it’s something that I would welcome everybody to. Because it’s something that we should all do — I’m not saying there should be one big brand — but there should be several big brands. But all of them should be fresh from the farm to the consumer.
Aravinda: How big is retail a part of what Luxmi does now, and what are you expecting to see? And also the addition of the herbal teas themselves. Where did that come from? Was it the whole fallout of covid when the demand for such a kind of tea increased? Or was it that you had access to all these herbs and spices and all of that, and it just made sense to venture into that space? So what was the thinking behind that?
Rudra: A couple of things. One is even much before Covid; growing up on a tea farm, I’m very keen on different kinds of food. So I get like honey from one estate, I get ginger and turmeric, I get red rice, I get peppercorn. So I’ve never thought that tea estates only produced tea. One is the commercial aspect of it, but there are many others. Certainly, during Covid, one thing that changed was I spent all the time in the estate, not in the city, a little bit in Mirzapur, but mostly in the tea estates. In some ways, it was a far more open interaction with everyone there.
Secondly, I think it’s clear, while, you know, people were coming and staying in Makaibari, I could see consumers of Makaibari staying in Makaibari and telling me things that, Why aren’t you doing, you know, mango with this and why aren’t you doing… And we started selling it in Taj, and then we started selling it at the Bagdogra Airport.
From that sample set of few people, it was clear that this is certainly something that customers appreciate. You asked about the percentage of the business; I don’t think I don’t want this to be that all the teas that Luxmi makes should get into our own packages. Not at all. We will continue selling through traditional channels, and we will sell at auctions. We are very, as I said, very grateful for the business. And our prices have also been fine. You might have seen the Assam prices, the Rwanda, and Gisovu. Rugabano is number one and number two in all of Africa. Whether it is Makaibari or the Moran estates, all these are making very, very good teas. But it’s important to think of this as a sustainable solution for the long term. I don’t see why we will not go straight to the consumers with some of the teas. People will mostly continue buying tea from supermarkets, but some might care about something different and something they really care about, and they might want to subscribe to the tea. If they really like strong Upper Assam, they might subscribe to it from us.
So that’s the thought. It’s still evolving, by the way. I can’t say that I’ve figured this out. It’s evolving, and I’m open to customer input and review. The challenge is whether I can ensure we are not weak in the product’s packaging or delivery. Because sometimes it’s so rustic when you do something from the farm. The package doesn’t open properly; it’s dripping or something. I don’t want that. I want people to say, okay, this is a world-class company making a world-class product, but with all the pluses of coming straight from the farm.
Aravinda: What has been the response of the people on your estates – the factory and the fields?
Rudra: Fantastic. I mentioned to you last time that tea planters love talking to people, as you know, you’ve spoken to many of them. So this has given us a whole new set of conversations. And people compete about customer reviews and what they like and, and if there is one review on one website, you’ll see a tea estate manager like taking a photograph of it and WhatsApping it to everybody saying, this is the comment from this customer.
It’s actually great. Also, the more you put sunlight on work conditions in the tea estate, the more change you will get. And it is important that consumers understand there’s a cost to doing it. The money does not come from anyone other than customers. When you’re making the product, every penny we spend on everything comes from the customers who buy our tea, So we would like to make some special tea for really discerning customers, and hopefully, that’ll pay for some better facilities and infrastructure other than introducing the customer to a great product.
Aravinda: So when you look at the Indian industry scenario itself today, given the kind of changes you’ve brought into Luxmi, whether it’s in product innovation, whether it’s in going direct to consumer and in tourism itself, what would you like to see as far as changes in the industry itself go? What do you think it needs in terms of solutions?
Rudra: As a business student, businesses do well when forced to the world and innovate. And tea industry is in such a position today. We have been pushed into the world the way we worked over the last 50 years is clearly not working. Crops are coming down. Climate change is adding costs. There have been incredibly hot days this summer, and then we are having a lot of rain towards the end of the season.
Now tea was an industry that loved routine. Wake up at 5.30 in the morning, go out in the estate, get the plucking rounds in seven days, pack the tea and forget about it, and go back next week. That’s not going to work anymore. You have to keep the discipline of the routine, but you have to add the willingness to change whatever you were doing every now and then. But that’s how, that’s how most of the industry is. That’s how most other industries are. There needs to be some radical changes. For example, I do think that the government and industry should work together and replant forests in some of the tea states, we cannot have this incredibly monocultural environment. And with lot of the forests having gone, the pests have increased, the climate has changed. So I think, there has to be an incentive to do that, from the government. But there can be some earning out of the forests, whether it is from timber or from honey or from fruit or whatever it is.
And, we’ll have to innovate. Like one of the things I always say is we need more women in the industry, living in the tea estates and just rethinking how this business is done. It has been done the same way since maybe the late 1800s and 1900s. There have been some changes. CTC has come, and some others, but the changes have been few and far between. It is important to realize that the industry can provide jobs if it succeeds. And it is important for everybody to want the industry’s success, not just say that we don’t care about the industry’s success. We just want the entitlements out of the industry. That does not work, and that cannot work. I think it’s a big concern when you see many big companies that have been fantastic in their history and how they haven’t been able to continue. These were well-run companies with well-run management, but the 21st-century challenges are new.
Aravinda: I hear a lot of planters say that we’ll do everything you’re asking of us, but it has to be financially sustainable
Rudra: It’s our job to make it financially sustainable. But it’s also our job to think as management, not just ask someone to solve the problems. Every management has a responsibility to keep the business successful, and it cannot be outsourced to anybody.
Aravinda: In your opinion, how has the Indian consumer changed? How has consumption changed, and how has the branding of tea within the Indian market itself? What have you seen change?
Rudra: I think tea is the best product in the world to sell online. Five reasons.
Number one is it’s a habitual product, so that you can subscribe to it. It’s a food product, so you can’t return it. It’s high value to weight product. It is a product you can gift, and it’s a product that doesn’t matter what your religion is or how old you are; it’s a good-for-you product. It’s a healthy product.
Maybe coffee also is an equally good product but, our advantage is that tea has many more varieties. So in terms of being able to have many SKUs, small MOQs is an advantage that tea has over coffee online.
The fresher the product, the better it is. So, not only online, but online straight from the farm.
And also, by the way, it’s the most consumed product in the world when it comes to, you know, the daily consumption of any one product more than salt or anything. So all of that together, it is a product that will make a lot of sense online. But now the thing is, it may evolve significantly. Maybe the last mile may not be online or some other aspects, but I think producers thinking about it are doing the right thing. Many of us will succeed, and many of us won’t. But I think the journey, the trajectory of this business, is to take this business from being treated like a commodity to a very personalized product.
Aravinda: Right. And in the context of Indian tea, what do you think brand India tea needs right now?
Rudra: Number one: Why isn’t Indian tea available outside India? When I travel abroad, I rarely see packages with Indian tea on them. You see Italian olive oil and Swiss chocolates.
Now you also see cheeses from around the world, but why don’t you see Indian tea? I think the key aspect is that certainly the supply chain to which Indian tea was sold.
The tea’s been sold for a long time. Just like everything else changes, this will also change, and we just have to figure out how it will be. It’s not going to be necessarily the same.
The positive side is there’s this notion that I used to hear that young people don’t drink tea. That’s not true. I don’t know why that gained any credence. I think young people are reducing the consumption of alcohol and sugar drinks, and they’re reducing the consumption of plastic bottles and all of that. Tea is agnostic between hot and cold. Like I tried this 24-hour steep silver tips imperial from Darjeeling, the best tea I’ve had in a long time. And it’s completely different from the tea I usually have, but if it’s great Darjeeling tea, it’ll taste great if you let it bloom and evolve in the right way.
Aravinda: In the context of the larger industry, how do you view the domestic market, and how do you think we can make those connections between the Indian consumers and the Indian tea producers stronger and more effective?
Rudra: I think it has to be through various ways. And there’s not one Indian consumer; there’s not one Indian producer. There are going to be different kinds of Indian consumers and different kinds of Indian producers. There’s one thing that is generally true about the Indian consumer; they will go after authenticity and good value. They will go after freshness, which we need to drive at.
In terms of Indian producers, good tea is appreciated. Every year we can see that. The price difference between the best and the rest of the best and the top decile versus the bottom decile is a V-shaped curve. So that is saying something. And we have to hear what the customer’s saying and then decide what resources do we have to take action to meet the customer’s requirement. There are all kinds of customers for all kinds of producers, so we just have to keep the right connection.
*The Rugabano Tea Factory is located in the Karongi district in Western Province, Rwanda.
A Heritage of Taking the Path Less Traveled
In 1912, when the tea industry was predominantly British, PC Chatterjee founded Luxmi Tea as an Indian movement for self-reliance.
Tea making was characteristically British at the time — sola toupees, burra sahebs, and sundowners. Luxmi was born out of PC Chatterjee’s quest to make Indian tea a tool in the Satyagraha movement and to break the British monopoly.
With a tract of land in Tripura to his name, he began cultivating tea independently, without management agencies or advisors from London. Little did he know the extraordinary legacy he would create and set into motion with Luxmi.
Other members of the Indian freedom movement — Assamese and Bengali students who rebelled against British rule, joined his company, then called Indian Tea and Provisions. What started as an expression of freedom from the British Raj has now come to stand for the freedom of spirit.
Michael D. Ham, co-founder and president of Wild Orchard Regenerative Teas, describes in detail the chemical-free cultivation and multiple washings during the processing of the company’s award-winning teas. Ham explains that regenerative organic practices rehabilitate soil, capture carbon to help reverse climate change and result in a clean, authentic taste as nature intended.
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Wild Orchard is the First Regenerative Organic Certified Tea
Jeju Island lies 130 kilometers off the southern coast of South Korea in the Korea Strait. Dormant for the past 5,000 years, Hallasan Mountain is a 1,950-meter volcanic wonderland of craters, cinder cones, and giant lava tubes that dominates the densely foliated island. Popular with tourists for its national park and scenic beaches, the island is also known for its tea.
Wild Orchard sources all its tea from the 1000-acre MJS Tea Farm where the first of two million trees were planted in 1999. The nutrient-dense soil, gentle mists, and abundant wildlife led growers to plant tea seeds on hillsides that were not terraced or cleared of native plants. Irrigation is solely by rainfall. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are applied, and the soil is never tilled. The farm was certified organic in 2007, and the Wild Orchard brand was established in 2019. In May of this year, the brand became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified tea. It was selected by Noma, the World’s Best Restaurant, to be served on their NYC menu and will soon be available for sale at the Rare Tea Counter at Fortnum & Mason tea shop in London.
Michael D. Ham: Our farm was established in 1999. At that time they didn’t know the term regenerative they just had the vision and mindset to create the cleanest, purest teas on a volcanic island that they felt was ideal for growing teas. So, they wanted to allow nature to do its work.
They didn’t want to put any manmade inputs. So, to this day, no herbicides, no pesticides. No fertilizer, everything has been done through nature, all the irrigation is done purely by rainfall. And it’s really a testament to the philosophy that our teas were able to obtain Regenerative Organic Certification earlier this year, the first Camellia sinensis tea to have obtained that aspirational certification.
We are living in a vastly different world than tea has grown in for centuries. Specifically, the demarcation line is the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of machinery, and fossil fuels. Today we’re living in a world where there’s massive pollution in our water table and in the air. And as you mentioned, tea is a bio remediator it absorbs a lot from its surroundings both under the earth in the soil and above ground. And so to be able to create a clean environment, for the teas results in a more authentic pure tea. That’s the philosophy that our farm has to be able to grow tea and living soil, greater nutrient density, more antioxidants, but also flavor and have that move all the way into the cup for the consumer to taste that its purest form. That’s really what regenerative is about in terms of the authenticity of tea.
Dan: Tea readily adapts to its environment. If that environment has high amounts of lead in the atmosphere, toxins in the water, and a climate where the plants are alternately parched or flooded, the finished tea will reflect that in the cup. At Wild Orchard, tea coexists with other plants, which is not idyllic as plants must fight off pests and disease and struggle to establish a root system to deliver essential nutrients and minerals. Will you share with listeners some other aspects of regenerative cultivation?
Michael: What makes our teas distinctive from a regenerative perspective is that we set the highest standards throughout the entire process of planting, growing, and producing our teas with the understanding that we are working under the providence of nature, which is key. We first plant by seed which results in a rootstock that goes deeper into the soil and enables the pulling in of more nutrients for a healthier tea leaf. Second, we do not till the land keeping the surface covered naturally to protect the soil ecosystem. This allows the microbiome in the soil to thrive which further elevates the quality of the tea. This is a key element of farming regeneratively. Third, we harvest only the minimum amount necessary, returning any byproducts to the ground to improve soil fertility, without the need for artificial fertilizers. It is all-natural, which again elevates the quality of the tea. Fourth, we do not apply any chemicals to the ground whatsoever. No pesticides, no herbicides, fertilizer, etc. We allow only nature to grow our teas – the sun, the wind, the rain, and living soil. So it’s very simple, but it’s very painstaking in the beginning to get to that stage. Lastly, we hand harvest our teas and we process them with the greatest care to deliver the highest quality teas to our customers.
Dan: What techniques and technology do you rely on to make prize-winning teas?
Michael: So, there are so many things that go into producing prize-winning teas, but if I had to choose one specific technique or method, I think that it would be that we wash our tea leaves four times, and not just with regular tap water. So we keep any equipment that comes into contact with the tea leaves clean. And our farmers are very conscientious about hygiene. So this might be the most basic of basics. But I think this is an extraordinary process that we have, I don’t know anyone else in the world that does this. And, of course, techniques and know-how regarding the various stages of processing tea need to be performed at a high level. But with first principles in mind that tea leaves need to be clean first and foremost, in order for the pure aroma of the tea leaves to reach the cup. And I think this mindset and vision for more farmers to grow teas, as nature has intended, and allow people to drink tea that tastes the way it should inherently, has led to Wild Orchard being honored with 15 awards at the top global tea competitions it’s an ode to the farmers and their vision just to let nature have the biggest impact in growing the teas.
Dan: Can you really taste the difference?
Michael: You definitely can taste it. I believe that judges can taste the authenticity of the tea, the way that tea should be tasted inherently. The best way to explain why that’s the case is because when you farm teas regeneratively, you are growing it in living soil, it’s pulling in more nutrients.
Because the ecosystem is so clean with the biodynamic functioning of animals with the teas with the agroforestry component, everything is working in concert to elevate the quality of the tea. As you said, in monocultures, you’re just focusing on one. So it’s very, very limited in the ability to provide a tea leaf that’s optimal to the way that it should be grown the way it has been grown for thousands of years. So, when you taste conventionally grown tea, you will definitely taste elements of toxins, pesticides, and all these chemicals that should not be in or on the tea leaf. When it’s done regeneratively, you’re getting the most out of that tea leaf without any manmade elements.
Michael: Well, we won Leafies in three categories. The green pan-fired was our first flush green tea. The judges described the aesthetics of the leaf before brew, after brew, the aroma and when they look at the taste, they really liked the authentic green tea taste.
All of these regenerative elements in terms of growing the leaf and making sure that that core element of the Camellia sinensis non oxidized into the green leaf could come out in that taste. I think that’s really what did it the other two categories were our green tea scented tea, and are blended tea and those mix the green tea with fruit notes and things like oranges, lemons, strawberry fruit notes, and that’s a different type of tea. But once again, it adds another element and so the judges were also looking at similar characteristics, how it looked before brew after brew, and then the taste. So I think the regenerative way of farming tastes much more cleanly and purely, and that’s what the judges appreciated.
Dan: What are the long-term prospects for regenerative-certified tea?
Michael: Our regenerative certification is by the Regenerative Organic Alliance that was founded by the Rodale Institute. Many well known premium organic brands like Dr. Bronner’s and nature’s path. And so there’s a lot of weight or reputation behind this certification. They pretty much set the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare and farmworker fairness. Those are the three major components and you have to go through a robust auditing process took us two years to obtain and they spent about three, four days on our farm and auditor going through many, many elements through those three core pillars. And only when you achieve a base amount, can you qualify for Regenerative Organic Certification, and they have the bronze silver and gold level. So depending on how much you achieve in that audit and what standards you’ve you’ve achieved, you get these different levels of certification. But now, more and more brands if you go to the supermarket, you’re gonna start to see more regenerative out there. And it’s really the way I put it simply as it’s it goes beyond this simple organic certification because you’re focusing on the soil. You’re there’s also the animal component, a welfare component and the farm worker fairness so it’s really holistic. And it gives the consumer an idea that wow, this product went through extra lengths to provide or produce a product that is not only good for me but for the environment.
So shifting the topic from price-winning teas to climate-smart teas. Recently, you reported on it, but well-respected tea brands such as Tazo and traditional Medicinals have stated that they are also committing to transitioning their portfolios to regenerative why is this important?
There’s clearly an opportunity to make impact at scale. Studies show that regenerative farms are three to six times more profitable than conventional and the market for Regenerative products all be it in early stages now, continues to gain interest and grow. So if our industry starts to shift from conventional to regenerative, as we’re seeing in other sectors, we can have a tremendous impact on addressing global health and climate crisis. Regenerative practices will allow tea farms to be more resilient and protect smallholder tea farmers amidst the growing climate changes. So what’s the yield issue? Just this summer, you reported China’s extreme heat and its effect on tea farms. But if they had regenerative baked into their operations, they would have been more resilient and they would have had more yield. So in terms of the yield, you have to look at it in the context of today’s climate challenges and regenerative will allow the farmers not only to create a higher quality product or tea, they will be able to future-proof as much as possible, to the extent that they’re farming regeneratively to fight off against all of these floods and heat and all these climate issues that we’re facing on an ever-growing, you know, track each year.
“We changed one word in our charter to include every farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We decided that as a Public Benefit Corporation we are not only responsible for creating value for company shareholders but will also create value for all stakeholders. One percent of our top-line revenue goes directly to the farmers.” ??? Nishchal Banskota
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QR Codes Make Tea Easily Traceable by Consumers
In 2015 after graduating college in the US, Nischal, who grew up near Ilam farming Nepal’s first certified organic tea garden, returned to open the BG Tea Bar, the first tea bar in Kathmandu. A year later, following a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, he launched Nepal Tea, which has since grown in sales and reputation. Banskota says that he is committed to creating tech-enabled, transparently traded tea. His venture produces award-winning Himalayan teas, sustainably sourced and packaged, bringing jobs to the tea lands that pay double the prevailing wage. Teas are shipped directly to customers worldwide. Every hand-made package is labeled with a QR code that enables buyers to meet the growers at one of three farms. The omnichannel business earns high gross margins selling wholesale and packaged tea. One percent of revenue is reinvested in farming communities, and a tea sapling is planted for every order (10,000 in 2022). Banskota is currently seeking investors on WeFunder with a goal of $600,000. The money will be used to extend the brand to include organic botanicals, make the company’s supply chain more sustainable and construct infrastructure for visiting tea tourists. A three-year goal is to build a modern packaging and fulfillment center in Nepal. The campaign is nearing $200,000. The minimum investment is $250.
In January 2022 we decided a crucial step towards our bigger mission in the tea industry was to covert our company to a public benefit corporation.
Day one, when I started the company, it was much more than a money-making business it was a lot more about impact and how we can really help the producers, the farmers who are almost invisible to the consumers.
My personal goal is to get 1 million farmers out of poverty within their generation and within my lifetime. So, I’m 30 now, and hopefully have enough years in my life to be able to get to that number.
In the new charter we said we’re not only going to be responsible for creating value for the shareholders, we will also look forward to creating value for all stakeholders. So, we literally changed one word to include every single farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We then took our mission one step further, to put it into actionable terms so 1% of our top line revenue is directly going to the farmers themselves.
I know; it’s a very small amount but that gesture will help all the people who supply teas to us to understand that they are not just suppliers, they’re partners in the business. The more we sell, the more we more they get. And the more they get, the more they are going to invest in creating better products. So we’re going to buy it at a better price and sell even more tea. At the end of the day, it establishes a cycle where they create value for us, and we create value for them. This leads to really sustainable relationships with the producers and consumers.
We want to set the standard high and be accountable. Every single year, we’re going to publish on our website what we did, how we did it, and exactly what that impact was. So everything is going to be completely transparent, and traceable. We are making our lives difficult, in a way. We are doing all of this because we believe the tea industry has not been too fair to the producers and the farmers. And we want to change that.
Dan: Nishchal, you were born in Nepal, and you’ve lived and worked on a tea farm for much of your life. Will you tell our listeners why Nepal is such a great place to grow tea?
Nishchal: Nepal itself is the country of the Himalayas. The geography where the tea grows has a microclimate that is absolutely suitable for the production of high-quality teas. The winds blow down from the mountains and moist air from the Bay of Bengal creates a very volatile environment in which the tea plants really thrive. The variations in temperature make Nepal a very nice environment for the tea plants to generate rich flavors, and it’s not just that the tea plants are much younger, which also helps to create the distinct flavors for the teas that are grown in Nepal.
One of the most interesting things that I have found is the passion of the tea maker — and the tea makers are young. When you think about tea makers, you think about years and decades of experience and all of that but one thing which is quite different in Nepal is that the tea makers are super young. In fact, the tea maker at our family farm is 22 years old. He’s one of the youngest tea makers in Nepal, and is not at all hesitant to experiment with what can be done to these leaves.
They’re experimenting with a lot of different types of leaves, a testament to their commitment to quality are the awards these teas has been winning in many parts of the world. In fact, just yesterday, six of our teas, which were all made by these young tea makers won awards in the 5th AVPA Teas of the World contest. So there were six awards that were won by our geography.
All in all the climate and pristine environment is ideal for the production of tea. These tea farmers all busy taking care of these tea bushes, just as they would their child. It is the young tea makers who are experimenting with the best way to create high quality teas aided by the fact that in Nepal the organic way of cultivation has been in place for many years.
Dan: To realize your vision will take additional resources from outside investors, and ultimately, it will take an organization that is more capable of delivering results at scale, far more so than during the initial startup phase. You’ve done remarkable work over the last six years. Describe why it makes sense to bring additional investors on board. Will you also explain the funding mechanism so that others can help you to realize your vision?
Nishchal: When my father started the first organic tea garden in Nepal, it was unheard of to use backyard kitchen gardens to grow commercial crops but slowly, slowly, a lot of people picked it up. Today, a combination of cash crops and food for the family are thought of as the ideal model, one that has completely transformed the community.
I want to replicate that model as it is favorable for the whole country of smallholder farmers. It is will take a lot of investment, a lot of expertise, and a lot of young energy, to fulfill the dream of the collective.
One of the easiest ways we have found to bring consumers together is to introduce consumers to the producers. What we have done is to connect consumers all around the world, inviting them to become investors to advance our dream.
The Nepal Tea Collective is opening investments in the company worldwide. We chose an equity crowdfunding model to raise funds. To learn more visit WeFunder.com/nepalteacollective. Individuals can invest as little as $250.
Our goal is to construct a fulfillment center in the southern part of the country, and be able to collect many different teas from many different geographies, on the hilly areas, and plateaus. The fulfillment center and warehouse will consolidate tea from many growers, store it properly, package it and generate employment and attract foreign revenue for the country. Modern fulfillment will enable growers to leverage the logistics through Amazon and Shopify to sell globally and create an identity for Nepal and Nepali teas
I envision anybody living anywhere in the world can just go to our website and be able to order keys directly from the source and know where that is coming from, when was it plucked, and how it was made, who are the people behind these teas, and all of that kind of stuff.
We want tea companies, we want tea lovers, we want anybody who drinks tea to become a part of this.
We are already starting talks with people who want to see the impact on the ground. So, impact funds or non-governmental agencies, when all of us come together that’s when the beauty begins and really creates value for not just the tea industry. This would be a model for all the agricultural products coming out of the country.
We’re setting stringent ambitions. We’re looking for at least 80% of our ingredient volume to meet regenerative organic standards by 2029. The remaining 20% are things like citric acid that aren’t necessarily covered by those standards at this time.
Finally, and most importantly, we are working with our sustainability consulting firm, Pure Strategies, to measure this progress step by step. And we will be keeping our community updated on milestones, through our website and through our social pages.
So, we know we owe those answers to our consumers.
Nishchal Banskota recently started a humans.of.tea page on Instagram to shed light on the people in tea, especially the farmers. “We bring their stories to bring to light. Please do send us a message if you’d like to get featured,” he says.