• Q|A Sandip Thapa

    Sandip Thapa, the founder of CuppaTrade, an eMarketplace that enables bulk growers to sell online, says the newly launched B2B eMarketplace exploits new-age tech, including AI and VR, to offer the expanding segment of small tea growers access to a diverse and global base of tea buyers.  not interested in maintaining the status quo, “the old way of doing business needs an overhaul,” he says, adding, “We want to blow up the market basically, and to bring in efficiency, make trade much faster, make it extremely dynamic and bring the sellers and buyers closer.”

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    Cuppa Trade Founder Sandip Thapa on fixing the old way of doing business in tea.

    A Fresh Perspective

    Sandip Thapa started his career as a tea taster and auctioneer. He later spearheaded India’s first tea eMarketplace – the Jorhat Tea Centre, working with the Tea Board of India.

    Sandip Thapa, Founder CuppaTrade

    CuppaTrade is a newly launched B2B platform offering the expanding segment of small tea growers access to a diverse and global base of tea buyers. The platform exploits the new-age tech including AI (artificial intelligence) and AR (augmented reality) to connect tea producers across the world directly to buyers worldwide. It facilitates the sale of authentic GI tea to buyers, reducing cycle-time, ensuring quality, providing better renumeration to sellers and making procurement cost-effective for buyers.

    In this conversation with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman, Thapa describes a sales cycle that takes far too long, lacks transparency and favors large buyers. Stakeholders shows little interest in innovation. “The need of the hour is a fresh perspective,” he says.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: Congratulations on launching CuppaTrade. Will you tell us a little about it?

    Sandip Thapa: Thank you. CuppaTrade is an online marketplace catering to the tea ecosystem. We are focusing on the small tea growers’ cooperatives, the bought leaf factories, and the small producers. And we are increasing their buyer base. We are working on their market expansion, and we are going to the secondary and the tertiary buyers. We are connecting the small producers with a very large number of small buyers across the country. This is the plan in phase one, and in phase two we intend to open up for cross-border transactions as well, wherein we focus on the exports.

    We want to blow up the market basically, and to bring in efficiency, make trade much faster, make it extremely dynamic and bring the sellers and buyers closer.

    Aravinda: Looking at the Indian auction system, where did you feel there are gaps that needed to be plugged?

    Sandip: The entire process should have evolved. It is almost 180 years old and by this time everyone knows how tea is to be treated. So, the quality assessment is set, the pre-sale and the post-sale processes are set. What are the responsibilities of the seller? What are the responsibilities of the buyers? These are set and on the basis of these conventions, you see a lot of comfort in private sales. Wherein, the seller is sending samples directly from the garden; the seller is taking the onus of taking care of the quality and the buyer is taking the responsibility of timely payment or whatever the understanding is, with regards to paying prompts or credit terms.

    What we should have done is, in the auction system, we should have gone many years ago directly to ex-garden sales.

    Technology has yet to play a pivotal role in the ecosystem. So if it’s a broking house or an auction organizer, they could have come up with an app or platform wherein directly from the garden, the tea invoices for sale, could be uploaded and by the time it’s come to the warehouse, your kuchcha or the provisional catalog would be ready. They could have reduced the cycle time. And this is very easy. These are very common sense interventions. Nobody’s doing it, so we might as well do it through CuppaTrade.  

    Now, we have knowledge in the palm of our hands. Why can’t trade be that quick? You have the learnings of the marketplaces like, Amazon and Flipkart. Unfortunately the tea industry has been bereft of these innovations. You have pockets of innovation, but they’re very tiny. You have progressive sellers and buyers, that’s why you’ve seen the plethora of D2C brands coming in directly trying to sell from the gardens.

    So for us, the number one concern is the pace of transaction.

    Second is opening up of the market or the platform to add a very large number of buyers and sellers and to showcase small tea growers and producers because the kind of teas they are producing, although the volume is very small, has limited representation.

    Next you have to consider credit facility, with regards to receiving the material and making the payment, already set.

    It is a Tea Board run auction. The banks and fin-tech companies, could have easily opened up credit facility to the buyers or even to the sellers through the platform. That takes care of the working capital concern.

    CuppaTrade offers buyers four ways to complete a transaction.

    Finally, I feel it’s very restrictive in the sense that it’s not enough to have a tea board license if you are a buyer. Even if you have a license, you probably will not be able to operate out of any auction center if the committee doesn’t allow it.

    So the Buyers Committee is almost like a club. New buyers do get added in the auction system, but if you dig deeper, who are these new buyers? It’s the same old firms registering their new firm. So that is how the new buyers are coming in the platform. But it’s the same handful of 20, 30, 35 buyers. So these things should have evolved. Who should have anchored these? It could be the auction organizer, CTTA (Calcutta Tea Traders Association) or the GTAC, or STAC. It could be the Tea Board, it could be the brokers. But unfortunately, because the industry is so old, you have various interest groups and they run in their own direction. They have their own agenda, they have their own interests to fulfill, and that is how you see where the industry is at the moment.

    “The only segment that has made headway are the traders, packeteers, and merchant exporters. They buy low and sell high. That premium never returns to the small tea grower (STG) or producer (STP).”

    – Sandip Thapa

    Aravinda: In terms of price discovery and in setting prices, the auction offers the benchmark. How would CuppaTrade do that?

    Sandip: It’s very unfortunate because when you have a very limited set of buyers, price discovery will suffer. We respect the buyers version, because they also have their own interest to protect because they are looking for value. And with the commodity prices going up, it’s not just the tea price, you have other various costs which is going up, one has to control cost somewhere. Unfortunately, the producers are at a receiving end, where they don’t have much of a say.

    And you have to understand the buyers are mostly either traders or agents or packeteers in the auction system. So the procurement cost has to be low so that they make a larger margin. The platform has not been opened to the secondary or tertiary buyers, no one would want to go there and bring them onboard. Else, then what happens to the primary agents and buyers?

    We feel everyone can coexist. A small buyer can become a medium-large buyer. A large buyer can become a very large buyer because, when you look at the FMCG industry, everyone is going rural, everyone is going to tier-two, tier-three cities. Everyone is trying to get into just-in-time to fill the shelves, use technology so that inventory is just right and operational costs are down. Similar things could have happened, but when you have a very limited base, how would you expect a fair price discovery?

    Yes, you need discipline and you need to put systems in place. But why can’t teas be bought by international buyers at the same time? You have to have mechanisms in place. And it may not be suitable for all kinds of tea. That’s all right. But even on an experiment basis the platform should have been opened up. If it’s a very high quality tea, anyway it’s going to Europe, why can’t the importers be asked to be part of the platform. With a click, you would have expanded the market. And it would be all digital. You log in, explore the catalogue and you bid. How difficult can it be? And now we have working examples, it’s not that we are reinventing the wheel. It’s been many years that Amazon and Flipkart have been in our lives.

    If we don’t focus on an alternate, wherein we are speeding up the cycle time, we are reducing the inventory turn-around or providing easy credit in a transparent and open manner from the platform, then when?

    Even for that matter sampling. If you go to a buyer’s place, a fairly large or medium sized buyer, the amount of samples they get, it’s humanly not possible to taste all those teas. In many cases, they know what a garden or a particular mark is making. They know the flushes and they know the quality that would be coming out at any particular point in time. So it’s just the type samples they would see seriously at the start of the season or flush, and occasionally the usual sale samples, that’s about it. They do not have the bandwidth to see all samples, because they’re buying from auctions, they’re buying from private sale, they have 2, 3, 4 local brokers sitting outside the office with the samples pushing for sale.

    For certain category, you have to see the sample and then only purchase, definitely. Why not? But not for all categories. If you look at the BLF category or the variety that is mostly bought within a particular price range, that anyway is bought on the basis of touch and feel. No one would make the cups and taste. That category is increasing. So if you do something about it, digitize it or have a data set, that one can refer to, instead of just receiving sample, it would make things easier for both buyer and seller.

    Here also, CuppaTrade will be using a lot of tech like digital catalogue to make catalogues a bit more interesting and offer more than an Excel sheet; Augmented Reality so that buyers don’t have to go through physical samples. This will save them a lot of space and time. And with our quality assessment, it’s going to be very interesting. They will be able to buy teas on the go, even if they’re travelling or wherever they may be stationed. Once fully ready, we’ll showcase it and we’ll take feedback from the stakeholders. So far it’s been very, very encouraging.

    Aravinda: I would also think it addresses one of the concerns that producers have about how many samples they send. Small producers can’t afford to send so many samples in the hope that they get somebody to taste the tea and set a price for it.

    Sandip: Correct. So while we are building the AR module, we have already taken steps to get into focused sampling. The process begins right from registration. It’s very thorough. It’s a two step process, where initially, the buyer just uploads the basic details. Then the team sits with the buyer over a call and captures which grades do they buy, at what levels, what are their preferences and so on. And then we also push or showcase the teas that they’re not purchasing. And that is how we nudge them to try new varieties and steadily expand the market.

    You would be surprised and happy to know that while it’s been only about three months that we are active and live, we’ve handled teas from Arunachal, Nagaland, Himachal, Upper Assam and South India. And of all shapes and sizes. It could be a five kilo pack, it could be a two kilo pack, all are welcome; green tea, oolong, orthodox, tippy, non tippy, CTC, many varieties.

    When we discuss with buyers who mostly deal in CTC, Bolder Grades, Dust and so on and so forth, we ask them, if they would buy green tea as well, or would they be interested in Arunachal Orthodox or some other varieties? They usually say, “No, we do not deal in these teas.” Then we counter, “You haven’t dealt because you haven’t had a platform where you could be assured of a constant supply. Here is your chance, we are showcasing these variety and sending you a few samples.” We encourage them to test it out with their clients, and tell them that now they have a seasoned partner in CuppaTrade who can offer a smooth supply. So this is how we are expanding or helping the small producers expand the market.

    Aravinda: The traditional auction system, especially with the mix of commodity and CTC and Orthodox (ODX) has a very complicated grading system that is very intimidating for any new buyer. Unless they already have a sense of all these finer differences between grades.

    Sandip: It’s a very interesting point. We have a plethora of grades and most are not required. We had discussed this with Tea Board earlier. Everyone agrees that we need to reduce the numbers and have only the standard ones like you find in Sri Lanka. But here comes the problem, when you say, a particular grade, let’s say a BOP or a BP, it varies between garden to garden because of the sizing of the grains. And that happens because of quality of mesh in sifters, as it varies between manufacturers. You’d be happy to note that during our quality assessment, we are pointing out the mesh size for each invoice.

    This is a foundational work that we have started wherein we are providing as many data points as possible for the comfort of buyers. We are laying this foundation so that slowly, we may do away with the samples altogether. This may sound impossible now, but with technology, this is possible.

    We realized early, that after a point, when we have lakhs of buyers in the platform, it’ll not be possible for us to send out samples even if we do focused sampling.

    It’s a process. Sellers realize it. Buyers also realize that there are too many grades in the market. We need to reduce it. We are talking to Associations too, because it reduces cost for the seller as it helps in streamlining packaging, and is less confusing for buyers.

    Aravinda: With the small tea farmer and the bought leaf factory how do you ensure, because the volumes are so small how do you ensure there’s a sufficient supply of a particular tea, a particular grade, which has already found a buyer and who’d like a, the assurance of a steady, consistent supply

    Sandip: For stabilizing the supply chain for a buyer with a particular set of variety, we have a mechanism for requirement matching. We use AI to educate the platform that for a particular buyer, a certain category of tea is suitable. Thus, after a point, when we have enough data, the platform will give us and the buyer suitable recommendation basis her buying history. Then, we shall position the new marks accordingly. This way we are trying to bring some semblance and ensure that the buyers have the required supply.

    Aravinda: And I think there’s also the opportunity to take back market insights to producers, or to the factories, to the small tea growers, and say, okay, I have an estimate of how much tea of a certain grade, of a certain kind at a certain price band in demand and sort of establish those sort of conversations also

    Sandip: Yes, this is what the market is demanding and perhaps they could tweak manufacturing to stay relevant and take advantage of the prevailing market. We want to rely on data and market feedback for this. We are earnest in developing a robust database and analytics to improve all-round offerings.

    The other thing with small growers is that, they are defined by one segment, but within that segment itself, there’s such a huge range, isn’t it? There are those who are producing these uber specialty and extremely fine quality tea, and there are those who are still starting out and figuring out a way around making tea. So how do you then navigate this spectrum of small tea growers?

    We have already faced this kind of a dilemma because you have certain bought-leaf factories who are working very closely with smart growers and they’re putting in 70% to 80% fine leaf in manufacturing. But the moment the buyer hears it’s a bought leaf factory, the perception gets colored. It’s a constant education process with them. And we insist that they shouldn’t judge either by the mark or where it’s coming from. They should assess and pay only basis the quality.

    It’s a process because the perception of BLF is very strong. It’s a volume game for BLF producers with less regard to quality. But when you come across exceptions, you’ve got to fight for them.

    Here, we have an advantage because the buyer set is very large and it’s increasing every day. So I think from the traditional platform point of view, when they are selling through CuppaTrade, the biggest advantage is the market base. There is somebody who’s working hard towards positioning them, and we do get into a bit of confrontation with buyers, and urge them to stick to apple to apple comparison on quality because we know what we have, we know the producers, the team and advisors have gone to the factory, we click pictures, we make videos, and we know some of them are very disciplined producers and the result is in the cup. When you taste you know immediately that these have been manufactured with very finely plucked leaves and they’re different. Some of the invoices are even better than many agency gardens, I must say.

    It’s a constant positioning that we have to do. And that is how you set the mark, because it’s not just the seller who’s saying that her tea is good, but the platform too, which is supposed to be unbiased. And because we have a large buyer base, it becomes somewhat easier for us to represent those kind of teas.

    Aravinda: CuppaTrade is not just a trading platform, it’s also supports a community where conversations can happen, insights can flow from one to the other. And you facilitate, that direct dialogue.

    Sandip: We are not traditional brokers. We are not traders. We don’t want to keep a margin. We are very clear on that. Whatever benefit or the higher price that the seller gets, which the buyer is providing, it has to go directly to the seller. We have a service fee. We charge the sellers, we charge the buyers, but that’s about it. We are pure facilitators providing a platform where everyone is welcome to interact, negotiate in a secure, safe environment, while we take care of quality and payments.

    Aravinda: So what is the volume you need of buyers and sellers to make CuppaTrade viable and breakeven?

    Sandip: We’re going for all. We’re going for everybody. And it’s because India itself is a very, very large market. If you look at the figures, I think the timing of CuppaTrade is apt.

    If you look at the auction versus private sale data, auctions are usually around 45% annually. And there is a constant shift towards private sale. We anticipate that this shift will keep increasing. Within a couple of years it will be a stark 40-60 in favor of private sale. CuppaTrade operates in the private space and we don’t conduct auctions. It’s a marketplace, where buyers and sellers negotiate directly and finalize the price and quantity.

    As far as buyers are concerned, internally we have taken a target to have about over a lakh (100,000) of buyers across the country. At the moment, we are somewhere near 500 buyers, and we have not even stepped up because, it’s end season in North India. We are focusing on South Indian producers right now. By late February or early March, we shall go all-out and hasten the onboarding process. It’ll be pedal to the metal, so to say.

    We want to go to the hinterlands. We want to go to the destinations, hold buyer-seller meets, do the legwork, also to make the onboarding process as smooth and easy, help them understand our processes, our quality assessment, show the AR version of the sample, gauge their comfort level and tweak accordingly. Again, it’s a process and it’ll take some time and as you know the industry is averse to innovation and tech, we anticipate it’s going to be a long haul. But yes, for us, the figure is over a lakh of buyers on the platform.

    Aravinda: How difficult is it to conduct transactions on CuppaTrade? What are buyers and sellers required to do to join the platform?

    Sandip: It’s very easy. You go to the website CuppaTrade.com and click Marketplace. You identify whether you are a seller, buyer, or both. And the registration form opens up. Many requirements are not mandatory. It’s left to the seller and buyer. That is the first step of registration. Then the team calls and we get into the detailing bit. So it’s that easy and it’s completely free. We don’t pay to be members of Amazon or buy from Flipkart. So that’s the model.

    Aravinda: And it comes directly the product itself, eventually comes directly from the producer’s side, the seller’s side?

    Sandip: Yes, fresh and in the shortest possible time. We’re removing many layers of traders or intermediaries. In most cases, it’ll be between seller to destination buyer. For certain categories it could be the intermediaries who would be feeding the destination. We are not averse to, agents or traders being in the platform because we are focusing on the ecosystem. Where we bring advantage for both seller and buyer is better remuneration, a large variety in the shortest possible time on a one-stop shop platform with tech driven value-adds. There’ll be many segments of buyers who will be very interested in the platform.

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  • Tea Retail Powers Perception

    Retail must do the heavy lifting in realigning the marketing of Indian tea. While online transactions are more common now than in past years, neighborhood kirana stores are the most commonplace Indians purchase packaged tea, accounting for 70% of sales. Supermarkets are the fastest-growing sales channel for packaged teas. Only 7% of tea is sold at tea shops that specialize in loose-leaf offerings. Household penetration is 88% and even in rural areas 75% of households now purchase packaged tea, but on average only 22% of households report spending more than INRs200 per month on tea, according to the Tea Board of India.

    • Caption: In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954. Nikita Mittal serves a cup to her father Vikram.
    Aravinda Anantharaman speaks with tea retailers on how marketing is changing the perception of tea.
    Celestè Tea Bar marketing its retail tea bar and packaged teas at a local tradeshow

    Convincing Customers to Take that First Sip

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    On the road between Siliguri and Darjeeling, a small tea stall would beckon visitors to stop for a break as they approach Margaret’s Hope Tea Estate. The estate ran the modest stall for years, the only convenient place for tea during the three-hour journey, says Atul Asthana, managing director Goodricke Group.

    In 2016 Goodricke refurbished and rebuilt this stop to create Margaret’s Deck, a restaurant and tea lounge that overhangs the cliff and overlooks the valley. The tea lounge is now listed as the No. 1 restaurant in Kurseong on Trip Advisor. It is both a popular stop and a significant marketing asset that invites visitors to sample and savor the tea and purchase packets to take back with them.

    Nothing sells tea better than sampling. The more people touch it and try – the more they buy. Goodricke opened more lounges, Queen’s Deck in Mumbai at the iconic Tea Board of India office, another one in Mirik, near their Thurbo Tea Estate, in Kolkata and Madhya Pradesh. The middle and north Indian belts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab are important markets for the group. In Kolkata, they have found their most discerning audience. Goodricke’s roasted Darjeeling tea remains the highest-selling brand in Kolkata, a city of 15 million.

    Long a hub for the British East India Company, the site of tea auctions, and a port city, Kolkata is the tea capital of India. It is the largest city in the state of North Bengal (the same state as Darjeeling) and is adjacent to Assam. Darjeeling tea is the tea of choice for the Bengalis but Kolkata is a massive and mature market for tea. It is also one of the few cities where the diversity of India’s taste for tea is on display. Notable among the more than 100 leaf shops include Lakshimi Narayan Tea House, Tearaja, Dhruba Tea Centre, Sharda & Sons, Subodh Brothers, Star Tea, and the Karma Kettle.

    In Delhi, Mittal Teas opened in 1954 to sell a range of teas and continues to be the store of choice for connoisseurs in the capital. Nikita Mittal, who has joined the family business, speaks of how access to tea can influence customer preferences, “Every walk-in is treated like a VIP, try to give them the best experience. And once they have tasted a good quality tea, whichever they choose black, white, green, chai, they don’t like going back to the average teas. So, that’s how we try and do it – one cup at a time.”

    “There is a restaurant in Gurgaon which is associated with us,” says Nikita, “The F&B Manager takes each and every thing about his beverages so seriously. How he presents the tea, the teapot, the timer… he educates the customer that you have to take it out in three or four minutes and that if you over brew it will ruin the tea if you under brew you don’t get the flavor. Those experiences matter and people always remember something better, that when they’re having a good time, a tea or coffee really added to the experience.”

    In 2008-09, Dhiraj Arora and Priti Sen Arora started Karma Kettle in Singapore, as a restaurant serving Anglo-Indian food. The tea menu was a big part of the restaurant and its experience. They had a ringside view of the explosion of the beverage market, as brands began to offer custom blending, pairing tea and food. It was an eye-opening experience, they say. Five years later, in 2011-12, the couple decided to return to India. At that time, India was waking up to green tea. Dhiraj’s family owns and runs Cochrane Place in Kurseong, a boutique hotel with Makaibari, Ambootia, and Castleton tea gardens as neighbors. Buyers from Europe who stayed at Cochrane Place introduced Dhiraj to blending botanicals with tea. All of these experiences led them to embark on their tea journey.

    In 2013, Karma Kettle launched as a tea brand, starting with ten teas that included four blends. As a brand, it reflects the couple’s aspirations — vibrant, youthful, with a love for travel. Their teas were marketed as “voyages in a teacup.” The teas were named for favorite destinations or a mood. “We wanted to give identity to a blend; we wanted our teas to ignite a sense of wonder,” says Priti.

    Part of their success is attributed to the fact that India was not only a liberalized market, but the urban Indian was now well-traveled and keen to seek experiences, whether here or abroad. “Experience” is a word that comes up often in the conversation on marketing tea. In 2016, Priti and Dhiraj opened the Karma Kettle tearoom in Kolkata as a space for people to gather. “Tea is about community,” they say, and they hosted guests for talks, tea tasting sessions, food, and tea sessions pre-pandemic.

    Proving that access to teas need not be upscale is the story of the tea Vandis. In the Nilgiris, tea vandis or trucks were launched last year by INDCOSERVE, the government-run cooperative of small farmers and bought leaf factories – the largest in India. In an earlier interview with Tea-Biz, Supriya Sahu (IAS), CEO of INDCOSERVE, had said, “Our factories were making losses. They did not explore other avenues, newer markets. They were quite content within the space that was made available to them… The tea market is volatile; we were vulnerable. Therefore there was a need for us to kind of explore other avenues. Why not explore selling packaged teas, that can be displayed on the shelf. If you want to sell, you have to create a brand.”

    INDCO Vandis
    INDCO Vandis offer convenience and expand the distribution of INDCOSERVE’s brand.

    Sahu launched the Indco Tea House at Kattabettu and Bedford in the Nilgiris, but the striking red trucks parked at popular tourist stops in the hills are what have caught public attention. They serve tea – INDCO’s brand of tea – and snacks. “Our dream is that we should be like Café Coffee Day chain or Starbucks. Why can’t we, a home grown outlet, be like that?” Sahu had asked. INDCOSERVE’s branding and tea vandis show how even small farmers can retail and find an audience.

    Online vs. offline

    But no matter what scale or legacy, whether they have a store or long history, everyone’s now online. Despite a robust brick and mortar presence, Mittal too expanded to the online space, adopting e-commerce as an avenue for tea sales.

    The extensive proliferation of mobile phones, access to the internet, and the burgeoning of smartphones have had a definite impact on the Indian consumer. It has also meant that it’s no longer the urban Indian who is the end consumer but significantly includes those who live in smaller towns, who aspire to a different way of life, and who can access products as quickly as an urbanite. The opening of markets has impacted consumption patterns, and it has led to several small brands coming up without the need to invest heavily in marketing.

    However, e-commerce is not just a platform for brands. Producers now find that they too can retail. Luxmi Tea is one of such brands that branched into digital with the pandemic. In an earlier interview, Rudra Chatterjee, managing director of Luxmi Tea, had said, “This was the first time that we sold tea directly to consumers. And the reaction is amazing because, after all as growers of tea, it’s great to hear from someone who’s drinking that tea at home. Also, for us to get feedback one week or two weeks after we produce the tea… questions on how to brew the tea, pictures of how they are drinking their tea … It’s been energizing for me and my colleagues who are growing the tea in the estate.”

    Jagjeet Kandal, industry veteran and currently Country Head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, endorses it, “Producers are at the mercy of the market… If the market doesn’t pay them, what are you doing? You can’t keep blaming the market. As a businessman, you have to say, I will get out or change the business model. Every estate should put out 5-10% in packets.” It takes very little investment if one leverages online channels. If more producers did that, it could create the ripples of change because e-commerce and digital marketing have opened the tea market, as it did other FMCG products.

    But there’s another side to this story. While starting digital, Karma Kettle soon opened a tearoom in Kolkata. Here lies another lesson: marketing tea is not exclusively choosing digital or offline but a blend of both.

    Tea vs. blends

    Karma Kettle does not own a tea garden. They see this as an advantage in the teas they bring their consumers. From tea farmers to suppliers of herbs and botanicals, they continue to service connoisseurs alongside those who seek flavored blends. Today, they have 100 tea blends.

    The distinction in the market segment is essential. In Assam, Raj Barooah, after entering his family’s tea business, was attracted to the idea of retailing. He eventually started Rujani Tea, a specialty tea brand. In a blog post, he writes that 1999 and 2006 were the worst period for the tea industry in nearly a century. “Prices fell, productivity was low, and demand for CTC teas in the Indian market plunged. It was very, very difficult to keep going.”

    From 2007 onwards, Barooah pursued the commodity trade, increasing his factory’s capacity. “But there was no joy in it for me. It brought back the old dream of doing something different, of creating a brand.” Traveling to China changed how he viewed the tea trade and his views on selling directly to consumers. Raj launched Rujani, named for his two daughters, as a brand that would represent the best whole leaf teas made at Aideobarie. Raj attempted to break the mold, assuming that Assam teas are CTC teas.

    The pandemic certainly changed how producers and brands view the domestic market. In 2020, the lockdown was announced just as north India geared to harvest its first flush. Closing borders, stores, and hospitality meant that consumers turned online. And producers and brands took steps to meet them here.

    Celestè was born during the pandemic, started by Anubha Jawar, who grew up amid tea in Siliguri. Celeste’s blends are their USP, with ingredients chosen to make them palatable to the Indian consumer. Here too, there is a focus on the experience. Celestè teas come in lovely packaging, but Anubha quickly points out that packaging is only part of the experience.

    Anubha Jawar

    She would instead focus on conscious consumption, whether in the material used to package the teas, the tea bags, or the quality of ingredients used.

    Celestè, like Karma Kettle, has succeeded in making tea appealing to a younger market by being a vibrant brand, more invested in flavors rather than tea’s snob value. Because that’s the other problem, Indian marketers will have to address — creating a new market for tea among India’s youth, something that coffee has succeeded in and will be hard to replace.

    Coffee’s success in India is credited to Cafè Coffee Day (CCD), a brand started by Chikmagalur coffee planter Siddhartha VG. Back in the late 90s, he set up “cyber cafes,” which were spaces where one could buy coffee and surf the internet. The personal computer and the internet had not increased in homes yet, so this was a huge success. CCD became a chosen hangout spot for the young and continues to be a popular option 20 years later, despite the arrival of Starbucks. Jagjeet points out another learning from coffee. “See what coffee did,” he says. “They never boast of the amount of coffee they sold, they boast of tastes… this how they become icons. They are selling on experience.”

    Chaayos and Chai Point are brands that constructed hundreds of outlets across the country, offering a range of teas and snacks. The audience for these are office goers who need a quick bite and want a reasonably good cup of chai. Both brands also offer chai in takeaway flasks that preserve the heat. A quick look at the menu points to what Indian consumers want — chai and green tea.

    The newest brand to enter the fray is Teas from India, launched in December 2021 by Amalgamated Plantations Limited. “Our journey with tea is intertwined with the history of tea in India. With our 150 + years of experience and expertise, no one is better placed to unleash tea’s potential by bringing the best from bush to cup. Combining tradition and innovation to put quality first, our vision is to grow profitably and sustainably by serving as the industry pioneer of tea in India. In doing so, we wish to contribute and be present in the entire value chain of tea,” says Vikram Gulia, Managing Director at APPL.

    APPL already had popular brands, some named for its estates, like Hattigor, which caters to the suburban and rural heartland and northern markets, and Majuli Mist; a roasted tea made for the West Bengal market. APPL launched Teas from India, targeting the millennial shopper looking for exclusivity and willing to pay the price for it.

    Teas from India was chosen as the name to represent APPL’s legacy and the significant search engine advantages it offers, which is helpful as it is marketed more heavily on digital platforms rather than offline channels. The brand’s raison d’être is to showcase the diversity of India’s tea regions by acknowledging them, whether Darjeeling and Assam or the Nilgiris and Dooars and even Himachal and Sikkim. And taking cognizance of consumer preference, they offer a range of blends.

    In the past regional preferences could be addressed by packaging various grades. Product diversification is more complex today, leading producers to keep up with trends — seen with the proliferation of butterfly pea flower tisane, turmeric blends, and, more recently, immunity teas.

    The pandemic jumpstarted the category of immunity teas, and nearly every brand quickly added it to their portfolio, catering to a health-conscious Indian segment.

    Green tea and chai

    Green tea has risen in popularity in the last ten years; although it has been around for longer, it was made for an export base. Its marketing has been one of the recent successes tea has enjoyed, and the marketing narrative has hinged on its supposed properties to detox and help its drinkers enjoy wellness. Both Tata Consumer Products and Hindustan Unilever led the green tea marketing with TVCs, ads, and young Bollywood actors as ambassadors, emphasizing the influence mass media and big brands have in shaping consumer preferences.

    But this has not been leveraged in creating a market for Assam orthodox tea. Ajay Jalan of Mokalbari Tea Estate and Chairman, Tea Association of India, says, “The cup that Assam produces — most of the consumers are not aware of it. We realize that more we give it to someone and get a repeat enquiry. The aroma and malty flavor that Assam teas have is not seen elsewhere. The market has blended teas of different origins and the true flavor of Assam tea is lost.” He adds that direct to consumer has started in a small way, but gardens don’t have the kind of resources it needs nor the marketing insight.

    The market share lies with Tata Consumer Products, Hindustan Unilever, and Wagh Bakri. They continue to influence consumer preferences. Says Kandal, “The big packeteers are the ones who create the impression with the junta. Tea needs to be upscaled at even the lowest price point. Why are they not looking at explaining the value that even the cheapest tea brings to the consumer? If the poorest of the poor is buying it, he gets some value. Can they talk about the value?”

    Jalan agrees, “The teas with major packeteers have been so commoditized that it does not encourage consumers to have more cups. Per capita consumption is still low.” He speaks of the need for a digital platform to promote Indian teas within the domestic and international markets. The Tea Association of India has proposed a Public-Private Partnership model, with producers and the tea board participating in creating the platform that will actively promote specialty tea.

    Every tea producer recognizes the need to diversify and meet consumers halfway. Goodricke started making masala tea post-COVID. Their most recent release is a range of iced teas. Made from green tea sourced from their gardens, Badamtam and Barnesbeg, and bottled in glass, they see a successful pilot run in Delhi with Kolkata to follow. Dorje Teas in Darjeeling has launched a cold brew for the domestic market, Gopaldhara is making red oolongs, and Woolah in Assam is making bagless tea dips… there is diversification and innovation taking place, which may be the shift in India’s tea narrative.

    But what of the consumer? Are they ready for a new way of drinking and enjoying tea? On the one hand, more than 50% of tea drinkers are from rural India, for whom price is a deciding factor. On the other hand, millennials with infamously short attention spans need to be hooked in the first 10 seconds of a post or a reel. The problem again returns to which India and which segment brands are pursuing. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. As many varieties of tea that the country produces, so too are the pockets that make up its markets.

    What has changed is really access, anyone can order tea from anywhere in India, and more often than not, two-day delivery is possible.

    Jagjeet Kandal

    “Tea needs to be upscaled at even the lowest price point. Why are brands not looking at explaining the value that even the cheapest tea brings to the consumer? If the poorest of the poor is buying it, he gets some value. Can they talk about the value?

    – Jagjeet Kandal, IDH The Sustainable Trade Initiative

    Stories that sell

    Rujani’s Raj Barooah chose to brand his leaves as whole leaf and not specialty tea. In his blog post, he writes, “I have come to realize that every specialty tea has to have a story behind it, sometimes true and sometimes, a better story than the tea. The success of this storytelling as a means to market the tea is evident, and has played an important role in birthing the category of specialty tea.”

    For brands, “stories” are the marketing hook. And there are plenty of stories from the tea lands of India, whether history, conservation, culture, communities, or even ghost stories! But few have been able to exploit these stories memorably. The narrative continues to be half-hearted rather than sustained attempts to tell India’s story even though the customer seems eager to hear more.

    Perhaps only Darjeeling has succeeded in offering customers a sufficiently intriguing story. There are many stories, from the story of young Margaret, who fell in love with the estate her father ran and promised to return but didn’t. Or, Jungpana and how it got its name from the dying and thirsty nobleman. One raconteur has used his skill to put his garden on the map: Rajah Banerjee, the former owner of the Makaibari tea estate.

    When Rajah speaks of Darjeeling, it’s to describe it as a “magical, mystical land.” Rajah’s family-owned Makaibari for several generations, and in 1970, Rajah came home from England, where he was studying. In a tale he narrates expertly, he talks about how he felt the trees were calling to him to save them. One listens raptly as he speaks because he tells the story so well. Makaibari tea has reached the Queen of England in its time if one must measure its brand success. As a brand, it was ‘organic’ before that became a buzzword and ‘sustainable’ before we had even started talking about it.

    “I was just having a love affair with this tract of land,” he says. “If you are passionate about whatever you do, whatever you’re committed to, you can market it. No tea is unsaleable. Every gram of tea can be sold. What you have to do is make that extra yardage to find a home for it.”

    Makaibari has been a rare Darjeeling garden to market early to a domestic base. Rajah recounts being away in Berlin when he was at a store and saw a packet of tea that claimed to be Darjeeling but was “packed in Sri Lanka.” Before Darjeeling was granted protection of the European Union’s GI (Geographical Indication), it showed him how much had been given away in the opportunity.

    In Darjeeling, Rajah opened up Makaibari to visitors. On weekends, he says, tourists arrived in large numbers, and every visitor got a tour of the factory and had a taste of tea. Everyone who walked out left buying a packet of tea. It was effortless marketing and helped build the brand. It was an experience people remembered.

    For the mass market, tea has been sold on other narratives. One of the early TVCs for HUL’s Taj Mahal Tea featured tabla maestro, Zakir Hussain, endorsing the tea. Keeping the brand’s link to classical music intact, the most recent commercial for the Taj Mahal brand asks consumers to make time for tea even as classical music plays on, appealing to refined tastes.

    Both TCPL and HUL have sought storylines that appeal to a higher ideal. For Tata, the Jaago re campaign was introduced in 2008 and is still in use. It started as a wake-up call to vote in the elections and expanded to various civic issues. HUL’s advertising covers many social issues, whether secularism, inclusion, or speaking up. Emotion and nostalgia continue to be compelling marketing narratives, especially for chai.

    The challenge for new brands is in the lack of resources to match these expensive ad campaigns and find a narrative that is emotive and memorable and their own.

    Because the best farm stories come from producers themselves, they are beginning to realize the interest consumers have in getting a peek into the world where their tea is grown and manufactured. And gardens are rich with these stories. Whether in how people live and work, flora and fauna, the plants, the factory… tea gardens are little worlds unto themselves; everything is potentially a story. An elephant herd passing through makes us stop and gasp with wonder; the paw print of a leopard on a muddy track is fascinating, as much as the journey of the leaf from the field, through the machines, and out.

    The big question

    Even as we speak of how digital is changing and transforming how consumers find, source, and access new teas, Raj Barooah voices caution. Sales are taking place on Amazon’s marketplaces, not the brand’s website. He points out. “Single digital websites like Rujani are not drawing traction. People prefer marketplaces. That’s where the whole thing is tilting. Even the bigger tea brands online are selling mostly on Amazon. “ He cites the story of Teavana in the US, the tea brand founded in 1997, bootstrapped but eventually reaching IPO and then bought by Starbucks for $620 million. “What became of Teavana? It peaked in success before a slump.” One reason cited is that its heavily retail presence could not keep up with online brands like DAVIDsTEA. “Are we still marketing tea?” asks Raj. “No one has found the growth curve. If Starbucks couldn’t, we are in serious trouble. There is a systemic problem in retailing tea. That’s the answer to the problem in marketing tea.”

    “It is simple,” says Jagjeet Kandal. “Very, very simple. How do you move Indian consumption from the 780g? Get a hundred people in the room. Give them one question. Because there’s a role for the government to play in that, there’s a role for the marketeers to play there. And there’s a role for the producers. If we answer that question, we will have a solution.”

    Maybe that’s the question, not whether people know about tea, or know how to source and brew it, and are willing to spend more on a better tea. Perhaps India’s tea marketing should begin with a single task of increasing consumption by one cup a day. 

    Realigning the Marketing of Indian Tea (Part 1)

    Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically. Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:

    • A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
    • The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
    • Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.
    Margaret’s Hope Tea Lounge grew from a humble roadside tea stall to become a marketing powerhouse.

    Nostalgia as a Trope in Marketing Tea

    By Ramya Ramamurty | Branded in History

    Nostalgia in marketing can be a double-edged sword – it may be twee to focus on quaint vintage designs or visual representation. It can also seem like a shamelessly exploitative marketing tool – to appeal to consumers in a way that borders on manipulative, like the low-hanging fruit of emotional recall. But when wielded correctly, it can be a lyrical exhortation to a more haloed historical era, to peddle something in the present by pointing out that the past is not all that different. It may inspire consumers to realize that in fact, in a lot of aspects, we are similar to our forefathers in what we want from life right down to how we eat and drink.

    Taj Mahal tea has a rich storied advertising past that it frequently refers to in its current advertising. We don’t even have to go that far back. I doubt anyone can forget the visuals of the 1980s ad featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain’s head bobbing to the scintillating beat of his table and ending with the tagline “Wah, Taj!” It’s remarkable how the brand managed to forge a connection between a virtuoso performance by a percussionist maestro of classical Hindustani music, and the idea that the tea is restorative, as endorsed by an icon like him. But it clearly worked and one thing brand managers know is not to fix something that ain’t broke. In fact, things have come full circle with recent ads by Swiggy actually referencing this ad. 

    I think the use of nostalgia works if the brand is trying to spotlight a value that was successfully evoked in the past. It would almost be criminal not to leverage their own history. It is also a strategic way to ensure that consumers realize that their brand has a rich heritage in successfully creating and selling a great product. For instance, Wagh Bakri Chai was started 107 years back and may want its consumers to know that they have been around all this while, or that they started as a small tea brand inspired by Gandhian ideology way back when.

    I think in the case of tea, nostalgia confers an immediate connection and grips the public imagination – reminding us of the tea we drank with our family, with friends, in decades past. It is still one of the first drinks we offer visitors and is a traditional beverage linked to Indianness despite its colonial origins, so it would make sense to leverage that in marketing it.

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  • India: What has Changed?

    India produces 20% of the world’s tea. Production, however, has stagnated for years. Costs are up, and prices and exports are flat. Professional tasters report a decline in quality. Marketing tea to domestic consumers is a promising way to move past the doldrums. Tea is found in every household and Indians drink an average of two cups per person per day, consuming 90% of the tea grown there — but mainly purchase lower grades. Per capita consumption is modest at 840 grams due to a preference for tea in blends. Until recently, India exported virtually all its best teas. Tea discovery there is discouraged as imports from China, Taiwan, and Japan are expensive due to high tariffs, but rising affluence is overcoming these obstacles.

    • Caption: Jagjeet Kandal, country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative
    Aravinda Anantharaman speaks with Jagjeet Kandal at IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative
    Tea by the Lake Mirik
    The Goodricke Lounge by Lake Mirik

    Realigning the Marketing of Indian Tea

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    State Seal of India

    “When you look back, let’s say 30, 40 years, what has changed in the tea market? That’s the question we need to ask. And to me, there has been no great, no major earth-shattering change. Yes, we went from dabbas to paper boxes, tea bags, then poly packs… stuff like that. But the image of tea has not changed at all. And that, I think, is the basis of many problems,” says industry veteran Jagjeet Kandal, now country head, IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative.

    Indian legislators are currently considering a draft Tea (Promotion and Development) Bill to remove colonial-era provisions regulating tea and re-direct the Tea Board of India’s resources to expand existing markets and promote tea domestically.

    In this report, Tea Biz explores the challenges and opportunities of marketing Indian tea by examining:

    • A legacy of marketing tea as a blended, heavily spiced low-cost commodity beverage for the masses.
    • The rise of hundreds of direct-to-consumer (DTC) tea brands that rely on e-commerce as a promising and accessible retail platform.
    • Expanding choices available to tea lovers and how consumer preferences have moved beyond chai.

    Price as a factor

    “I think marketers need to take some of that blame because what they’ve done is made tea a common man’s drink. It has been marketed as the cheapest drink. When you market anything as cheap, it’s going to be very difficult to take that perception people’s mind and then tell them to come and pay more for it. So it was a short-term strategy or whenever this whole marketing stint started, but that’s the basis of what needs to change,” says Kandal.

    Price became a factor in sales, trumping taste. Brands fought on price. Across the country, orthodox tea is not consumed by the masses. South India, in particular, favors dust-grade teas. But every producer and every brand owner talks about how the per cup cost between a mediocre tea and a higher quality tea differs by only a few rupees. The point is convincing, but that message has not been communicated to consumers.

    New to tea

    A century after exports surged, generating substantial wealth, India was still not a big tea market. Seventy years ago, few Indians had ever tasted tea. In contrast, the Chinese have kept tea in their homes for 5,000 years.

    Like other plantation colonies, tea was cultivated in India to cater to demand in Europe. Wars and economic slumps disrupted trade, leading to a glut of tea that forced England to find new markets. The British turned expertly to India’s domestic population, marketing aggressively and creating a tea culture. It was phenomenally successful as tea is now an Indian legacy with deep cultural connotations.

    India was largely rural in 1960, with 82% of the population of 370 million housed away from cities. Household consumption as a percent of India’s gross domestic product peaked that year at 87.4% percent. Manufacturing was focused on domestic needs, and exports consisted mainly of raw goods. Tea was a vital source of foreign income.

    In 1960 India exported 195 m.kgs of tea and consumed 115 m.kgs. Ten years later, exports remained flat at 200 m.kgs, while domestic consumption had increased to 212 m.kgs. Today Indian consumers drink 90% of the tea it produces totaling a billion kilos in 2020.

    One would expect that this has reduced the producers’ dependence on the export market. It has not. But given how the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, marketing costs, and now, war, have impacted trade, freight costs, and exports, the need to cultivate and nurture the domestic market has never been more urgent. There’s a need to nudge consumers towards better quality, higher-priced teas and even specialty tea. What producers seek is 1) convince consumers to look beyond CTC and chai, and even if they must stick to CTC, purchase a better-quality product at a marginally higher cost; and 2) how to increase per capita consumption by at least 100g from its current 750-850g per year.

    There has been news of change brewing, with the Tea Board of India finally saying that they will no longer be a regulator but instead become a body that will market and promote tea. It’s a return to the Board’s original mandate, lost along the way and resurfacing now due to producers’ continuous demands. The Tea Board’s challenge will be to address India’s complex market. 

    Lessons from the past: The rise of packaged and branded tea

    In the 1980s, television emerged as a mass media platform financed by consumer interest in packaged goods. That same decade, Tata Tea, helmed by Darbari Seth and Krishna Kumar, transitioned from bulk sales to branded tea from company gardens. Tata spent large sums marketing Tata Tea, Chakra Gold, and Tetley.

    In 1984, Brooke Bond, India’s most popular and – certainly the oldest brand was acquired by Unilever. They had already diversified and merged with Liebig in 1968, generating $1 billion annually in sales. In 1984 PG Tips held 28% of the UK tea market by sales, and Tetley held 8%. Unilever, then the world’s largest packaged goods company, had acquired Lipton in 1977 but had no UK brands. In October 1984, Unilever spent $480 million to acquire 150 million shares, concluding a protracted and unfriendly takeover of Brooke Bond. Subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Ltd., (HUL) based in Mumbai, reported $5.3 billion in annual revenue in 2020.

    Privately held Wagh Bakri, founded in 1919 and based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, sold loose tea in wholesale and retail outlets until 1980 when it began distributing packaged tea. The company invests 10% of revenue on advertising has since grown to become India’s third nationally distributed packaged tea brand  

    In 1985, Atul Asthana, currently Managing Director, joined the Goodricke Group. The group was formed in 1978 and now owns 29 gardens in Darjeeling, Assam, and the Dooars. Some of the most prized teas in the world come from the Goodricke portfolio, including Margaret’s Hope and Castleton in Darjeeling. “Goodricke had to diversify,” says Asthana. At first, the company started packaging tea in 250g and 500g packets, with each of their gardens keeping aside a percentage of production to go into retail. Their focus was on serving the north and east India markets.

    “It is different from buying other teas. When you buy from auctions, the tea is already 4-6 weeks old. From there it goes to the warehouse and then on to the blenders. When we pack our teas, it’s fresher, it’s more immediate and it reaches consumer quickly,” said Asthana.

    Gardens have a fantastic advantage for retail, when going direct to consumer: By bypassing the auctions, they could bring consumers a fresher tea. Already leveraged by brands like Lipton, whose tagline was “direct from tea garden to the teapot,” it is surprising that more gardens did not take this up and aggressively brand and market their teas. The reason is that the wholesale market was robust, Asthana explains. In the 1980s, a heyday for the tea industry, demand outstripped supply. As Asthana says, everything that was being produced found a market. The Soviet Union absorbed all the tea produced in India. Few gardens found a need to retail to a domestic market.

    With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the tea industry, which had expanded to produce large volumes of tea, now struggled. As the share of exports declined, the domestic market discovered tea. Inexpensive and widely available, tea was a daily beverage that was easy to make and reasonably addictive. Before packaged teas, vendors sold loose-leaf in broken grades as blends customized to suit customer preferences (and local water conditions). Packaged blends delivered consistent taste, were cleaner and remained fresh in storage. Packaging was more appealing and convenient. Sales increased during the 1980s and 90s as the preference for branded tea grew. Ultimately a combination of factors, including higher disposable income, the proliferation of television, and other forms of advertising, along with the move toward trade liberalization. The only hitch was that this market was still extremely price-sensitive.

    Chill Out with Chai
    Ad for new iced tea range from Goodricke

    “The wholesale market was robust in the 1980s, a heyday for the tea industry, demand outstripped supply. Everything that was being produced found a market. The Soviet Union absorbed all the tea produced in India. Few gardens found a need to retail to a domestic market..

    – Atul Asthana, Managing Director, Goodricke Group


    • We end the two-part series with the questions needed to solve the mammoth task of rebranding the industry and realigning the domestic market toward quality tea.
    Margaret's Hope at Sunset
    Sunset at Margaret’s Deck, Kurseong, a tea lounge operated by the Goodricke group

    How Tea Came to be Swadeshi

    Swadesh was the call for independence – it translates roughly as our ‘own country.’ Mahatma Gandhi promoted swadeshi products to build national pride and self-reliance.

    By Ramya Ramamurty 

    Tea was planted by the British in India to ensure an optional country of origin for their favorite beverage. China was the leading tea producer at the time. Tea plantations in India were an astute way for the British East India Company to de-risk this commodity in case the balance of trade with China was threatened by war or insurgency. 

    As the chapter on ‘Snacks and Biscuits’ in my second book Branded in History mentions, tea was seen as a ‘drug food’, and planted in India in Assam, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Optimal conditions, conducive for the growth of tea, meant adequate rainfall, the right pH of the soil, and cool temperatures by Indian standards. The tea plantations were fairly oppressive under the colonial powers – indenture was common as a way to supply low-cost labor to the expanding plantations. But there were a few brands that came up in India with indigenous tea bushes or entrepreneurs.

    In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scot who was wandering in the upper Brahmaputra Valley, near Rangpur in Assam, came across some wild bushes that changed the tea industry forever – it was the first discovery of indigenous tea. The Chinese imports had not taken as well as the British had hoped because of the summer heat in India. A couple of years later, 12 chests of Assam tea were sold for the first time at London auctions, paving the way for the foundation of the first tea plantation company in India: Assam Company India Ltd., (ACIL). The company was founded in London in 1839 and although they focused on tea, the management, which included dignitaries like Charles Alexander Bruce and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, wanted to keep options open to trade in other commodities like lime, coal or oil so the word tea was not referred to in its name. The company is still around, with its registered office in Kolkata, off Bentinck Road, named after Lord William Bentinck who was the Governor General who set up the first tea committee in Calcutta.

    Another company that was born in colonial India and survived the various political upheavals and is still going strong is Wagh Bakri. Its founder Narandas Desai owned 500 acres of a tea estate in South Africa. His experience of racism there forced him to move back home to India with nothing more than a few valuables and a reference letter from Gandhi, in which Desai was hailed as an honest and experienced tea planter in South Africa. Desai started the Wagh Bakri Tea Company with a retail shop in Ahmedabad in 1915 with a logo espousing their values of equality. It showed a wagh (tiger symbolizing the upper class) drinking tea from the same cup in harmony with the bakri (goat) lower class. These are just two of the brands that launched in that era. Clearly tea took off as India is now the second largest tea producer worldwide, with 13,000 tea gardens, employing more than two million people.

    Back in the pre-independence era, tea drinking became more acceptable in certain strata of society, and in those pockets, it replaced alcohol as a social lubricant. By the 1940s, as calls for Indian independence reached fever pitch – tea was seen as synonymous with colonial oppression. Notably, Gandhi discouraged Indians from drinking it as he felt it legitimized British presence in the country. British tea brands like Lipton, Twinings or Tetley that were being patronized by the British in India were replaced by the local Assam and Darjeeling teas that became more popular as we moved to Swadeshi.

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  • Reading the tea industry’s tea leaves for 2021

    Readings rely on symbolism, intuition and energy derived from emotions.

    Tasseomancy offers enquirers the vantage of a personal seer and a glimpse of unseen days to come. Tea Biz asked Amy Taylor of The Art of Tea and Tasseomancy to do a reading for the tea industry on the eve of 2021.

    Amy Taylor | The Art of Tea and Tasseomancy

    See what the leaves have to say:
    Reading the Tea Industry’s Tea Leaves for 2021

    In the West, the art of reading tea leaves to foresee the future dates to the 16th Century but ancient texts suggest the Chinese were searching in the dregs of their teacups for signs and omens from antiquity. The name tasseomancy is derived from the French tassse (cup) with the Greek suffixes –graph (writing), -logy (the study of), and –mancy (divination).

    Taylor, a tea sommelier certified by the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada, chose for this reading a port barrel scented black tea from the Hathikuli Tea Farm in Assam. Hathikuli is a 1,175-acre tea estate in central Assam situated along the south bank of the Brahmaputra River east of Nagaon. “What a gorgeous cup. I wanted to use a smaller leaf for this reading and a black tea because it is one we all connect with,” she explains. Taylor purchased the tea from World Tea House at the Toronto Tea Festival, just prior to a provincial lockdown.

    Leaf reading

    “The leaves really tell an interesting story. When I look into the cup it shows that in 2020 many of us were walking a tightrope,” says Taylor. “When we look at the future side of the cup we see a beautiful star showing a great deal of potential ahead, which means that the tea industry is going to grow and change in different ways.”

    The cup shows that in 2020 many of us were walking a tightrope, says Art of Tea and Tasseomancy seer Amy Taylor. “When we look at the future side of the cup, we see a beautiful star showing a great deal of potential ahead, which means that the tea industry is going to grow and change in different ways.”

    How it’s done

    A heaped teaspoon of loose leaf tea is brewed in a special teapot with a channeled spout so the leaves enter the ornate cup without straining. The leaves quickly settle. The tea is sipped by the enquirer who chats with the reader until the cup is nearly drained. “The reader then takes the cup and saucer and swirls the tea vigorously around the cup before tipping the contents onto the inverted saucer. The leaves that remain adhere to the sides and bottom of the cup forming shapes that suggest symbols and patterns with meanings interpreted by the reader who peers into the cup. Shapes are assigned urgency by their position, with leaves to the left of the handle representing the past and those to the right, the future. For example, the shape of an apple at the top of the cup speaks of gaining knowledge while the same shape on the bottom could mean a lacking or loss of knowledge.

    Taylor has conducted readings for more than 30 years and has taught tasseography for more than 20 years.

    “I got into it because of my love for the leaf, and frankly it kept calling to me so I couldn’t ignore it,” she says. In a normal year, Taylor does as many as 500 tea- and tea card-readings at her shop in Hamilton, Ontario. This year the five-year-old Mystic Tearoom “was considerably less busy for obvious reasons” so Taylor conducted most of her readings online. She reads cards by email and schedules streaming video sessions including tea card reading parties.

    The shop resembles a museum with more than 40 tasseography cups sets, literature, books, advertising and tea company giveaways from the past 120 years, all related to tea leaf reading.

    The arrangement of leaves is limitless but the mind quickly recognizes patterns. Taylor is able to see shapes and patterns in the leaves, much like seeing shapes in clouds. She often combines a leaf reading with a reading of the cards as she did in her predictions for the tea industry. The crane, key, clover, and the school of fish are positive signs and while a historic transformation is underway, the leaves in this cup bode well for the New Year for the tea industry, according to leaves, says Taylor.

    The Art of Tea and Tasseomancy
    Mystic Tearoom
    116 Ottawa St. N, Hamilton, ON L8H 3Z1 CANADA

    Tea is one of a handful of plants that have shaped the world. Countless lives have been enriched by it – and more than a few sacrificed for it. Across cultures and centuries, tea has been endlessly adapted and reinvented. Fresh, yet timeless, tea is both the flavor of the moment and the taste of the past. Tea may be steeped in history, but history is steeped in tea.” – Anonymous

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  • | Rising Prices | Drenched

    Tea Industry News for the week of August 17

    • Rising Prices
    • Heavy Rainfall Wreaks Havoc
    • AVPA Entry Deadline Nears
    Tea prices on the rise due to domestic demand and pandemic-related shortfalls. In India the combination is impacting the availability of tea for export.

    A shortfall in domestic production amid rising demand is boosting tea prices to record highs in India.

    The Tea Board of India is reporting record prices at tea auctions. In Kolkata and Guwahati (Assam) prices are up INRs100 ($1.33/kg compared to last year. The price for CTC (crush, tear, curl), which is mainly used in making tea bags, recently averaged INRs 313.58 ($4.19/kg), up INRs129.99 per kilo.

    Prabhat Bezboruah, the chairman of India’s Tea Board, said that a 12% price increase might compensate for the 10% crop loss. Green leaf prices in Tamil Nadu also rose from INRs14-17 to INRs22 ($0.29) in August.

    Last week marked the fourth week of price gains in Mombasa, Kenya where the East African Tea Traders Association (EATTA) reports an average Ksh208 ($1.93) compared to Ksh194 ($1.80/kg) the previous week. Unlike India, where production has declined significantly, tea production is up 41% in Kenya due to good weather but is likely to plateau for the remainder of the year. Exports to primary trading partner Pakistan are up 14% and the UK purchased 66% more Kenyan tea than usual as a result of shortages elsewhere.

    In Japan, the newspaper Chunichi Shimbun reported record low prices for Kagoshima Nibancha. Sales by global tea firm Ito En, the largest tea company in Japan, decreased by 8.5% from February through April due to the coronavirus.

    “Tea auctions both in Shizuoka and Kagoshima declared that the price for second harvest tea was lower compared to last year. In Shizuoka, it is estimated that the price per kilogram for summer tea went down by 10-15% from JPY609/kg in 2019. In Kagoshima, the decrease is even steeper by 26% to JPY452/kg this year,” according to the Global Japanese Tea Association.

    Over the past decade, tea prices have ranged from a low of $2.19/kg in January 2009 to a high of $3.29/kg in September 2017, but the long-run average price has stood at $2.85/kg, according to the Economist Economic Unit (EIU).

    “Last year tea prices fell to $2.57/kg globally, due to ample supply, marking the weakest result since 2008. Although production prospects in most major tea producers are disappointing in 2020, weaker demand growth is likely to depress prices further,” according to EIU. Prices fell to $2.33/kg in the first quarter of 2020, which marked the weakest quarterly result in 11 years. “Although they rebounded to $2.57/kg in the second quarter, they remain 3% below year-earlier levels. We expect tea prices to average $2.50/kg in 2020. Even assuming that underlying conditions improve in 2021, we expect only a moderate rise in average prices, to $2.81/kg,” writes EIU.

    Sri Lanka also reports increased prices at auction with some record-setting buys, defying on first appearance the rules of supply and demand.

    Controversial Import Proposal

    As domestic prices surge, India is weighing the possibility of importing tea from Kenya and Vietnam. The government currently imposes a 100% tariff on tea imports which discourages imports.

    If the initiative advances, The Federation of All India Tea Traders Association (FAITTA) said that importing teas will be a one-time affair and that it will not push for imports in the coming years, according to a report in the Economic Times. FAITTA wants a one-year relaxation of tea tariffs.

    FAITTA chairman Viren Shah said, “Prices have gone up significantly this year due to a shortage of supply. But we are not being able to pass on the price to our customers because the economic situation in the country is not conducive to increasing prices. The pandemic has created economic uncertainty everywhere.” 

    The debate is heated. Tea landed in India to this point is for re-export, which is not available in domestic markets where it competes with locally grown tea. Re-exports total only 9-10 million kilos annually. Planters, represented by the India Tea Association (ITA), strongly oppose lowering tariffs even for a limited time.

    “We will move the commerce ministry with a request to stop the import of cheap teas if the traders try to do so,” said Vivek Goenka, chairman, ITA.

    The price of CTC tea has increased by 48% year-on-year making imports less expensive than domestic teas. Even with a 100% duty, imported Kenyan tea at $1.84 per kilo or Vietnamese tea at $1.50 per kilo would be less expensive than the average INRs305 ($4.07) per kilo paid for CTC at the Kolkata Tea Auction.

    India consumers purchase 1,100 million kilos annually. Much of this tea is from Assam and West Bengal where production is down 30% during the period January-July. Ultimately imports may be unavoidable as teas from overseas would stabilize domestic prices.


    Annual mean anomaly predictions for 2020 relative to 1981-2010. Ensemble mean (left column) and the probability of above-average (right column). As this is a two-category forecast, the probability for below-average is one minus the probability shown in the right column. Grpahics: World Meteorological Organization.

    Monsoons annually claim the lives of many tea workers and cause hundreds of millions in property damage. Ten days ago, 43 died in a mudslide that swept tea workers away in their sleep at the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) in Munnar, South India. Rescuers dug for two days but found no additional survivors amid the 20 homes that were lost. The garden employs 12,500 workers.

    In Kerala, lowland floods claimed additional lives. This spring India’s tea production fell 26.4% compared to last year due to a combination of flooding and coronavirus lockdowns. Assam gardens reported serious flooding in May, June, and July which is the top tea producing month.

    Indian Tea Association Secretary Sujit Patra, told Reuters that a recovery in crop totals was unlikely in the second half of the year. The shortfall has caused auction prices to rise up to a record average of IRNs232.60 ($3.12) per kilo last week, up 57% compared to the same period in 2019.

    This week in Yunnan China, 14 died and 20 are still missing following flash floods caused by Typhoon Higos. Landslides killed five. The storm forced the relocation of 34,900 residents and affected 1.1 million people, causing at least $450 million in damage, according to China.Org. After an extended drought, rainfall averages are up 12.5% year-on-year. Across China 200 have died in weather-related incidents this year which have caused $25 billion in losses.

    In July the Japanese island of Kyushu suffered severe flooding that damaged several tea farms. Production is down overall, in Shizuoka the normal harvest decreased by 20-30% from 7,616 metric tons in 2019, and likely will be the lowest since 1953, when the first of such data became available.

    The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicts “high latitude regions and the Sahel* are likely to be wetter than the recent past whereas northern and eastern parts of South America are likely to be dryer” during the period 2020-2024.

    “Most of Eurasia, eastern USA and central Africa have been wetter than average, with southern Africa, eastern Australia, Indonesia, north-east Brazil, and western Europe drier than average,” according to WMO’s five-year forecast.

    “The annual global temperature is likely to be at least 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels (defined as the 1850-1900 average) in each of the coming 5 years and is very likely to be within the range 0.91 – 1.59°C,” according to WMO.

    “The smallest temperature change is expected in the tropics and in the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere,” according to WMO, but “it is likely (~70% chance) that one or more months during the next 5 years will be at least 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial levels.

    Click here to download WMO’s 16-page global weather update.

    *The Sahel is the 1000-mile wide ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.

    AVPA Teas of the World Competition

    The deadline to enter the third annual Teas of the World competition, conducted by the Agency for the Valuation of Agricultural Products (AVPA) is Sept. 15, 2020. Prizes will be awarded Nov. 16 in Paris, France

    The competition is open to producers who benefit from recognition of their exceptional quality, helps producers stand out from others growing and processing tea, and encourages producers to explore new tea markets.

    The competition consists of “Monovarietal teas.” a category limited to Camellia Sinensis and “Infusions” which include beverages made with plants other than Camellia Sinensis including blends and favored teas.

    Download the AVPA Monovarietal registration form.

    Download the AVPA Infusions registration form.

    Judges evaluate gastronomic rather than standardized refereeing, seeking a striking rather than consensual sensory profile. “This is the first time that an independent body in a consumer country promotes the good practices of production and trade actors,” writes AVPA.

    Fees are €110 for individual producers, €550 for other tea professionals and €1,500 for collective organizations.

    Click here to review contest rules.
    Click here to see who won the 2019 competition.

    AVPA is a non-governmental, non-profit organization of producers and enthusiasts. The organization annually conducts four international contests in addition to evaluating tea. These include “Coffees roasted at Origin”, “Chocolates pressed at Origin” and “World Edible Oils.”

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