• THIRST Examines Three Aggregated Tea Production Models that Benefit Smallholders

    “I’ve seen some very good plantations in my travels, in India, in Tanzania, in Kenya, and I’m sure there are others in many other countries as well. But at the end of the day, a plantation is still a plantation, and the workers are still in that large entity,” says THIRST Founder/CEO Sabita Banerji.

    “I think an alternative model of smallholder farmers aggregating is starting to emerge. Just comparing the two, the difference between how a tea plantation worker lives and how a smallholder farmer lives is really quite significant,” she says

    Control distributed amongst its elements makes for a much more powerful, stronger, sustainable, and more efficient entity, explains Banerji

    “I think this model will gradually replace plantations in the long run,” she said.

    THIRST Founder Sabita Banerji
    Sabita Banerji, Founder/CEO THIRST
    Sabita Banerji, Founder/CEO THIRST

    Tea Smallholders in Tanzania and Kenya are Banding Together to Make Better Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    Sabita Banerji founded THIRST in 2018.

    The non-profit platform she heads is working towards a stronger, fairer, more resilient tea industry in both tea-producing and tea-consuming countries. Sabita was born and raised on tea plantations in Kerala and Assam. She has nearly 20 years of experience in ethical trade and international development, having held strategic posts at Oxfam and the Ethical Trading Initiative, and has been a human rights consultant to a wide range of companies and non-profits. She was previously a member of the Board of Directors of Just Change, UK – a voluntary community tea trading initiative.  Sabita graduated from the University of Bristol, studying philosophy and English.

    Dan Bolton: Tea smallholders now produce most of the world’s tea by volume yet retain only a small fraction of its value. To prosper, small and medium enterprises must add value at origin. The first step is learning to produce consistent, high-quality tea at scale.

    Sabita Banerji: I’m completely on the same page as you. And I think, like you, that this model of smallholder farmers sort of aggregating is gradually going to replace plantations in the long run.

    What interests me about that model links back to something I read years ago in a book by Kevin Kelly, editor of WIRED Magazine. The book “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World” (1992) described this idea that when the control of something is distributed amongst its elements, it makes for a much more powerful, stronger, sustainable, and more efficient entity.

    It seems to me that that’s what’s naturally starting to happen in the tea sector, that the plantations worked in an economic sense, and I suppose partially, some would say, in a social sense, for nearly 200 years. Now, that model is struggling to be economically viable.

    And it’s struggling to be sort of socially and morally viable with the increasing kind of pressures on companies to ensure that workers have their own autonomy, that they’re living decent lives, and that they have sufficient income.

    I’ve seen some very good plantations in my travels, in India, in Tanzania, in Kenya. I’m sure there are others in many other countries as well. But at the end of the day, a plantation is still a plantation, and the workers are still workers in that large entity.

    There is an alternative model that’s starting to emerge in Tanzania and Kenya, where I’ve visited many different smallholder farms and a few plantations. Just comparing the two, the difference between how a tea plantation worker lives and how a smallholder farmer lives is really quite significant.

    I’m not saying that a smallholder farmer’s life is easy; it’s far from it. It’s hugely hard work. In some senses, the typical day of a smallholder farmer, particularly the woman, is, in some ways, no easier than that of a tea plantation worker. She must get up at four in the morning, fetch water, get the kids ready for school, make food, then go out to the fields and work.

    I spoke to one woman who said that the tea collection centers were between one and four kilometers away. There were various centers she could go to, and she could carry 30 kilograms at a time on her head. But if she’s produced 150 kilograms, she must make that journey five times.

    So, it’s a hard, hard life, but she has her own house, she has her own land, can diversify, and can plant other crops. She can build onto her house if she wants. That model has a certain dignity and self-respect and a certain sort of agility built into it.

    A central factory will have collection centers around its immediate area. And then individual farmers will bring their leaf to that collection center, so they are both part of a bigger whole, the whole entity of that region. But they’re also autonomous. And I think that combination is really, really promising.

    Dan: You described a typical bought leaf factory supplied by independent smallholders. What other models are working?

    Sabita: I saw three versions of that smallholder aggregated model, which I found very interesting.

    Before I go into them, let me explain why we made this trip and why Narendranath Dharmaraj is going to Sri Lanka to do the same.

    We plan to document as many of these alternative approaches as possible. Because I think alternatives are now needed. The tea industry is, you know, really up against it.

    The different models I saw in Tanzania are block farming and the Kazi Yetu model you mentioned, which is a social enterprise working on a much smaller scale but focusing on specialty tea. And finally, the Kenya Tea Development Agency, which is, you know, well established. It’s not new, but it works.

    Block Farming in Tanzania

    Dan: Will you share some brief observations about each? Let’s start with the block farming model, which is new to me. Please describe how that works.

    Sabita: Block farming is a model I came across in southern Tanzania. This was a project supported by The Wood Foundation.* In Tanzania, they helped to set up a company called the Njombe Outgrower Service Company (NOSC), which exists to help smallholder farmers set up unity production in this block farming model.

    In Tanzania, there’s a lot of unused land. And in a village, you might have a wide tract of open land that belongs to the village. What they do is ask the local farmers if they want to plant tea in this area, and each farmer has a few acres.

    One of the farms that I visited had 56 farmers and, I believe, 120 acres. Each farmer was responsible for their own area of this block farm. But together, they benefited from the extension services of NGOs and Njombe Outgrower Servicing Company, who would help them with soil testing and advise on what kind of fertilizer they need, provide the fertilizer in bulk for all the farmers to divide up an organized collection of the green leaf.

    And the project has also been working with ekaterra to build a local factory, which is brand new; all the machinery is very new and fresh. From then on, it works like the other smallholder aggregation systems we’ve discussed.

    The farmers in those block farms send their leaf to this factory, which is then processed, and they get paid according to the quantity and quality.

    Dan: Are there incentives to improve quality? Does the factory offer training?

    Sabita: The extension workers provide their farmers with a lot of advice about improving their quality and, you know, help them test it. The factory is the final arbiter of the quality and the price.

    Dan: Are these bought leave factories independent businesses?

    Sabita: This factory is. But it’s part of the project. I believe that eventually, the farmers will own the factory. Once they’ve had sufficient training and built up their skills and understanding of the model, so, it’s slightly different from factories in India, where the factories are independent entities just buying commercially from the local farmers.

    Here they have this symbiotic relationship, where, you know, the success of the factory depends on the quality of the leaf that’s coming in. Also, there’s a concern about the well-being of the farmers. So, it’s not just about the tea; it’s also about the farmers themselves.

    What THIRST is always looking at is the people, you know, how does it affect the workers? How does it affect the farmers?

     We visited one farmer who was rebuilding his house, and he showed us his smallish house, which is bigger than a tea plantation worker’s house.

    Now, he is building a reasonable-sized brick house with a solid roof. However, he was able to do this partly because of the tea. And he very much acknowledged that this block farming model had really helped boost his income, but he was also not 100% reliant on tea. Like all the smallholder farmers I met, he was growing many other crops, including maize, sugarcane, etc. That diversification was giving him an extra income, a direct result of this autonomy in land ownership.

    Dan: These guys don’t have degrees in economics; they intuitively understand that they will only get a return on their investment by marshaling resources. They see many intangible benefits: self-reliance and peer respect, and over time, they build confidence from thoughtfully managing what they own, however meager.

    Sabita: I think, in some senses, the only thing better than a degree in economics for understanding those issues ? is poverty. People who live in or very close to poverty are incredibly creative, resourceful, and able to judge where to use very limited resources to maximize the return. I will always remember when I worked for Oxfam, reading about women in Bangladesh who were illiterate. This particular group of women didn’t know maths, but they could look at a handful of rice and tell you exactly how much it weighed. And they were saving rice handful by handful to save up to buy a new house. So, that kind of attention to detail and understanding of their environment is what you see with small farmers.

    Dan: When they harness that resourcefulness, they become profitable, they build a bigger house, their children stay on the farm, and their wives have better nutrition and health care. So many good things happen.

    Sabita: Yes, that’s true. But maybe after we’ve talked through the different models, I’d also love to talk about what happens to the tea once it leaves the factory because I think that’s a big constraint on these farmers. It gets to the point where it doesn’t matter what they do, how well they manage it, how good the quality of the tea is, how good the system is; once it leaves the factory, it becomes this global commodity subject to market forces. And I think that’s what’s really putting pressure on the whole industry.

    Related: Tea Producers Urged to Share Insights On Human Rights

    Kezi Yetu

    Kazi Yetu factory workers
    Kazi Yetu factory workers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

    Sabita: The following example was a social enterprise based in Dar es Salaam, Kazi Yetu, which means “our work.” It’s a social enterprise.

    I first visited their blending unit in Dar es Salaam. It’s a small blending unit with maybe 15 workers or so. The workers were measuring out the tea into tea bags, making the tea bags, and packaging it.

    They are mostly young single mothers employed at a reasonable wage. They are given health insurance, which is incredibly valuable to anybody living in Sub-Saharan Africa. They have a pleasant, clean, calm, non-bullying work environment.

    If she’s representative of the others, the worker I spoke to was very thankful for that working environment.

    When I arrived, they had just been consulted about what kinds of chairs. Transform Trade, an NGO based in the UK, had offered to invest in improving the work environment to make it more comfortable, so they had gone out to buy some new chairs. Management had taken the workers to the chair shop to choose which chairs they would like. This attention to detail and the inclusion of the workers in the decision were really impressive.

    Kazi Yetu produces lovely tea. It is very high-quality specialty tea, blended with herbs and spices, which they buy from smallholder farmers and then beautifully packaged. And then that is marketed for a high-end market.

    That model seems also to be working quite well.

    Sabita Banerji visit a Kazi Yetu tea farm
    Sabita Banerji plucking tea on a visit to a Kazi Yetu tea farm

    I was also privileged to go to north Tanzania, where they built a small factory. It was an investment made by CARE International and Bloomberg Philanthropies. They built a small factory in a village close to where the tea farmers lived to reduce the distance they would have to travel to deliver their tea, meaning the tea would be fresher.  The farmers formed a cooperative that will own this factory so that more of the value chain is within their ownership and control. And when that’s done, they will get more of the return from the major tea.

    This model seemed to be very much about the people as well as the quality of the tea and the commercial viability of the tea. So that was very heartening to see.

    KTDA, Kenya

    Dan: You also visited Kenya.

    Sabita: The Kenya Tea Development Agency is very well established. It’s been around, you know, as long as Kenya’s independence. And it seems to be a model that works very well; I mean, no model is perfect. It’s got lots of challenges lots of issues. But fundamentally, it seems to be working well.

    It’s a model of many smallholder farmers aggregating their tea. But it’s nationwide, and it’s very well organized.

    Groups of smallholder farmers are organized into zones. The farmers will elect a leader. Zone leaders manage tea collection points. Then, the leaders of the collection points will elect somebody who is part of the directorship of the factories. You hear repeatedly in Kenya that the farmers own the factories.

    The Kenya Development Agency, which used to be a government authority, was privatized and has become much more efficient. They also have a company which is a management Kenya Tea Development Agency management services. They’ve got a company that does packaging, and they’ve got Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation, which looks more at sort of social issues and environmental issues.

    All these elements are in place and highly well-functioning.

    All these models have in common the autonomy of the smallholder farmer and the aggregation of bringing many smallholder farmers together to benefit from economies of scale.

    One of the big concerns that people working on social issues have is that on a tea plantation, you have a great deal of control and oversight over the workforce. And you can have things like gender policies, occupational health and safety policies, etc.

    The concern has always been that if the tea industry is going to fragment into tens of thousands of smallholder farmers, then you wouldn’t have that oversight.

    But this aggregation also helps bring that oversight, except it becomes more support. So, the extension workers I met talked to the farmers about how to grow better quality tea and have a better crop and about environmental issues and social issues such as gender equity and household finances.

    The Kenya Tea Development Agency Foundation had a very comprehensive Holistic Economics Training that also helped to improve dialogue between household members, which reduced gender-based violence.

    I feel that this is the future of the tea industry. It’s, you know, it’s happening kind of organically. The plantation model is starting to feel the strain. You keep hearing about plantations closing or huge social unrest on tea plantations. In Kenya, there have been issues with people raiding tea plantations, stealing the tea, burning tea harvesters, etc.

    The smallholder model presents different issues, but at least you know that there is autonomy and this ability to diversify, which is better for the farmers’ income and gives them more security because not all their eggs are in one basket. That biodiversity also means that it’s better from an environmental point of view.

    Dan: In the book you mentioned, Out of Control, Kelly writes that common behaviors naturally align when many individuals work closely together with a shared purpose. Distributed systems are characterized by emergence, he explains. Each individual influences the behavior of the whole. Over time, a consensus emerges… “a process from quantitative change to qualitative change.”

    Sabita: I think we’ve painted quite a rosy picture. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges those farmers face.

    I mentioned what happens once the tea leaves the factory. The tea is often sold through private negotiations, but a lot goes through auctions. And the fact is, once it leaves the factory, it becomes a commodity. Then, it becomes even more of a commodity because it gets blended with other teas from other countries. So, after it leaves the factory, it suddenly loses almost its value for the farmer while, at the same time, somehow adding enormous amounts of value to the blenders, packers, and retailers who will ultimately sell it. So, there’s something that needs to be addressed in how tea is marketed globally.

    Almost all the models we’ve discussed have involved some injection of funds from a foundation or an NGO. And it’s almost like the industry can’t manage independently without something external being put in, almost as charity.

    This is the most popular drink in the world, after water. Why should it be depending on injections from charities?

    It should earn enough to support the people who produce this amazing product.

    *The Wood Foundation works with 28,000 smallholder farmers in Tanzania. Their largest operation is the Tatepa tea factory (Watco), which serves 14,000 smallholders with support from the Njombe Outgrowers Services Company

    Out of Control

    Out of Control chronicles the dawn of a new era in which the machines and systems that drive our economy are so complex and autonomous as to be indistinguishable from living things. – Goodreads
    Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines
    Publisher: Basic Books | 531 Pages
    January 1992
    Free Download Link: MediaFire

    Out of Control by Kevin Kelly

    Editor’s Note: Tea Biz will continue this conversation on the importance of developing ways to capture and retain supply chain value in the tea lands.

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  • Q&A: Yangdup Lama, India’s Top Bartender

    Yangdup Lama is India’s most famous bartender. He owns and runs Sidecar in New Delhi (#26 World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, #14 Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2022, and #1 India’s 30 Best Bars 2022). Under the brand Cocktails & Dreams, he runs Speakeasy in Gurgaon, a bar service and beverage consultancy, and a bartending school. He has authored Cocktails & Dreams: The Ultimate Indian Cocktail Book. He’s been a TEDx speaker, CNBC Young Turks, recognized by Drinks International as the Bar World’s most influential people in the beverage industry, and winner of several awards, including Indian Bartender of the Year 1996 and Asia-Pacific 30 under 30 in 1997. He mentors and consults for several top beverage brands. For us, though, he’s a Darjeeling guy, born and raised in Darjeeling. He has bridged his two worlds in recent years via his tea cocktails. Here, we catch up with him for a chat on Darjeeling, tea, bartending, and what a cocktail named Darjeeling would be like.

    Aravinda Anatharaman talks with Yandup Lama, India’s most famous bartender
    Yangdup Lama
    Sidecar, New Delhi owner Yangdup Lama

    Darjeeling Native a Cocktail Master

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Thank you for joining us at Tea Biz. It’s really nice to have you here. And I really look forward to this conversation with you on Darjeeling, tea, and the whole story of “The Boy from Chai Land Becomes a Cocktail Master.” But first, a quick question for you: first flush or second flush, what’s your favorite Darjeeling?

    Yangdup: My favorite is always a second flush. The first is a bit too light for me.

    Aravinda: You were born and raised in Darjeeling. Can you tell us what that was like?

    Yangdup: So, this was in the eighties. I’m a child of the seventies, and I was in school throughout the eighties until 1989, when I finished school and then went down to the plains for higher studies. I was in a boarding school all through, And if you asked me what life was like, I think it was much simpler. Simplicity was, I think, the key at that moment and all those times. The fact that I come from a small little village within the district of Darjeeling. It’s a village called Gayabari, which is almost midway on the main highway when you go to Darjeeling. So it’s not from the main town of Darjeeling. And the Selim Hill tea estate was just about five feet to 10 feet away from me. So, you know, I’ve seen the estate and the tea gardens from a very young age. I could see the harvesting, but I didn’t understand that time what it was in terms of how many times the tea was harvested…No understanding of tea. But I’ve seen that all happen in front of me as a child. We used to just hang around the tea, play, and run amongst the estate with other kids from the village. So life was much simpler. It was great.

    Now I can recollect the taste of tea leaves. While playing, we just plucked a few tea leaves and just bit into them. At that time, it was just like a playful thing to do. But today, when I try to recollect the flavor, it’s so nice because it’s pure green tea, absolutely unfermented. And there used to be these small ? I do not know what it’s called ? it was more like dry seeds, and it used to have a lot of water inside it. So I still remember as a child when you were thirsty, and you couldn’t get hold of water anywhere, you just plucked one of those, broke it in half ? it was nice and cold, and inside there was a jellylike thing, but very watery. And we used to just kind of drink those in small bits. So it was nice. I think it was very simple. It was great… open air, blue sky, simple life.

    Aravinda: And then you left, Darjeeling and then you moved, you moved to Delhi. After college or after school?

    Yangdup: I actually finished my Plus 2 (High School) from Darjeeling. So, till the 10th, I was in a boarding school in Kurseong, a small little town. And then, after that, I went down to Bagdogra, which is like the foothills of the Darjeeling hills. And that’s, that’s where I did the Plus 2 from the Army School. There’s an Army Base there. And then after that, after my Plus 2, I went down to Calcutta and did my hotel management. And after that, you know, three, four years in Calcutta and then into Delhi.

    Aravinda: What did you miss most about home at that time when you first moved to the city?

    Yangdup: I think I definitely missed a lot of the simplicity. You know, it was much more innocent. Life was much nicer — people were more gentle. You know, the roughness of the city did take a toll on me initially.

    The whole idea was I always wanted to go back. Even when I came to Delhi, my idea was to be here for a few years and then return to Darjeeling. But then things also changed back home. The political situation over there, the fact that there was a lot of instability, and also unemployment was a big thing. It still is.

    And I think in the last 20 to 25-odd years, it’s sad to say, but Darjeeling has changed for the worse. I understand all the hill stations are the same, you know, because it used to be much simpler, but now it’s become more commercial. But Darjeeling Hills as a whole, overall, has changed purely because of the political disturbance in the last 35-40 years.

    Guyabari Train Station

    I’m still very connected to my house. I’m rebuilding my ancestral property in that small little village. I visit my village every two or three months even now. I’m under the village Panchayat WhatsApp group. So I know I get all the updates. I very much enjoy participating. I’m very well connected to my village.

    I can’t change the whole of the district, but at least in this small little village where I know people, you know, and they respect me, I try and do whatever little I can. I’m still very connected to my house. I’m rebuilding my ancestral property in that small little village. I visit my village every two or three months even now. I’m under the village Panchayat WhatsApp group. So I know I get all the updates. I very much enjoy participating. I’m very well connected to my village. I try to do whatever I can in terms of how I can contribute. I can’t change the whole of the district, but at least in this small little village where I know people, you know, and they respect me, I try and do whatever little I can.

    But the simplicity, gentleness, and warmth were the most I missed in the beginning. And I could feel it as a young student, even when I went down to Calcutta. And when I came to Delhi, it was worse.

    In the beginning, it was really tough. First and foremost, the gentleness of the language. Back home, when we talk to the elders, we are very respectful in the tone. When we speak to the youngsters or the younger people, it’s very soft, gentle, you know? And then, you know, with friends… There are different ways of addressing people. It’s not like that in Delhi. Everybody just called even a stranger ‘tu.’ It’s something that, we hate to do. I would pick up a lot of fights. I would get very angry when somebody said “tu” to me in the beginning. It took me about two years. And then I got to know also know that they didn’t mean it, you know, it’s the language, the culture. They were nice people. Just the way the language was in terms of how they spoke to each other was one of the most difficult things.

    Aravinda: Did you carry your supply of tea with you when you went to Delhi, or was tea sort of a connection to home in any way?

    Yangdup: In the beginning, when I came in, it was purely about survival. The idea was to figure out your life and your career. It was not about passion; it was not about interest. You didn’t know what you liked in life. All that you were looking for was a sense of security, right? So I was working very hard. Tea happened to me, I think, six months to one year after I started working.

    I joined the Hyatt Regency in Delhi and was at the bar. Of course, back home, my dad used to be very fond of good quality tea. He would always talk about leaf tea. He did not have the technical knowledge. He called it orange pekoe, but he did not know that it was the grading type. For him, orange pekoe was great quality tea, but he meant leaf tea, and it was nice and delicate. As a child, every time we sipped into a cup of tea, you know because dad always spoke about it, you had the flavor in your mouth. So it was very strongly there.

    And then later in Calcutta and Delhi, I was drinking CTC, the cooked tea. But I always liked the tea with tea notes rather than the milk. So I like the tea with milk, but not like the way the Delhiites drink – it is less water, more milk, and less tea. I like the tea, which had more tea liquor in it. I was drinking that. And I was working at the bar, Polo Lounge. Interestingly, there was this one packet that came into the Polo Lounge. It was kept in the back. There was, on the menu, Fine Champagne Darjeeling Tea. So this was a tea from an estate known as Ambootia. So, Ambootia Tea Estate is in Kurseong. My school was almost five kilometers above the town, and Ambootia was a few kilometers below the town. So I always knew about Ambootia. And the moment I saw that packet, you feel like, oh, there’s a home for you. That connected. None of the people, including my managers, nobody had any idea ? and I didn’t say to anyone, and that was supposed to be Fine Champagne Darjeeling tea. Basically, it was. I don’t even remember if it was first flush or second flush, but all I remember is that it was good quality leaf tea. It had a premium pricing in the hotel. But since nobody knew about it, nobody would really speak about it. So, the guests never got to experience it.

    I was the one who finished the tea over the course of the next year. Because what I would do is every time I would make tea for myself a cup of tea at the bar, I would take a bit of Ambootia tea and put it in my tea. I never spoke about it to anyone, but I still remember it came in a nice ceramic jar— very nice packaging. I’m talking about ’95, ’96, ’97. A cup of tea at the hotel – at that time – the normal price tea would be, the cup would be Rs 150, but this one was priced at almost 300 bucks, so premium pricing. I’m sure it would’ve sold if there was proper tea training, but since it came as a sample probably, you know, more for sampling, nobody knew about it. The purchase didn’t know about it, and the F&B didn’t know about it. And for me, also, I didn’t know the technical aspect. I just knew it was tea from back home, and that it tasted like tea that I used to drink when I was home, So, I finished the tea.

    But then inclination was always there, right? And after that, when I kind of settled down in Delhi, I figured out that my palate for tea was very different, I couldn’t just drink the normal CTC. Every time I go home for a holiday, I would always look for the second flush. If I did not get the second flush, then I would buy the first flush. And I had my regular supplies. I knew where to buy my tea. I love the Margarets Hope second flush because it’s closer to home. Every time I went home I would make an effort to drive to the tea room and just buy a couple of kgs of tea and bring it with me, and that was good enough for me for the next, six or seven months. I think about two years after I came to Delhi, I started bringing tea from back home for myself.

    Aravinda: You also said you were making tea for yourself at the bar. Did you have like a sort of a routine where, you know, you started your day, or that was a tea break for you? Do you still continue to do that?

    Yangdup: Sometimes in the morning, the first tea may be made for me, but if it’s after breakfast, I make it for myself. And I love tea with milk. A lot of people say Darjeeling tea, fine tea; you should not be adding milk. But to me, somehow, I’ve been so used to drinking tea with milk from my childhood years, the moment there’s no milk, I feel there’s poverty. Milk is something I’m very much fond of in my tea. When I am tasting tea, I don’t add milk. But if I’m enjoying a cup of tea, I would prefer it with – not a lot of milk, but some amount of milk.

    When I started working in the hotel, I used to drink at least two to three cups of tea during those 7, 8 hours, 10 hours, and 12 hours that I’d spend in the hotel. I would always pick up the fine tea. The good thing was that I was working in a 5-star hotel! So they did have a good collection of tea. And I would always choose the tea that I liked. And while I was at the bar, there was always an inventory for alcohol, so the controllers would come to check on how much alcohol, but nobody really bothered about tea. So, you know, nobody even cared about who was drinking the tea. So it was alright. I think I was quite lucky to be able to drink good quality throughout. But I would always make my cup of tea. I like tea that has been infused for at least three to five minutes, I would always go to the back area, and pour a cup of tea or a pot of tea in the silver pot. And I would come into the front of the bar, make drinks, and whenever I had a little time, I would just rush back and then strain the tea and add some milk, and I would always go back and have my sip all the time.

    Aravinda: What was the beverage industry like when you got into bartending? What’s the change you have seen in these years?

    Yangdup: Cocktail culture, or let’s say, bar culture, did not really exist. It was purely about if you wanted a good drink and if you wanted to have good quality alcohol, you would have to get into a five-star hotel. Only the five-star hotels had good bars. They were not the best bars, but they were definitely much better bars. There were hardly any bars, any bar outside the hotel. So beverage was very restricted. And, of course, some rich people had their collection of alcohol at home. But it was very restricted there until the early 2000s when things started to open up more restaurants outside of hotels, more bars outside of hotels, and automatically, you know, you could then see better quality bartenders also emerge. It wasn’t a very evolved bar culture at all. It was just basic drinks, you know. Cocktails weren’t popular, and it was just regular drinks. If you made a Bloody Mary, people would look at you, oh, that’s a Bloody Mary. I still remember, you know, most of the hoteliers, even they were not very well versed or well-tuned with the beverages. If you were somebody who knew a little bit more about wines or whiskey, you were looked upon with a lot of respect because you were the most knowledgeable person. It wasn’t a cultural thing. I think it happened much later.

    Even coffee was just coffee. Because we were in a hotel, we knew of cappuccino, espresso, and ristretto, but even Americano was not really popular, so coffee was very limited. Nobody really cared about what kind of beans you were using. It was just a standard way of making coffee. And the standard way of making tea.

    Aravinda: You’ve also worked on changing the perception of what a bar should be and what a bartender’s role is. You’ve taken it upon yourself to change these perceptions. Why is that?

    Yangdup: Yeah, absolutely. Because one is about, you know, I’m at the stage of my career where it’s not about finding security anymore. It’s about continuing to do what you’re good at, what you love doing. That’s very important. In the beginning, it was about finding your space. Now you’ve been able to find that space. You’re very much well settled. You have a good foundation. Apart from that, because I have always enjoyed what I did, I’ve always had a great time being in the beverage space, being in the bar space; I think it’s always nice to, you know, every time I talk to people, it’s always nice to share those moments. And when I share those moments, it’s not just about working in a fancy place; it’s about creating the atmosphere of being in that space or being in that atmosphere, and a lot of the responsibility lies in the hands of the bartender or the drivers of that. We are not just people who fix drinks. We create an atmosphere. So, it does not have to be about making a fancy cocktail all the time. You could just be serving a beer, but you could be this one person who makes all the difference for everybody around you. You are the nerve center of the operations. And that is why I keep talking about it, saying how important it is to make sure that the job profile of a bartender is beyond just cocktails. Cocktail is one of the 100 things that you do. There are 99 other things that you need to be good at. And in order to be good at it, you’ve got to enjoy the moment. You’ve got to enjoy the space, you’ve got to enjoy people, the conversations, and there’s a lot of learning throughout, right? And that’s, that’s how it becomes more interesting for you as well as for the consumer.

    I’m sure you would’ve heard of this Long Island Iced Tea cocktail. It’s a very popular drink, and it was very, very popular in the 90s. Very American-driven. Interestingly, it’s called a Long Island Iced Tea, but it has Coke in it, right? And I remember at the Hyatt, it used to be one of those fast-selling cocktails as well. And people drank it not because it was good to taste; people drank it because it provided value for money. Or so they thought. I do not know if it was great value for money, but I remember doing a Long Island Iced Tea with tea in it. I said, Why is it called a Long Island Iced Tea, if there’s Coke in it? Why can’t we just put tea? And if you want to make it sweeter, you can always add sugar. I remember a few guests who loved it with tea, so they used to come back to the Polo Lounge, and every time they ordered the Long Island Iced Tea, I made it with tea in it ? not the finest, but definitely black tea. So that was my first thought about why can’t we do tea? But I never had the opportunity. I wasn’t as mature as a bartender as well. So, for me, it took a little time.

    Much later, when I left the hotels, and I was on my own, I started working with brands. I still remember a whiskey company, a whiskey brand, approaching me and saying we would like to take the cocktail route for an activation. And this was a Scotch whiskey brand, a blended scotch whiskey. And they asked about the various ways in which we could do a signature serve. And I remember telling them whiskey with water is very popular. And I told them that tea is flavored water, right? So all we are doing is adding more flavor to the water you’re mixing your whiskey with tea. So why can’t we do whiskey and tea? Once that acceptance was good and it also excited the brand managers, I started exploring tea further. It doesn’t have to be just tea, and we need to define the tea aspect as well. The whiskey has a certain character, a certain flavor. What could be the correct tea to be mixed with that whiskey so that they complement each other and there’s no conflict? Right? So that is where the maturity came in as I started to think more about the varieties of tea that could be used, from green unfermented to semi-fermented to fully fermented black tea, right? So, there were several different styles of tea that could go with different styles of whiskey. And with every experiment and tasting, it only started to get better.

    Aravinda: How did it taste? How did whiskey pair with black tea?

    It was brilliant. Oh, yes. In a situation where you can choose what you want to eat, is when the taste and the flavor profile rules.

    It’s a human tendency. And that is where the whole drinking experience also comes into play. When you have enough in front of you regarding the choice of whiskey. And if you only have water, it’s just one experience. But when you have more than water to mix with, and if you’re open to experimenting, if you’re somebody who is much more evolved, well-traveled, and you are okay to experiment, I think that’s where you find your combination.

    So, it does not mean that everybody has to love whiskey and tea. I think some people loved that profile of the drink. It is not always necessary that whiskey has to be with soda. Whiskey can be with water, and it can also be with flavored water and all kinds of flavors, flavored with herbs. Tea is a type of herb. And some of it might appeal to a certain consumer.

    Aravinda: Do you have a preference in terms of what tea you’d like to use when you are making a cocktail?

    It depends upon what alcohol. If I get alcohol, let’s say it’s a good quality vodka, the vodka is only about alcohol. It does not have its own very strong flavor and character. So, it only lends that alcohol base. One can play around. So that’s where I could probably use tea, which has flowery notes. The ruling flavor or the ruling characteristic for the cocktail becomes the second ingredient, which is not the vodka but probably whatever else that we use. Like vodka and orange juice taste like juice that has been spiked, right? But the flavor of orange still remains. It’s an alcoholic orange juice.

    The same thing applies to tea. But when we go beyond that when we go to, let’s say, finer alcohol where it has nice, delicate flavor notes if it has richness or earthy flavor present in it (here are some spirits which have more citrus notes present, for example). There are some spirits that have flowery notes, caramel, or, chocolate notes. Depending upon what characteristic the alcohol has, we need to choose the tea accordingly. So let’s say I’m making a nice, interesting martini with gin,
    and if the gin is rich in terms of its aromatics, then I could use a lot of tea, also tea which has been blended with other herbs, like tea, which has flowery note, tea which has citrus notes. So that’s where you could be more experimental and see what works with that particular alcohol. But if it’s a nice, delicate spirit where the spirit also has to show its presence within the drink, when you make sure that you choose a tea that has a good balance of flavor, it’s not conflicting. It’s about the right balance. And all those things matter.

    The second important thing is the measure and ratio. It should not be too much of tea. It should not be too much of a spirit. I think the right balance, the right measure, is also important. And I figured out that sometimes, it makes a great tasting drink when it’s in the ratio 1:1, and sometimes it makes a great tasting drink when the ratio is 1:2. So even that ratio will matter a lot, you know?

    Yangdup Lama
    We always take it for granted, but tea can be cool, says Lama

    Aravinda: The market is changing, and cocktails are a great way to showcase tea’s versatility. I think sometimes the perception is tea is an old person’s drink. So, how can we take Darjeeling tea and bring it into people’s lifestyles?

    I worked in the past with a couple of estates. You know, it was a nice collaboration between us, our bar, and certain estates. And I’ve always spoken to the promoters, always said, you guys as stakeholders of tea business need to come together and then promote tea. I always cite examples of alcohol. Until ten years ago, India was not a country where gin was so popular. People drank more whiskey, and people invested in whiskey. Nobody would buy an expensive gin. Everybody would buy expensive whiskey if they had the money, but you would not buy expensive gin.

    Gin was like, Kisi ko peena kai to peelenge. But then it became popular in other parts of the world. And then what also happened is there were gin makers in India, and especially in the last four, five years, what has happened is there at least 15 to 20 new gins that are there in the Indian market made by Indians, but all of them are making and talking about it. I know that only four to five of them will survive and do well. The balance of 15 will fade away. But the fact that all 20 participated in promoting gin and craft gin has helped the category. Similarly, in the tea space, I think what will happen is every stakeholder right from the Tea Board of India to the tea growers, the tea planters, the tea sellers, and the tea marketers, all need to come together and speak about tea and upgrade tea.

    The biggest problem with tea ? especially Darjeeling tea ? is it’s very old school, and until and unless you make it cool. Like coffee is cool, you can walk into a cafe, and you’re perceived as the cool guy sitting in the coffee shop working on his laptop and figuring out stuff. So coffee’s always been marketed as the cool thing, whereas tea has always been that sophisticated stuff.

    I was in Sri Lanka last week, and I landed at a hotel with and Sri Lankan host. They said, We’ll meet you today at 4 o’clock downstairs in the lobby, and there’s a high tea. I went there, and there was a proper high tea in the lounge. It came with scones, and when we were talking about conversations in alcohol, I said, yeah, tea could be about conversation. It’s like the whole high tea ceremony is almost two hours. You keep on sipping tea, and you have small muffins, sandwiches, and scones with cream. But that is very old school where have a lot of time like, so there are different ways. The culture was very English, right?

    The coffee culture came mostly from the fact that you know, Starbucks’ of the world, Costa Coffees’ of the world, made it seem cool. It was an American concept. So it was for the younger lot. You are too stressed out in your office. You take a coffee break, or you can bring your coffee to your desk, and you start working. So it is all about that. But tea has not been perceived that way. Teas always like when you have the time, your mind is relaxed, that is when you drink tea. No, you can still drink when you’re working, right? So it also has to be marketed in that way. And made cool. So you, you need to have these interesting trees. And I think some of them, like Karma Kettle, these guys have been very experimental in tea, and they’ve made tea more approachable.

    I think there is a lot of work to be done.

    Tea was something that the British brought into India, although the Assam tea always existed. They took all the good quality outside of the country. They marketed elsewhere and made it their culture, but what they gave to the locals was dust and fannings, and that’s why we cook tea because it’s always nice when it’s cooked. And because we always drunk for the last 150 years, we always drank tea of the cheapest quality, we always take it for granted. So, nobody really gives it a thought. But I think as we progress and as consumerism grows within our country, there is a great opportunity for us to talk a little bit more about tea. Stakeholders have to do it. The more we talk, the more we exchange ideas, the more we appreciate the tea genuinely amongst ourselves, and that tea culture will kind of graduate to the next level.

    Aravinda: I want to go back to what you were talking about, the craft gin movement and lessons to take away for tea. When you go to Darjeeling, do you feel optimistic about what you see there?

    Totally. I think that change is coming in. Most of the traditional tea owners have sold off their estates. Most of the tea estates, especially in the 85 estates, now have changed hands. A lot of them who actually bought over the estate are not tea lovers. They were basically people who were into other businesses. They had a lot of money. They bought their estate purely because they thought it was a great opportunity and it cost them peanuts. But what I see now is a lot of the children who have studied abroad come back and they know that they have a strong financial background support. They’re all business families, but the fact that they’ve abroad, they’ve studied, they’ve travelled the world, and they don’t just do a regular thing. They don’t want to carry on their fathers’ business. They actually do something on their own. I’ve seen a lot of youngsters who’ve taken over their estate from their parents. And bought a lot of newer stuff. From tea tourism to doing more innovative styled teas. And I think that’s a great thing to see. I’m very optimistic that these things will change.

    So, if you look at most of the tea bushes in Darjeeling, I think it’s more than 120 years old, it needs replantation. I’m a bartender. The more I love my craft, it will get better. But if I look at it only from a business point of view, I will only look at profit; it does not work, right? So I think it’s the same thing even with tea, you know when people get connected to the whole idea of tea is when they will bring in newer ideas, they’ll bring in more innovation and it’ll improve and I’m sure it’ll do really well. That change is being seen now. It’s gradual, it’s slow, but it’s started to happen.

    Take for example, Sri Lankan tea, it’s exactly the same, right? It is much younger than Indian tea, but it has become amongst one of the world’s most popular styles of tea. Like Sri Lankan tea is very sought after. Every time I go to Sri Lanka, I enjoy Sri Lankan tea. It’s very nice.

    I still see great potential in Darjeeling tea because the kind of fragrance that you get in Darjeeling tea you don’t get anywhere in the world. So, there’s something unique about this tea. It’s just that you need to realize and understand that you could actually bring in a very unique offering. The reason why it sells is for all of those connoisseurs; they’re ready to pay a very, very high price for it. That’s the biggest advantage. And it needs to be marketed well, and it needs to be propagated in a nice way by all stakeholders, and I’m very confident that it’ll do really well. I think Darjeeling tea does really well outside of India, but I feel it’ll start to do well even within the country. A lot of our own in-house consumers will start to appreciate it.

    Aravinda: What would it have if you had to create a cocktail called Darjeeling?

    Definitely, it’ll have the second flush. You know, two years ago, we did a collaboration with my bar Sidecar and Makaibari. The owner had come to the bar, and he was very excited when he learned I am from Gayabari and his estate is called Makaibari. It’s across the hill, in Kurseong. So, he invited me over to his estate. I went there, I stayed there, and it was really wonderful, and it gave me a lot of excitement because it was something very local, and I was really, really excited to do this collab. And we made a drink called The Darjeeling Mail. It was blended whiskey. The cocktail was called Darjeeling Mail, named after the very popular train that still plies between ? in the olden days Sealdah and the main Siliguri junction ? now it is NJP to Sealdah, and it’s a night train, and it’s a very popular train which most of us take when you go to Darjeeling. The cocktail is simple: a second flush with a little balance, a touch of bitters, and a blended scotch whiskey. And it was not a very premium blended whiskey. We just picked an entry-level blended whiskey, so you know, on the lines of a Red Label or a Black and White. So it was very approachable, not expensive, but something nice and soothing, and a tall drink. So yeah, if it is, it has to be a signature cocktail; it’ll always start with a second flush because that is something that I enjoy myself the most.

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  • Driving Growth Through Intent-Based Ads

    The tea industry has seen significant growth over the past few years. More consumers are looking for unique and high-quality tea products. 

    Tea business owners must create a customer-centric approach (Gascoyne, 2023). Such an approach requires understanding consumer intent (Bailey, 2023). Combining intent-based advertising and experiential retail can fuel growth for your tea brand.

    World Tea Conference + Expo opens with the Bar & Restaurant Expo, March 2023, in Las Vegas, NV. Photo by Ellen Kanner/Tea Journey

    We will delve into the following:

    • the importance of understanding consumer intent and matching content with intent and context (Bailey, 2023), 
    • creating an immersive customer experience through experiential retail (Gascoyne, 2023), and
    •  leveraging the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

    This article summarizes a few key insights from the 2023 World Tea Expo. By the end of this article, you will gain clarity into creating a successful tea business.

    The Customer is King

    The success of any business depends on its customers. 

    Kevin Gascoyne, Tea Buyer & Taster of Camellia Sinensis Teahouse, points out that the tea business is 90% selling and 10% buying (2023). So, a customer-centric approach is crucial to succeeding in the industry.

    This means: 

    • understanding your customers’ preferences, 
    • maximizing customer value, and 
    • creating a personalized experience that meets their needs.

    By focusing on the customer, tea brand owners can:

    • identify their target audience, 
    • create products that match their preferences, and 
    • tailor marketing strategies. 

    Understanding customer intent (Bailey, 2023) is critical to this approach. 

    This means understanding the motive behind a customer’s action, like scrolling on social media or doing a Google search.

    Mackenzie Bailey speaking on Internet-Based Marketing at the World Tea Conference + Expo.

    Identify whether customers are:

    • looking for something specific (search intent), or 
    • open to new content (discovery intent). 

    Identifying these intent signals allows your tea brands to create content matching customer needs and context (Bailey, 2023). Some of the content your tea brand may need to create include:

    • social media posts, 
    • blog posts, 
    • ads, 
    • product pages, and more

    Key Takeaway: A customer-centric approach is essential for tea brand owners looking to succeed in the industry. Tea brands can create personalized experiences that meet customer needs, driving growth. Creating these personalized experiences requires understanding customers’ preferences and identifying their intent.

    Narrow Definition of Excellence

    Focusing on a narrow definition of excellence is critical to creating a successful tea brand. 

    Kevin Gascoyne speaking on the transition of his tea business from restaurant to Experiential Retail at the World Tea Conference + Expo. Ellen Kanner photo

    Kevin Gascoyne (2023) suggests that claiming to sell ‘the best tea’ is not enough. Instead, tea brands must focus on delivering the best product for a specific type of tea and price point.

    “We focus on a narrow definition of excellence. For example, offering the best Chinese curl leaf tea that we can sell for $10.” – Kevin Gascoyne, Tea Buyer & Taster, Camellia Sinensis Teahouse

    Brands can differentiate themselves from others in the tea market by specializing in particular teas and segmenting the tea market.

    Specialization also allows tea brands to focus on delivering consistent quality. Customers can expect the same high-quality tea every time they buy from the brand. This expectation of quality within the customer base leads to loyalty and repeat business. 

    Focusing on a narrow definition of excellence allows tea brands to become thought leaders in their niche. They create a trickle-down marketing effect (Gascoyne, 2023).

    Key Takeaway: Tea brand owners must focus on a narrow definition of excellence to succeed in the industry. Tea brands can differentiate by specializing in a particular tea segment and delivering consistent quality.

    Intent-Based Advertising

    Understanding consumer intent is crucial to creating successful campaigns for tea brands. So, Mackenzie Bailey (2023), Founder of Steeped Content, suggests intent-based advertising and marketing.

    Intent-based marketing involves creating content that matches consumer intent and context. 

    She suggests:

    1. producing blog posts that align with keyword intent
    2. creating social media content and ads aligned with the platform’s intent
    3. using local SEO to capture the search intent of nearby customers 

    Matching content with intent and context allows tea brands to create personalized experiences. These experiences meet their customers’ needs. 

    For instance, a customer may be searching for a specific type of tea (e.g., hibiscus). A tea brand can create an ad or blog post highlighting that tea. Such content may highlight the tea’s benefits and features. 

    On the other hand, a customer is open to trying new teas without actively searching for something. In such cases, your tea brand can create content introducing new teas. Use social media posts or emails to encourage customers to explore novel products. 

    Identifying and meeting consumer intent is crucial for marketing tea. Intent-based marketing helps your tea brand to:

    • attract and retain customers, 
    • increase brand awareness, and
    • drive sales.

    “Intent-based advertising is not just about reaching more customers, it’s about reaching the right customers at the right time with the right message. By understanding and meeting consumer intent, tea brands can create personalized experiences that fuel their growth” – Mackenzie Bailey, Founder, Steeped Content

    “Building community through social media is one of the many ways entrepreneurs can use technology to build a successful teashop.” -Ellen Kanner, Teahouse Owner

    Key Takeaway: Intent-based marketing is critical to a successful tea brand’s marketing strategy

    The Power of Experiential Retail

    Experiential retail is a powerful tool for tea brands looking to create an immersive customer experience. Kevin Gascoyne (2023) suggests that creating an immersive experience is crucial to:

    • engage customers,
    • create loyalty, and 
    • driving sales.

    Experiential retail involves creating a physical space where customers interact with the brand and products. 

    For tea brands, this could mean creating a tea shop where customers can:

    • taste different teas,
    • attend tea ceremonies, or 
    • learn about the tea-making process. 

    Creating an immersive experience helps tea brands differentiate themselves from other brands. They create a personalized experience for customers and drive sales.

    Experiential retail experiences may be more likely to be shared by tea drinkers. This can help improve your brand awareness and lower customer acquisition costs (existing customers are promoting you to new potential customers for free).

    “Camellia Sinensis Teahouse has updated our tea shop to an experienced-based retail store. Since doing so, we have seen user-generated content double, helping our brand awareness.” – Francois Marchand, Marketing Director, Camellia Sinensis Teahouse.

    The role of storytelling in experiential retail is also crucial. It creates an emotional connection with customers and inspires them to engage with the brand.

    Such brand stories may include:

    • the history of the brand, 
    • the tea-making process, or 
    • the sourcing of tea leaves.

    Key Takeaway: Experiential retail can help tea brands drive industry growth. By creating an immersive customer experience, tea brands can differentiate themselves from others.

    Trickle-Down Marketing Effect

    The trickle-down marketing effect occurs in specialized, successful tea businesses. Kevin Gascoyne (2023) suggests that specialized tea businesses can create a ripple effect in the industry. They influence the market and drive demand for high-quality teas.

    Specialized tea businesses focus on the following:

    1. delivering a narrow definition of excellence,
    2. creating an immersive customer experience through experiential retail,
    3. offering exceptional products,
    4. Understanding and intentionally meeting customer needs

    By doing so, they create a loyal customer base that becomes a source of word-of-mouth marketing. This word-of-mouth can lead to an increase in demand for high-quality teas.

    Specialized tea businesses can become thought leaders in their niche. They can create a reputation for delivering high-quality tea. This reputation attracts customers looking for such products. This can help the tea market evolve by gradually growing demand for these premium teas.

    “We stock a range of special teas at different price points. For example, we carry twelve sencha teas. In some cases, some sencha differ on the cultivar level. Such granular differentiation helps tea drinkers gain rich product knowledge. It often builds a visceral connection to the product, tea.” Kevin Gascoyne, Tea Taster & Buyer, Camellia Sinensis Teahouse

    Key Takeaway: Specialized tea businesses can create a trickle-down marketing effect in the industry. They drive demand for high-quality teas.

    Driving Growth in the Tea Industry

    To drive growth in the tea industry, brands can combine intent-based advertising and experiential retail. This combination creates a personalized and immersive customer experience.

    By understanding consumer intent, (Bailey, 2023) and matching content with intent and context, tea brands can create personalized experiences. These experiences meet their customers’ needs and drive sales.

    Experiential retail allows tea brands to create an immersive customer experience that differentiates them from other brands in the market (Gascoyne, 2023). 

    Creating a physical space where customers can interact with the brand and its products helps your tea company. By doing so, tea brands can create loyalty, generate word-of-mouth marketing, and drive sales.

    The trickle-down marketing effect (Gascoyne, 2023) can drive growth in the tea industry. It creates demand for high-quality teas. Specialized tea businesses can become thought leaders in their niche. They can create a reputation for delivering high-quality tea, drive word-of-mouth, and help the industry evolve.

    Driving growth in the tea industry requires tea brands to adopt a customer-focused approach. This approach necessitates understanding consumer intent (Bailey, 2023). 

    Combining intent-based advertising and experiential retail, tea brands can differentiate themselves from others.

    Key Takeaway: Tea brand owners must focus on creating a customer-centric approach (Gascoyne, 2023) and understanding consumer intent (Bailey, 2023) to drive growth.

  • How Technology Helps Build a Successful Teashop – Whether Starting Out or 5 Years In

    Alfonso Wright and Jamila Wright presenting on Technology of a Successful Teashop at the World Tea Conference + Expo in Nevada.

    Running a teahouse involves support systems that weren’t there even 10 years ago. Today, systems are better integrated to talk to each other or export reports to use in spreadsheets for analysis. Inventory in the point of sale (POS) system integrating with your online website is super helpful. There were several presentations at the World Tea Conference + Expo recently in Las Vegas, Nevada that brings these aspects together to make for efficient tools in this post-pandemic tea world.

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 27: General atmosphere of the 2023 Bar & Restaurant Expo and World Tea Expo on March 27, 2023 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Nightclub & Bar Media Group)

    How’s your organizational and financial skills? How about marketing and social media? All of it can seem daunting those first several years, but there are tools and folks who have already walked the multitude of paths in all these areas. For example, some tea business owners are driving growth in the tea industry through intent-based advertising and experiential retail.

    Several Expo presentations covered the topic in detail. 

     “Operating Your Teashop with the Help of Technology”, a presentation given by Alfonso Wright and Jamila Wright of Brooklyn Tea covered many areas for efficiency – human resources management including payroll and scheduling, POS for sales reports and efficiency markers, website sales, inventory integration, delivery app authentication, and staff communication.

    Automated inventory systems, some of which are free, some with monthly service fees (with better deals on an annual package) are helpful. We’ll explore the possibilities of full-scale operations, and the alternative piecemeal approach of exporting sales data to spreadsheets and analyzing the details yourself.

    Across the board, you can spend hundreds of dollars per month on a system like Homebase that helps with payroll, scheduling and staff communication, with labor cost controls. Systems talk amongst themselves with inventories connecting, in the case for Brooklyn Tea Clover for the POS and Shopify for the website sales, which all provides you peace of mind, and performs details that you no longer need to do manually. The cream of the crop, we’d say, for a growing, profitable business. There’s the monthly fee on these systems, but there’s also the cost of the hardware (ipad, register, cash drawer, card readers) and depending on your budget, going with the full-scale operation out of the starting gates might be more than you need.

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 29: Teas on display at the 2023 Bar & Restaurant Expo and World Tea Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center on March 29, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Nightclub & Bar Media Group)

    The Do-It-Yourself, cheaper alternative for those starting out (and for us even at year 10 during the pandemic) was Square as a POS and as our online webstore, with a percentage per transaction fee, no monthly fee, and we had a ticketing system that worked well enough as long as the Post-it Notes stuck to the tea brewer’s counter. There are systems now that print tickets in the kitchen for orders, making this somewhat easier. We had a spreadsheet that was loosely modified weekly on sales of specific tea inventories that we’d enter manually, and we had staff performing biweekly tea inventories by counting kilos and packets of each of our 100+ teas during slower times on the floor. A lot more involved for sure, but a monthly or bimonthly inventory still is something that needs to happen to help with future ordering of tea and supplies. With Shopventory, inventories are coordinated between your POS and website tool with less need for regular inventory by staff.

    Staff communications and scheduling come together in Homebase as it integrates sales data, staffing, payroll, and data from credit cards on whether they are repeat customers and where they are coming from based on their credit card’s zip code. Homebase takes the emotions out of labor tracking and whether someone is clocking in on time or not, and can lead to reports where merit based incentives are determined by those reports.  Using Clover for staff to clock in and Homebase to connect with payroll data you’ll get a nice projection of what payroll will be and scheduling suggestions. 

    We used a simpler, cheaper method with MyTimeStation for staff to clock in with biweekly exportable report on staff hours, exporting to a Google spreadsheet set up with predetermined automatic calculations. The MyTimeStation and Google Spreadsheet makes this a fairly simple process, and MyTimeStation is available as an ipad as well as iphone app that staff running errands can clock-in on remotely, and it’s free for 10 staff or less. Using GroupME for group texting for call-outs and shift swaps, we had a communication tool for immediate action requests.

    On-boarding, which Homebase provides as part of their system at their highest monthly rate, includes employment forms and introductory processes and videos. Alfonso mentioned setting up Google Forms for onboarding processes, with integrated videos – a great solution that just takes time to produce, but so easy to update and share with staff through Google Drive. 

    Once you have those figures from your POS – what’s popular and selling, what has the highest or lowest profit margin – then you can turn to what to market to your customers. “Intent-Based Marketing” a presentation by Mackenzie Bailey of Steeped Content takes the information from our POS reports as top sellers – what customers are buying – and takes the effort behind the daily sales into what our marketing decisions on social media and web advertising should look like, with the data on zip codes from credit card payments showing where customers live allows you to focus your marketing in these areas on Google, Facebook, or your local weekly newspaper. A blog post focused on SEO search results for your site, and the product customers are buying through your POS, creates repeat interest and follow-up purchases. 

    Free or per-transaction system like Square, Google Workspace and Calendar, and MyTimeStation, are a good place to start, then move to the fee-based systems as budgets allow like Shopify, Clover, Homebase and Shopventory is a sure way grow a business smart and within budget when starting out, or even a few years in. 

    Ellen Kanner owned and operated a traditional true-to-origin teahouse in Portland, Maine with her husband for 12 years before moving the operation online while continuing to offer their longtime customers loose leaf tea and teaware, their Tea Tasting in a Box®, and tea tasting events and trips, while setting up tea programs at restaurants and cafés. She has traveled to origin for tea to South Korea, Japan, India, Taiwan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, as well as to Portugal. You can see more at www.dobrateame.com.

  • Revised TRA Standards Promote Tea Sustainability

    Growers worldwide adhere to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards. The standards, based on decades of research and development, date to the early 1900s, with frequent updates. The latest update, titled TRA-Tocklai GAP-GMP Standard, will be available January 2023. The revisions are necessary to help growers and manufacturers improve soils, protect natural ecosystems, encourage diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and establish a more climate-resilient tea industry, according to TRA. The new standards closely align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

    Listen to the Interview

    Joydeep Phukan discusses revisions to TRA’s ag standards to improve tea sustainability
    Joydeep Phukan, the Principal Officer and Secretary of India’s Tea Research Association

    New Tea Policy Emphasizes Quality Evaluation

    India is seeking ways to improve tea quality. In January, the Tea Research Association (TRA) will implement a unified agricultural standard for tea fields and factories. Introduced in September, the revised standards align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, explains Joydeep Phukan TRA’s Principal Officer and Secretary. He said that India’s tea sector is experiencing environmental and social changes that impact the livelihood of 10 million people, including 1.2 directly employed in the regulated tea gardens (RTG). Phukan has managed the research institute for the past 16 years. Before that, he was Assistant Secretary of the Indian Tea Association and Asst. Secretary at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center. He graduated with a degree in History and has a master’s in Management studies.

    Dan Bolton: Will you share some details about TRA’s new ag standards?

    Joydeep Phukan: Certainly. Tocklai is in its 111th year of non-stop operations. Over the years, we have come out with many different agricultural and manufacturing advisories, which have become the standard for the tea industry in India, and elsewhere.

    It’s two-way traffic. We learn from the practical problems faced by the industry in the field through our vast advisory network spread out in nine Indian states, our scientists work on that, and then we come out with solutions to the industry. These advisories are documented in the TRA Field Management Book, TRA Planters Handbook, and the Tea Encyclopaedia of TRA

    Since the advisories were spread out and extensive, we considered summarizing them into a few chapters to create a Bible for the industry. We began by collating the pillars of our advisories and condensed them into seven chapters aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals covering 2, 4, 13, and 15 of the SDGs

    Tocklai’s Good Agricultural Practices GAP and GMP are based on hardcore research on tea done by our scientists over the last 111 years. We added a few more chapters primarily to address the industry’s sustainability issues.

    GAP is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we will add on things and discard what is no longer beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.

    “This is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we add on things and discard which are not beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.”

    Joydeep Phukan

    Dan: How do these standards differ from third-party certification by organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, which introduced a new sustainable ag standard in June 2020?

    Joydeep: The main difference between our standards and those developed by third-party certifiers is that our standards are backed by scientific research carried out by our scientists. There is scientific evidence for every practical recommendation that works well in the tea industry.

    Sustainability has been a buzzword for the last 25 years. When you look at the Indian tea industry, you see that we at TRA Tocklai have been researching and publishing advisories to make tea more sustainable for more than a hundred years.

    Third-party certifiers bring in many things which are not based on their own work and or scientifically backed. Many certifications use a fit-all model where tea is put in the same basket as other commodities. 

    Initially, we are concentrating on the TRA GAP GMP standards for the regulated sector in India, but gradually we will include advisories specific to small growers so that there is one standard for the industry. Assam’s Government has mandated TRA Tocklai to provide R&D support to more than 200,000 smallholders in Assam.

    The Central Research Facility, occasionally referred to as the New Research Building, was constructed in the year 1999. It houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology and Mycology & Microbiology.
    The Central Research Facility, which opened in 1999, houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology, Mycology & Microbiology. Photo courtesy TRA.

    Dan: When farms and factories adhere to these standards, are they recognized for their effort? Do they receive a certificate attesting to the fact they adhere to TRA’s best practices?

    Joydeep: Yes. Our advisory network is spread out across Northeast India. They visit every TRA member’s gardens twice a year. They have to review each aspect of their operations against these standards. Once they are fulfilled, the gardens will be certified annually and receive a certificate for adherence to the adoption of best practices. There is no additional cost for the TRA members.

    Member estates of TRA comprise almost 90% of the organized sector in North India, covering nine Indian states in East and Northeast India.

    Dan: After inspections are completed, do growers and manufacturers receive a report indicating what they’ve achieved and what improvements to focus on?

    Joydeep: Yes. They will receive a report indicating how they have fared vis-à-vis the standards. If there are shortcomings, we will help them improve the estate’s compliance with the standards. Most of our members implement the TRA recommendations, and some go beyond, by implementing new ideas. We also plan to share the best practices followed by certain estates/companies within the code if the concerned company agrees to share the same.

    Dan: Gardens that conform to various standards may tick the boxes and demonstrate lowered emissions, but standards alone do not ensure better tasting tea. Will you discuss the importance of teaching growers how to improve the quality of their pluck and the fundamentals of manufacturing good tea?

    Joydeep: That’s a very good question. It is not enough to lay standards and certify them on paper. We must walk the talk to teach our members better plucking and manufacturing. Although the perception of quality differs, the basic standards of plucking and manufacturing must be maintained. At TRA we have organized hundreds of onsite workshops for small tea growers on good plucking standards. Parallelly, we are aggressively organizing cold weather and early weather workshops for all our member estates on the care they should take for better plucking standards. 

    TRA has a dedicated tea manufacturing advisory service. The TMAS team which consists of a biochemist, a tea taster, and a tea technologist will hand-hold tea makers in tea factories and train them on quality manufacturing. Apart from our model tea factory at Tocklai, we are coming up with another model tea factory at Nagrakata in Dooars for gardens to experiment with quality tea manufacturing. We are also considering training estates on Orthodox tea making which should see good demand amongst our industry.

    Soil plays a significant role in long-term sustainability, and the method of regenerative agriculture developed by TRA will go a long way in addressing soil health issues at a much lower cost.

    Tocklai Tea Directorate

    Dan: Truly sustainable production is profitable, which, due to today’s costs, demands the additional revenue generated by value-added tea, right? Will you talk about how India can add value to generate more revenue?

    Joydeep: Tea is a commercial business for everyone in the organized sector, including the small grower. To produce truly sustainable tea, you must be economically sustainable. Ultimately if the venture is not commercially sound, no one will invest the money to make a plantation sustainable.

    Indian tea is sold mainly as a commodity; accordingly, as each commodity has its own cycles, it also has its ups and downs. It’s high time tea producers see merit in their produce and market directly as a brand. Today we have many channels to sell our products and many consumers. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise, and many tea companies tried out their own selling and distribution platforms. We need to scale this up fast to have visibility across the digital platform.

    However, with all efforts, if we can’t increase tea consumption, these measures will not bear fruit. Attracting millennials and GenZ to drink more tea is crucial. The tea industry needs to have a well-thought-out plan and execute it meticulously to attract them.

    Interestingly, the young generation, whom we target to drink more tea, are conscious of the environment and like to experiment. They have a strong digital footprint. We from the industry need to act together to position our product with the right message. The young generation surely will pick up the threads and make tea their preferred drink. If the new generation feels for a cause or a product, money is not an issue for them. So that’s how we can get our value from the tea.

    Download: Tea Research Association Vision 2030

    Tocklai Tea Research Institute

    Tocklai Small Tea Growers Training & Research Centre, Jorhat, Assam

    Good Agriculture Practices (GAP)

    Agrotechnology developed by Tocklai is primarily based on GAP principles and implemented through a strong network that provides advisory services. The network covers all of Northeastern India. One area of research is optimizing process parameters for black tea processing. ECM (Environmentally Controlled Manufacturing) and Model tea manufacturing enable tea processors to achieve ECM objectives. Fertilizers are checked for the presence of hazardous substances before application, and recommended pesticides are sprayed on tea bushes to ensure that no pesticide exceeds the permissible limit of MRL (maximum residue levels). Meeting the regulatory requirements in domestic as well as global markets under Sanitation and Phytosanitation (SPS) measures under WTO are one of the challenges to be dealt with appropriately in the coming years. TRA research efforts need to be continuously focused on ensuring quality at the farm gate. Research data is regularly updated to help develop quality standards for conformance.

    Assam’s Proposed Tea Policy

    Assam’s chief minister has proposed financing several activities to further develop the tea industry in terms of quality, and valuation, not only in tea but other by-products like tourism. Group A initiatives offer incentives for all gardens. Group B initiatives are exclusively for small growers. Together they will help establish brand identity for the state.

    Similarly, the central government of India is also promoting quality, product diversification, and market access. These initiatives require substantial money to be allocated both by the state government and the central government.

    The focus is on quality evaluation and new markets, a combination that will re-energize the sector and make it sustainable.

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