• 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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  • AVPA Competition Enhances Understanding of Consumer Preferences in Tea

    AVPA is a non-governmental, non-profit organization mainly composed of producers and taste enthusiasts. AVPA’s annual Teas of the World Contest offers more value than a medal. AVPA services include tasting workshops, technical support, and distributor staff training. During the past six years, the organization has elevated the status of tea and herbal producers, large and small, not only on the global stage but in their local markets. Teas must be traceable from origin and cannot be chemically flavored. A technical jury of professionals evaluates the teas, followed by a gastronomic jury of enthusiasts that mirror consumer preferences. The deadline to enter is Aug. 31, 2023. Register at AVPA.FR

    • Caption: Judges evaluate competitors for the gastronomic qualities consumers most enjoy
    Ksenia Hleap manages development and communications at AVPA
    AVPA Winners
    AVPA 5th Teas of the World Contest winners

    Sixth Edition Seeks to Elevate Less Well-Known Tea Lands

    By Dan Bolton

    Dan Bolton: Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s podcast.  

    Ksenia Hleap: Thank you for inviting me.  

    Dan: Will you describe the organization’s overall mission? Then, we’ll talk more specifically about tea and infusion plants.    

    Ksenia: AVPA (Agence pour la Valorisation des Produits Agricoles) is an agency for the Valorisation of Agricultural Products, and we have existed for 20 years. We first organized international contests for olive oils and other edible oils. The second contest was coffee roasted at origin. The third contest is Teas of the World. The youngest contest is for chocolates processed at origin. We are doing all these to valorize the producers in producing countries.  

    Dan: What’s new this year?  

    Ksenia: This year’s big difference from last year is that the registration form is 100 percent online. If entrants meet with any problems with the registration online, please get in touch with us. So if some producers have problems, they can call us, and we will help.

    Over the last five years, there’s been a steady increase in how many producers entered the competition. Last year, we had more than 300 participants, 33% more than the previous year.  

    Dan: I noticed that the representation is also broader. Different regions are appearing, and you’ve succeeded in inviting more of the 43 countries that produce tea into the competition.  

    Ksenia: This year was very rich in possibilities for us. And for some AVPA members to visit the producing countries. For example, our president, Phillips Juglar, in May, traveled to China, where he met many producers, with the possibility of explaining the objective of our contest. In parallel, our tea contest president, Carine Baudry, visited many tea-producing countries. We hope countries like Vietnam and India will join with more producers this year. One of our Jury members also represented AVPA at the tea symposium in Taiwan.  

    Ksenia: We are in contact with all producing countries for monovarietal teas, infusion blends, and herbal teas. The difficulties sometimes are just the way of communication because we contact the tea boards in every country. Unfortunately, not all tea boards respond. We are also contacting the associations and tea cooperatives. So, it depends on the countries and their desire to promote tea producers.

    Dan: When you look at the competition over the last few years, there have been many good quality teas. What do the winners have in common? What things typically mark the teas as exceptional, and maybe some insights into the people who are entering the competition and are successful?  

    Ksenia: All our participants are already winners because they dare to register for the contest and send their products. Unfortunately, not all of them are winners this year, but they will probably be next or another because they are doing a very great job. They are putting their hearts and their time into what they are doing.   The product recognition in Paris, in the capital of gastronomy, gives them a big possibility to communicate about this,  to showcase put the logo of the medal on their packaging, and to promote their tea or their products all over the world but first of all in their local market because this is an international recognition.  

    Some of them are doing great work. For example, one of our Taiwan winners decided to make a collaboration with a winning chocolate producer. The chocolate with black tea taste also won a gold medal.  

    Tea and Chocolate
    Tea producer Li Hsin Chang’s Xue Jian brand collaborated with DiRaja Chocolate to create a new taste of chocolate with black tea, for which DiRaja won a Golden Medal.   

    Ksenia: Tea producer Li Hsin Chang’s Xue Jian brand shared the winning experience of participating in the AVPA tea contest since 2018 and introduced the new chocolate contest to DiRaja, who participated and won the bronze in 2020. In 2023, together, they created a New taste of chocolate with black tea, and DiRaja won the Golden Medal.  

    See: More than a Medal

    Dan: That’s a wonderful story of how elevating one category complemented the other category, and it enabled two artists and producers to succeed in something they probably wouldn’t have done unless you had introduced them.  

    Ksenia: Yes, we are very proud of success stories like this. It is remarkable when initially only one producer from a country returns with a medal and communicates with the local or international press. And so his neighbors and friends see what he’s doing and ask, why not me? Why shouldn’t I try to do this? So, they are also sending their products, first of all, to compare themselves with others and to have the possibility to understand where they are in this market and what they need to improve because, after the contest, they have the feedback from our jury.  

    Dan: That’s important, too, right? Because everyone’s vision is to improve their product from year to year. In a competition, you can compare yourself to others and advance more readily because you can detect strengths and flaws in products, including your own.  

    Dan: Tell us more about the herbal (infusion plant) competition. There’s a monoculture category for Camellia sinensis. But there’s an equally important parallel competition in which you judge the best herbal infusions and tisanes. These include blends scented blends with and without added flavors.  

    Ksenia: Yes, this is the second part of our contest. All the producers of herbal teas are welcome to participate. There are categories for herbal teas and blends with the base of green, black, or other teas. There is a big demand for this kind of tea in Europe now. This part of the contest helps the producer to understand that herbal teas are not only for their health. There is a great philosophy about taste. Two AVPA Juries give an opinion representative of “French” culture and taste. With the different herbal teas, you can create a great product for your dinner and not only have health benefits.  

    Dan: Not just a medicinal, traditional use, but one that involves refreshment beverage occasions in restaurants and at home. Name a couple of popular herbal infusions. So, what are some new infusions that are coming to market?  

    Ksenia: It’s not new, but it’s very trendy. It’s Yerba Mate from Brazil and Argentina. Rooibos also started to have his place in the market. There are many others, like hibiscus, vervain, linden, etc. All herbal tea and the creation from plants and fruits are kindly welcome to participate in our Contes. We have coffee and cacao cascara.  

    Dan: Malotira (Cretan Mountain Tea) won a gold medal in 2021. Yerba Mate is growing in popularity in the Middle East. Because of its versatility, South African Rooibos is a world leader in the refreshment beverage category. Rooibos, which does not contain caffeine, is often blended with many of the same inclusions in tea blends. Will you share a closing word of advice on the gastronomic aspects of tea?  

    Ksenia: Take a fresh tea if you are hot in your place and take a hot one when you’re cold. You have so many fabulous countries of origin for tea, so don’t hesitate to taste the different ones.

    AVPA Registration Deadline

    Click to Register Monovarietals | Infusions & Blends

    Submit registration forms and samples before Aug 31.
    2022 Winners – Monovarietal Teas
    2022 Winners – Infusions, blends and scented teas

    All our participants are already winners because they dare to register for the contest and send their products.”

    – Ksenia Hleap

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    • Built on Beneficence

      Romesh Walpola, Chief Executive Officer of Tea Smallholder Factories, Ltd. (TSFL) in Sri Lanka, explains how the Colombo-based firm taps the output of one to 10-acre farms to produce approximately three million kilos of tea annually. Investing in smallholder training, wellness, and educational programs, including internships for second-generation farmers, earns the loyalty of thousands of small tea growers and top dollar for teas sold at auction. 

      • Caption: One way that Tea Smallholders Factories, a division of John Keells Group, invests in smallholders is by hosting events, including free health checkups pictured above, at which healthcare providers prescribe medicine to 1,021 factory employees and nearby community members supporting the Neluwa Tea Factory.
      Romesh Walpola, CEO, Tea Smallholder Factories

      Tea Smallholder Factories Earn Loyalty that Maintains Competitive Quality Teas

      By Dan Bolton

      In aggregate, farms of 10 acres or less contribute 77% of Sri Lanka’s total tea crop, according to Plantations Minister Ramesh Pathirana. That percentage has increased over time. Bought leaf factories purchase an estimated 70% of the tea grown by smallholders.

      Large estates own 56% of the 202,985 hectares under tea, according to the Sri Lanka Tea Board’s annual report, but contribute only a quarter of the 250 to 300 million kilos of tea processed annually. Sri Lankan smallholders cultivate about 44% of the land under tea, selling to large estates and bought-leaf factories. Only 18% of Sri Lanka’s factories process tea exclusively grown on their estate.

      All sectors compete at the weekly Colombo Tea Auction, under the aegis of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. Around 6.5 million kilos of tea are sold weekly at this global marketplace where quality is rewarded with the world’s highest average auction prices for black tea.

      Tea Smallholders Factories, Ltd. is an example of a successful public-private partnership, explains CEO Romesh Walpola. The company, which employs 411 workers, processes green leaf procured from 8,698 tea smallholders and green leaf collectors. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2023, TSFL reported an 85% increase in revenue totaling LKRs. 3.74 billion compared to 2021-22 and a profit before taxes of Rs. 440 million (growth of 1,845% YOY with a dividend per share of Rs. 6.67). TSFL accomplished these strong results during a year in which Sri Lanka’s total gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 7.8%.

      Tea Smallholder Factories Output

      Neluwa Tea Factory: annual production 883,000 kgs | 1,413 suppliers
      Halwitigala Tea Factory: annual production 888,000 kgs | 956 suppliers
      Hingalgoda Tea Factory: annual production 1,075,000 kgs. | 892 suppliers
      Kurupanawa Tea Factory: annual production 888,000 kgs | 925 suppliers
      New Panawenna Tea Factory: annual production 1,115,000 kgs | 1,473 suppliers
      Broadlands Tea Factory: annual production 952,000 kgs. | 3,100 suppliers
      Link to 2022 Annual Report | 2023 Annual Report

      Dan Bolton: Romesh, how competitive are bought-leaf factories in a premium black tea market like Sri Lanka?

      Romesh Walpola: We compete heads-up with some of the key private factories. Competition is fierce, as you would know. We are located mainly in Galle and Ratnapura and have one factory in Ginigathhena. The competition is in Galle, and Ratnapura is quite tenacious and very competitive. Most are private factories owned and operated by listed companies.

      Dan: The Sri Lanka Tea Board estimates growers earn about $6,000 (LKRs 2 million) per hectare annually. Yields average 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms per hectare. Input costs vary, and labor expenses are far lower for smallholders. Will you describe the typical smallholders that sell your factories green leaf?

      Romesh: On average, they own about an acre or less outright.

      Romesh Walpola, CEO Tea Smallholder Group
      Romesh Walpola, CEO of the Tea Smallholders Factory, a division of John Keells Group

      Dan: May I summarize the basics? Tea is grown as a cash crop mainly for export. Plantations and smallholders alike plant at a density of 5,000 to 6,000 bushes per acre. Smallholders manage a mixed use property acquiring and apply fertilizer and inputs for tea as well as home-grown food. Smallholders often involve their children and extended families in farming to lower labor expenses.

      Do the thousands of growers you work with produce tea in disciplined rounds? Or do they pluck on occasions when they’re not doing something else?

      Romesh: Yeah, they maintain between seven to 10 days of plucking rounds.

      Dan: Are they third-party certified? Organic?

      Romesh: Not really, not organic. There are a few smallholders who own organic acres as well. But very few.

      Dan: You explained that training and quality control are a big part of your contribution to their success.

      Romesh: Yes. We have our extension officers in the field on a daily basis. And they have little pocket groups that are educated on basic soil management, the type of fertilizer to apply, pruning cycles, and recommended plucking rounds, all that is needed to maintain their plots. We give that service to the smallholders, but apart from that, they do their own thing as well.

      Dan: It sounds like you are empowering these growers to become rural entrepreneurs, right? They control their fate. As growers, they maintain leaf quality. They must deliver a high percentage of fine-plucked leaves from each round.

      Romesh: That is one area that we are very particular. I mean, we don’t take just any leaf. We are very selective. We encourage them to bring a decent standard because, as you know, if you put some garbage in, you get garbage out, right, so you have to make sure your raw material is good for you to have an end product so we’re very picky in terms of you know, selecting a reasonably good standard of leaf.

      Dan: Do you incentivize quality.

      Romesh: Yes. We give them a small incentive for what we call super leaf. Let’s say the current standard of fine leaf pluck (two leaves and a bud) is at about 50 to 55% of what they pluck when you get something over 60 to 65%; then, we give them an incentive for that amount of leaf they bring.

      So that it’s, you know, encouraging them to raise the bar for themselves and get something back in turn. We teach them that the higher the tea price at the auctions, the higher the green leaf payment according to the tea board’s formula. So that’s the positive of this vicious cycle, we keep telling them.

      Dan: Have you established a minimum rate for green leaf, a price floor?

      Romesh: Most of the time, but there are instances we are not during the rush period. We look at what the competition is doing when there are lean months. And we try not to overpay because we don’t believe in, you know, just because the neighbor pays X, you go and try to match that? Because it has to make sense financially.

      Dan: It’s a business.

      Romesh: Exactly.

      Dan: And the nature of the business is that your costs fluctuate, as does the price at auction.

      Romesh: In the long run, if you go down that path of paying a rate based on what the neighbor is paying, it doesn’t make real business sense.

      What we do is add a lot of value to their livelihoods.

      • The Smallholder Tea Factories process 3 million kilos annually

      Key Performance Indicators (2023 Annual Report)

      Tea production in kilos2,463,0002,966,0003,631,000
      Net sale average USD | Rs./kg$4.82 | 1,554.58$2.03 | 653.67$2.06 | 664.54
      Revenue from Customers (USD)$11,614,000$6,262,000$7,278,000
      Profit after Tax (PAT) (USD)$864,000$47,500$206,400
      TSFL reported a 17.2% return on equity for the year ending March 31, 2023. Bought leaf is the single highest cost of sales, increasing by 96% YOY in line with the increase in the tea auction price. The price payable for green leaf is regulated by the Tea Board through the Tea Commissioner’s formula. TSFL purchased 12 million kilograms of green leaf during the fiscal year year while paying Rs. 2.88 billion to the green leaf suppliers. In 2021/22, TSFL incurred a cost of Rs. 1.47 billion to capture a green leaf supply of 14.5 million kilograms.

      Loyal Smallholders

      Romesh: We’ve identified that group of loyal smallholders who don’t go to any competition if they offer a few more rupees.

      I will give you some examples of what we are doing for them. Last year we completed 20 projects and initiatives to positively impact the communities surrounding our business operations.

      Just a month ago, we arranged the region’s largest health camp on our premises, so we had roughly 1,000 plus villagers and smallholders coming in to get their health checks. And that was a huge deal for them because some of them had never even had a simple blood sugar test so you could detect problems. Then this is what we do for the community.

      They are concerned about the next generation in tea, their children.

      There are scholarship programs that we are conducting for the schoolchildren in the vicinity, and for the next generation of smallholders, we offer internships to study the whole factory process and learn about manufacturing. Plus, we explain what happens after the dispatch so that they understand the sampling and laboratory testing that happens between the broker and buyer. Then we take them to a buyer and give them that full experience and exposure. And after completing that cycle, we will find them employment within the industry. They could eventually become a buyer or brokers — even own their own factories. So that’s the educational part that we’re doing.

      We do this on a regular basis training 11 interns last year. And once they finish, we give them a certificate. Young people leave our farms otherwise.

      Smallholder Profile

      Smallholder Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha, 62, farms an acre of tea on land where she and her husband also grow several cash crops, including spices, pepper, coconut, and bananas. The approximately 5,000 tea plants (Cultivar D2026) are not certified organic but are cultivated using organic practices.

      Neluwa Tea Factories Smallholder Supplier Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha
      Neluwa Tea Factories Smallholder Supplier Mrs. Chandra Jayasingha. Photo by Dan Bolton

      “The significance of social and relationship capital as a valuable
      asset for creating value will continue into the future, playing a
      crucial role in driving the sustainable growth and performance. Accordingly TSFL’s primary focus will be on sustaining our green leaf suppliers, especially small holder partners by providing value-added services to support sustainable agricultural practices and environmentally friendly approaches.”

      – TSFL 2023 Annual Report

      Dan: Sri Lanka’s tea industry, led by the tea board, plantation owners, and growers’ associations, have signaled their intent to make tea production sustainable.

      Romesh: Sustainability is something that we are also looking at. Smallholders are fully aware of, you know, its importance. Sustainable practices at the factories and by the company contribute to stickiness amongst loyal smallholders.

      So for us, it’s not about paying something a little bit more than the competition when taking leaf; it’s about actually deep diving into, you know, looking at enhancing the livelihood of the community and the smallholders.

      Smallholder Profile

      Dayananda Matarage, 67, owns the 10-acre Gulanahena Estate in Thiniyawala in the foothills of the Sinharaja Rainforest. The son of a planter, he produces 3,000 kilos of green leaves on six acres planted in TRI 2022-27 and 4042-49 cultivars. He first planted tea on 1.5 acres in 2001, expanding gradually, recently adding two acres. The main fertilizer is an organic compost, to which he adds bioliquids to enhance micronutrients. He does not use plant protection chemicals or herbicides. He hires local field workers part-time to pluck tea and harvest coconut, pepper, pineapple, sopa, rubber, papaya, and bananas, and he offers a homestay through Sinharaja Holiday Bungalows. Tea generates 75% of the farm’s revenue. A retired engineer, he makes a delicious homemade kombucha he shared with us in his kitchen with rice and coconut milk welithalapa and oil cakes.

      Neluwa Smallholder Dayananda Matarage
      Neluwa Smallholder Dayananda Matarage

      The COVID-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history resulted in an increase in poverty rates of up to 25% in 2022, a dramatic increase from 11.3% in 2019. Although one fourth of the country’s population has fallen into poverty, many do not receive monetary support from the government, largely due to the weaknesses of social welfare schemes. More than 50% of Sri Lanka’s poorest population is not covered by the government welfare programs”

      The World Bank
      • The International Labour Organization describes Sri Lanka smallholders as farming 10 acres (four hectares) or less. As defined in the Tea Control Act, Small Tea Holdings produced approximately 95% of the low-country tea, 59% of the middle-country tea, and 15% of Sri Lanka’s up-country tea in 2014.
      Dan Dines on Local Delicacy
      Dan snacks on local delicacies

      Visit Neluwa, Sri Lanka (Wikipedia)
      John Keells Plantations Services
      John Keells Holdings

      Neluwa Medagama Tea Factory
      • Dan traveled more than 1,500 kilometers during a 10–day visit to Sri Lanka in May 2023. My travels were sponsored by the Sri Lanka Tea Board, chaired by Naraj de Mel, with accommodations at the Tea Research Institute courtesy of Dr. K.M. Mohotti. “I’m deeply grateful for the joyful days spent with Pavithri Peiris, the tea board’s Director of Promotion, Gayan Samaraweera, Market Promotion Officer, and Chathura Fernando, Market Analyst. Gayan and Chathura photographed the scenes above.

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    • World Tea Academy Celebrates First Decade

      The World Tea Academy is an online resource offering comprehensive basic and advanced training for tea professionals and enthusiasts. The program has taught classes to more than 1,250 students from 64 countries. Director Lisa Boalt Richardson joins us for a conversation about the resilience and relevance of the Academy on its 10th anniversary.

      • Caption: Lisa Boalt Richardson was named director of the World Tea Academy in 2019.
      Lisa Boalt Richardson discusses the World Tea Academy’s accomplishments and future.
      Lisa Boalt Richardson
      Lisa Boalt Richardson, Director of the World Tea Academy

      World Tea Academy is as Relevant Now as When it was Founded

      By Dan Bolton

      Educator Lisa Boalt Richardson first began teaching tea professionals the basics of cultivation and processing and how to cup tea as an instructor with the Specialty Tea Institute. She later served as an STI board member. In 2015, Donna Feldman, the founding director of the World Tea Academy, recruited Lisa as a substitute teacher for the growing online program. Lisa advanced to assistant director in 2018 and succeeded Feldman when Donna left the post in 2019. In the decade since its founding, instructors have taught 5,200 classes. The Academy has awarded nearly 400 certifications since graduating its first class of 36 students in July 2013. Six certifications are now offered, including Certified Tea Sommelier, Certified Tea Specialist, Certified Tea Professional, Certified Tea Health Expert, Certified Tea Blender, and Certified Tea Aroma Expert.

      Today the Academy teaches four basic and four advanced classes monthly (22 classes in all) and enrolls between 150 and 230 students a year.

      The cost to become a Certified Tea Specialist is $2,173, which includes six three-week basic courses. Students must also complete one advanced course. To experience tea in their homes and offices, students purchase tea and supplies bringing the total expense to about $2,525.

      Dan Bolton: When the academy was founded a decade ago, what was the tea industry’s most pressing educational need? Who brought the spark to the fire?

      Lisa Boalt Richardson: George Jage, who founded World Tea Media, saw the need to modernize tea education. I think he was well ahead of his time. Online is everywhere now — here we are, recording an online podcast. But back then, it wasn’t that common. So, he had the vision to do this.

      He hosted Specialty Tea Institute classes at World Tea Expo and thought, “There’s all this demand. Why can’t we teach it online?” So, he chose Donna Feldman to lead the charge, but George was highly involved in the process in the early beginning.

      He helped Donna with guidelines like deciding that classes would be three weeks long. The need was to educate more people without having them travel and meet in person. They wanted to get more people educated more easily, but still with a solid tea education program.

      STI was around, but I don’t think the Academy was started to compete with the Specialty Tea Institute. I think the founders saw that people learn differently. Some people still don’t enjoy online classes. It’s just a different learning approach.

      So, if you need in-person classes, we always say World Tea Academy isn’t your thing. But if you can, I think many more people are adept at it because learning online’s just more common now. Back then, ten years ago, it wasn’t. It was a platform for educating more people and is still a highly qualified program with three weeks segments.

      World Tea Academy, Class of 2019

      Dan: George shaped the program, but Donna Feldman grabbed the reins, writing the entire curriculum. She was also a well-organized and able administrator like yourself. Will you articulate her vision as a gifted educator with a breadth of experience in the tea business?

      Lisa: I talked with Donna about this. And she said her father was an educator. She said putting together the classes just came naturally.

      She decided she would write classes ‘for what, when I started out in tea, I wanted to know.’ And I loved that because that was just so great,

      She was in tea for a long time and helped run a tea cafe with Brian Keating. And so, it was the right information to disseminate what was important to know about tea.

      I’m a very organized person. Having it succinctly put together — you take this many classes, you get this certification — it’s a very organized program. And that way, you’re not trying to sort out, ‘What do I need?’

      She’d already written the curriculum for STI, but it needed to be in a different format and taught in a different way. Our core classes, she wrote all of them, were built on basics, you know, core two is tea processing methods after making the tea, and it just evolved.

      She’s a very brilliant woman; I’m so honored that I had a chance to work with her.

      Dan: How did the academy curriculum differ from STI training?

      Lisa: I taught at STI and served on the board. I have a decent perspective of the difference. Because STI was on location, you had to jam-pack the day full. And it was all day for a class, sometimes two days. As a student, I remember, ‘Wow,’ this is overwhelming and exhausting.

      World Tea Academy is self-paced. You read the materials, watch the videos, and have a live instructor, not necessarily in the class, but always there to answer your questions, grade your assignments, and grade your test.

      People can still do their work, and they can do their classes on the weekends. And it opened up an international market, which surprised Donna and George the most.

      They thought it would be North America, the US, and Canada. It really did open it up to students in 64 countries to date.

      I think those are the main differences. It’s online, and it’s broken out into many segments. You can log on when you want to read, watch videos, and do your assignments. They have due dates, but you can do it anytime within the week to complete your assignment.

      Dan: The advanced classes teach blending and some aspects of business, such as health and enhancing aroma skills so that you can flavor tea. The advanced curriculum seems more focused on generating revenue, getting a job, and creating business opportunities.

      Lisa: The core classes are, you know, really the basics, are what we still focus on. That is important because so many people think, ‘I’m going to start a tea business, but I don’t know anything about tea,’ they get lost in the weeds. They don’t understand how to order from wholesalers. They don’t know anything.

      That changes once you start getting into the advanced classes. The blending classes are interesting. It is so popular. We’ve had 230 students take Advanced 11 (Blending-Flavoring-Scenting). It is remarkable because everybody’s like, ‘I want to have my own tea blend. I want to be a blender,’ but they don’t understand what that means. It’s not just like I’m going to whip up a recipe. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s very much an art and a science. The Advanced 11 course was already created, that was the first blending class, and I was working on the advanced classes with Donna. Scott Svihula and Brian Keating were a part of it.

      We got very advanced people, and there are formulas and calculations in those classes that will help people figure out difficult aspects. It’s not just about weight; it’s density. You can’t just put a heavy ingredient in with a light tea, or it will all fall apart. There are things to think about that occur during shipping. There are things to think about regarding price. You know, you might have this great tea, and it tastes fabulous, but you’ve priced yourself out of the market. You learn to ask why you need to create a new tea. Is there something else already on the market? There’s a whole marketing analysis to it to look to see what already is on the market. What are you creating that’s different and special?

      And there are the advanced organoleptic classes where students really begin understanding what’s happening. There’s a lot of science in the chemistry of tea and the biology of tasting tea. What am I tasting? And how am I understanding it and understanding what’s going on in your brain and your body? While that’s happening. So that helps people develop this organoleptically. In the beginning, many students didn’t know how to cup tea, and they wanted the teacher’s version of what I cupped.

      We’re all created differently. From the beginning, we have had a stance that we do not do that. Because what I taste isn’t what you’re going to taste. And what you taste needs to be important to you. You need to have a memory bank of what you know what things taste like. We encourage it. And it’s very hard initially because people don’t pay attention to what they’re eating and drinking and what it tastes like. And so we’re telling them to pay attention, go to the farmers market, and go to different tastings. Go to olive oil tastings, and salt tastings, and Scotch tastings, and wine tastings, visit the farmer’s market, and pick up all different kinds of fruits; you don’t even have to know what they are, just taste them. And get that in your memory bank. So that when you are cupping; when you are deciding how to blend all these herbs, botanicals, teas, everything, you have a name for it. What I call it isn’t important. It’s what you name it, and then it means something to you.

      Dan: We discussed how the Academy pioneered online education for professionals previously limited to training that occurs in tea rooms. What are the most pressing educational needs facing the tea industry today?

      Lisa: Well, I don’t know if they’ve changed that much. Tea is a 5000-year-old beverage. It’s got a long history. They are creating new blends and flavors, and there are new marketing aspects and trends, but understanding the basics is important; what it is, how it’s grown, where it’s grown, what it tastes like, and how to cup. People in today’s fast-paced society don’t want to take time to learn — they want to know.

      Tea is experiential. You can study tea all you want, but having the experience of cupping teas, tasting teas, understanding flavor profiles, understanding your market, and your consumer is really important to be a professional in the business.

      It’s embarrassing for some of our students to say, my customers asked me this, and I couldn’t answer.

      We get people from large and global tea companies to take the training they send their employees through. We get people from flavor companies, and we get entrepreneurs. We get some enthusiasts who want to know about tea to be better buyers of tea and experience it at a deeper level.

      We create courses when we feel the need. And we decided that the breadth and depth of six core and 16 advanced courses are important. I don’t know what else we can add, but we will create or create new classes if it comes up.

      We want to keep the curriculum up-to-date. We regularly updated our classes, we updated assignments, and we just added in some studies.

      Dan: You mentioned a lot of interest in the health aspects of tea.

      Lisa: People aren’t critically reading tea studies. And so when we updated our advanced Tea and Health class, I thought it was important to train students to read tea studies. We ask them to consider how many participants were there. ‘Did you look at that? Is that important?’

      Another very important thing is who sponsored it. Sometimes those sponsors do so to get the outcome they want. Was it or wasn’t it an objective study? Some things to think about are why there are fewer studies on black tea. Why are there studies on green tea? So I think we added that recently in the last two years to our advanced 10 to help students read through a study. We give them two studies with contradictory findings and ask, ‘What did you think when you read through it? And how and what do you decipher from it? Why are there different outcomes?’

      I think that was a good thing to add because, you know, you’re reading all these studies all the time on tea, and it’s important to understand how to read a study.

      Tea is a niche market. Here in the US, in North America, coffee is king. But tea has its place. People are finding even if they have a coffee shop; they need to offer tea. We have coffee shop owners and staff at coffee chains taking our classes. They see there is a need to understand it. Will a coffee shop have more tea than they have coffee? No. But they can meet demand from customers who don’t like coffee or when it’s later in the day, and coffee drinkers want something different.

      There’s always a market for good quality tea education. It’s just a matter of marketing helping it grow. Our main source of students is word-of-mouth and Google searches. Enrollment has stayed consistent over the years.

      Will it be a multibillion-dollar business? No, I don’t think so. But I think enrollment will be consistent. If supported.

      Will this Program Help Secure a Job?

      As one of the pioneering heirs of the WTA success story and being rewarded with the title “Tea Professional” in its inaugural course year, I can vouch for the generous wealth of knowledge contributed through its program. In holding the highest prestige of being a certified Sommelier of the “Tea Association of Canada,” which I still and will continue to be an avid advocate, I indeed consider myself privileged at that time to enroll in the inaugural professional program of World Tea Academy and to be exposed to its intense and extensive course content, to which itself is an endorsement. The knowledge gained through the WTA program has propelled me beyond limits in executing functions and tasks of responsibilities and, to many others, in fostering initiative. Job opportunities? Over the years, some of the frequent questions I’ve encountered are, “Can this program help secure a post”?, and “Will I be hired if I only have this on my CV”? And many similar anxieties. Absolutely! The knowledge gained at different levels of course curriculum is undeniable to the industry. It means so much to give back through a variety of channels and to make yourself available, useful, and an ambassador for the product. In conclusion, it is with sincere gratitude I wish the Academy many more landmarks of continued success. 

      Ravi Pillai  Dpm. (in Plantation Mgt)
      Director, Quality & Development |
      Certified TAC Tea Sommelier® | WTA Tea ProfessionalTM
      DAVIDsTEA Montreal, Canada

      The first class of World Tea Academy graduates, 2013. Ravi Pillai, first row, far right

      Dan: As we bring the interview to a close, will you share your personal Tea Journey?

      Lisa: Well, I just love tea. I got into tea 23 years ago, and I will never stop. Every week, I grow and learn. And I encourage our students to do that, saying, Okay, so you got a certification, that’s great. But that doesn’t stop it’s an organoleptic experience. If you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to continue to grow and learn and keep up with trends.

      So, loving the beverage definitely helps.

      One of my most joyous experiences was to start off with a student in core one. And they struggled; they didn’t understand it. The words weren’t coming to them. And we worked with them, and we worked with them, then they go on and take advanced classes. And I’m like, wow, look at you.

      I mean, it just brings me so much joy to watch them evolve into this to hear them say. I never thought I could have this tasting vocabulary. I never thought I would understand it to this level.

      That is just so rewarding. It’s so rewarding. So, for me being the director of the World Tea Academy, the greatest joy is watching the students grow.

      Download World Tea Academy Classes and Certifications
      Tea For Me blogger Nicole Wilson describes her experience

      World Tea Academy Class Deadlines

      Class Registration runs June 27 through July 31. Sessions open August 7 through September 3. Students who enter the code: TWTA10 get a discounted rate.
      Click to see the full year’s schedule of classes

      There’s always a market for good quality tea education.”

      – Lisa Boalt Richardson
      • Lisa Boalt Richardson has traveled the globe extensively, researching and learning from masters about tea and specialty tea. Forming “Lisa Knows Tea” in 2000, Richardson has consulted with numerous companies and Fortune 500s – including Lipton-PepsiCo, Unilever, and Bigelow – to help them develop products and launch new tea lines. She’s also trained employees at major brands about tea knowledge and service. Overall, Richardson is a sought-out speaker, industry expert, and educator skilled in teaching professionals and the public. Richardson authored three books on tea. The most recent is Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage  (Chronicle Books 2014). She’s also been featured in media, including The New York Times, NPR, Food & Wine, Fox News, BrandWeekNational Geographic, Discovery, HGTV Magazine, Chowhound, Women’s HealthReal Simple, Shape, and World Tea News.

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