• India’s Holistic Tea Sustainability Code

    Trustea was launched in 2013 by tea industry stakeholders and producers determined to elevate the quality of India’s domestic tea. Today 65% of the tea produced in India adheres to the trustea Code. This month, trustea celebrates ten years of service, improving the competitiveness of tea gardens by positively influencing the practices and scale of production, farm organization, processing, new technologies, and supply chain development. We invited Rajesh Bhuyan, Director of the trustea Sustainable Tea Foundation, to describe’s trustea’s impact and plans for the decade ahead, including a Seal on Pack label to inform consumers of brand compliance with the code.

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    Rajesh Bhuyan, trustea
    Rajesh Bhuyan, Director trustea Code, India
    Rajesh Bhuyan, Director, trustea, India

    Sustainability Assured

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Rajesh Bhuyan is the founding director of trustea, a sustainability code and verification system for Indian tea. The program is advised by an inclusive multi-stakeholder council that formulates and approves long-term strategies. The collaborative nature of the trustea “helps us when we go out and meet the tea community when we propagate our program because it has come out through the approval of the larger tea fraternity,” says Bhuyan.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: Can you take us through what trustea does?

    Rajesh Bhuyan: Globally, sustainability has been one of the major emerging challenges for all agro-commodity supply chains. India is the second largest tea producer in the world. So producing tea in a sustainable way is also critical from a global point of view. The trustea program was launched ten years ago, and it is unique in that it was a program that was conceived, developed, and completely launched in India itself. So it’s the “Make in India” program if you’d like to call it that. There is widespread acceptance because the industry launched it, and the acceptance levels are better. The program has elements that are specifically designed to address the Indian context for tea manufacturing. So that is another very important reason why we think that the producers and the buyers are finding value in the trustea program. Having completed ten years and come to a coverage of 65% of tea produced in India, I think that speaks volumes for the program’s progress and how the industry works with us.

    Aravinda: So trustea is not about whether it’s CTC or Orthodox. It’s also agnostic in terms of the segment, right? How does trustea view and approach the industry?

    Rajesh: So trustea is a sustainability program for tea. We cover the supply chain from the fields where the tea is picked up through manufacturing and the dispatch from the factory. So that is the ambit of the program. Everything within that falls under the trustea code. And within that – because we look at sustainability in a holistic way, we think that environment, livelihood, and safety go hand in hand. We cannot have one without the other. So the activities we deem sustainable, which we would like people to follow, cover these three pillars from, as I said, from the field up to the factory gate. So we cover all the operations, all the people, all the processes that come in this part of the supply chain.

    Sr. Manager Assurance, Anandita Ray Mukherjee
    trustea Sr. Manager (System Assurance) Anandita Ray Mukherjee, listens to women workers at our member tea garden.

    Aravinda: And where would you say you’ve seen the most challenge in the last ten years regarding the interventions you’ve needed to bring in?

    Rajesh: Indian tea is celebrating 200 years of tea in Assam, so it’s been around for a long time, which means that there must be elements of sustainability built into the DNA of the industry; otherwise, the industry would not be working for so many years. But we needed to bring a sharper focus and method into the actions and fill the gaps where more could be done to address these three pillars. So that was the transitional change, which we found a challenge, and the industry was very willing to adopt that. So the transition from the practices that we’re doing to bring them into focus, to put them into a method and to bring an element of continuous improvement into their activities, and also opening the thought process that business sustainability – all of these come together. So we need to have a very, very, focused approach, understanding that all these elements come together to create a successful business, and successful people, happy people, and a prospering environment all contribute to each other.

    Aravinda: And that’s part of what makes it complex, right, the fact that we have the small growers, bought leaf factories, and the large estates, and each comes with its own set of challenges, potential, and opportunity. How, then, can you address this sort of complexity across India? It’s vast in volume and complex in regions and terrain. How can you bring these varying factors into a single umbrella?

    Rajesh: From a larger perspective, the small tea grower community and the larger gardens complement each other. We are seeing an increasing trend where many tea gardens are processing tea from the neighboring small tea growers and their own tea. So this is a testimony to the fact that these two segments of the business are able to merge their interests for a common goal. And in a way, the challenges of sustainability are similar, but I would say it is more pronounced for the small tea growers because they have a very limited bandwidth to respond to critical challenges or very sudden adverse impacts because of their smaller area and smaller production and their financial abilities. So while we find that we have a common template for sustainability in both segments, the small tea growers need a different approach and a different hand-holding and learning atmosphere. So we have actually developed, within the trustea code, the small tea growers sustainability portion, which addresses specifically the requirements of the small tea growers. But overall, all of this contributes to the larger Indian tea industry. So I think, in spite of the differences, both of them will be able to work well when they work within the ambit of trust.

    Aravinda: And that’s probably what will be the strength of the industry, right? To be able to bring these two segments together? And if you look back at the last ten years, where would you say trustea has had the most impact?

    Rajesh: I think one of the areas where we have been able to bring in is a structure and system in operation. The other one focuses on the legal compliances which have a direct bearing on individual’s human rights, on mandated wages, on mandated benefits, because the trustea program, as I said, is being prepared in India. We have all the Indian legal requirements as a part of the compliance. When we engage with an entity, we can have a structured approach to ensure full compliance with the legal requirements, or if something is missed, that is covered. So in a way, while we benefit the workers, we can also provide a security and business continuity guarantee to the business. So, it’s ensuring we have a very structured, systematic way of looking at the compliances if there are any gaps in the compliances. Now, these compliances ensure that the business is also run without any interruption from a legal point of view and simultaneously deliver benefits to the employees. So it’s a win-win for both sides when we look at it. So I would say that’s an area where I think a systematic approach is helping all of us.

    Aravinda: One of the things with certification that always comes up is how it translates to prices. Is that also something you’ve had to address with trustea? Does it come up and or have conversations now about sustainability moved beyond that?

    Rajesh: So, if you look at the trustea program, this is because it is anchored to the law of the land. We do not have any requirements which are not what the law of the land requires. So in terms of compliance costs, per se, that’s the terminology many people use – the trustea program does not ask for compliance beyond the Indian law. And Indian laws, which are applicable to the food sector or the tea industry in particular, are what the industry is following. The other part about the benefit of being trustea is that it definitely provides access. A large segment of buyers would prefer to buy tea from sustainably-produced farms, farms that follow sustainable agriculture practices, and sustainable holistic practices. Now, being part of the trustea certification system provides them the access to that market. So in a way, it benefits businesses that they have the option of supplying to the sustainable section, and we think the most important thing is that small tea growers today, by way of the trustea-certified bought leaf factories, can offer their tea to the sustainable buyers. That’s a very important thing. Because they are covered in the trustea umbrella, small tea growers are getting access to that part of the market where they prefer sustainably produced tea. But at the same time, we would like to say that we are not part of the business side of the equation, we do not get into pricing, and our standard is anchored on sustainability and market access.

    Aravinda: And looking ahead, where do you see the need for the most intervention for the industry?

    Rajesh: I think now the time has come to look at climate-smart agriculture, look at practices which can be gradually changed so that we are able to adapt – and more than adapt, become resilient. So we have these very extreme weather events, and most of the tea planters tell me that their understanding of how the seasons operate is actually not translating into what they see on the ground. There are certain practices that our revised code – which we launched on July 11 –  that prescribes practices that help smallholder farmers, as well as tea gardens, to kind of safeguard against the severe impact of any climate change events. So, I think slowly moving our practices from what we have been doing earlier, gradually moving to climate-resilient practices, will bring long-term benefits that they will be able to find protection against the adverse impacts of these events. And these events are happening, even as we speak, everywhere across India. And we have to remember that for an industry that is 200 years old, we have to move in a very structured and gradual way, but we have to begin those practices to be able to bulletproof ourselves against these adverse climate impacts.

    Aravinda: What comes under sustainability? Now it’s climate change. But in the last ten years, as you’ve seen the sustainability journey evolve, what is your take on how it’s evolving? And how do you stay relevant and keep up with the demands of what is defined as sustainability?

    Rajesh: Ten years ago, the challenge of the impact of climate change was not as pronounced as it was today. And therefore, when the stakeholders formulated the Code, these elements were not in as sharp focus as they need to be today. And now, with the revised Code, we are focusing on two very key things which will give them the ability to manage climate change the right way. One is what we are calling regenerative agriculture, practicing regenerative agriculture, which is agriculture that is friendly to the soil and the planet. And the other one is managing energy in such a way that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and benefits the garden overall. In fact, reducing carbon emissions has a financially beneficial spinoff that if we are able to demonstrate in a structured way, of course, there are protocols and processes, and there is actually a financial gain that can be had from the reduction of carbon emission. And there are a lot of people who will be able to help the industry to benefit from that if their processes which we are proposing through the revised code, actually can be demonstrated to have reduced their carbon emissions. So there’s, there’s, in fact, another avenue for them to get financial gains out of their climate-friendly work.

    Aravinda: So, is the vocabulary changing on what constitutes sustainability? Is that evolving with the changes that are coming up?

    Rajesh: One major change in the thought process, which the trustea code was one of the first to address, is that sustainability is not a stand-alone event. Sustainability comes in an approach where the community, the environment, the people, and the business all come together to deliver the goal. So, in isolation, it cannot be achieved; it has to be a holistic approach. More and more people and more and more businesses and supply chains are realizing that that is the fundamental connection that has to come into what is being done every day to be able to deliver so that the people who make up the supply chain, the people at the bottom of the pyramid have to be equal stakeholders in what is happening, have to benefit equally, then only the benefits of sustainability can be delivered all across the supply chain.

    Aravinda: And that comes through when you look at the trustea Council, with representation from every segment and everybody.

    Rajesh: When the trustea organization was set up, it was with much thought that a multi-stakeholder council was put in place. Because even at the inception of the program, way back in 2013, it was done through a lot of industry-wide consultation. So that spirit of multi-stakeholder input was always there in the program. When we became a registered company, we thought that the stakeholder Council had to be created with a legal role in giving input to the philosophy and the direction of the program. So that voice of the Indian tea fraternity is not lost when we go ahead. So we gave it a formal role which was a multi-stakeholder Council, and all our decisions and all our long-term strategies are formulated and approved by the Council, which helps us when we go out and meet the tea community when we propagate our program because it has come out through the approval of the larger tea fraternity.

    Aravinda: And now that 65% of the production is trustea verified, when do you think 100% can be achieved?

    Rajesh: I would say 100% is not our goal and never has been our goal. trustea is a voluntary system to standard. And as long as it meets the business philosophy of the organizations who opt for the program, we are there to help and support. So it has never been a goal and will not be a goal because we think the basic voluntary nature and the beneficiaries should find some value in what we do. And there are various types of businesses and various segments that do business in various ways. So trustea is one of the options for them to carry on their business. So, I would say we are happy that we are growing, but we have no ambition of being 100%.

    Aravinda: What can we expect to see in the near future from trustea? Is there anything in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

    Rajesh: Three very important focus areas that we will look at when we go ahead into the next ten years, so to speak. One is regenerative agriculture, and we would like to be the people who bring these practices onto the ground. trustea is building up the capability to deliver this to the industry.

    The other one is on technology. We are investing heavily in technology, we’re investing heavily in IT, to be able to bring these benefits to people like the smallholder farmers, and some of it is already now being seen.

    The third focus area is the safety of the workforce, especially the women. Now women, as we know, constitute more than 50% of the workforce in the tea garden. And there is legal protection for them through the POSH Act. But on the ground, we find that there’s a lot to be done in terms of sensitizing all the women workforce, even the management, about their duties, women about their rights, and what constitutes harassment. So that’s going to be a very important focus area. In fact, we are partnering with an organization called the Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund with the intention of getting a deeper impact on our work in the tea garden. So that’s an indication of how important this facet of women’s safety is for us because a safe and secure women’s workforce, I think, is very, very important for the industry to progress.

    Aravinda: That sounds like another busy decade ahead. How can consumers how can tea drinkers access the benefits of what trustea brings to the industry? How will you link back to the consumers?

    Rajesh: So far, the trustea certification was limited to the wholesale trade so that tea producers would be certified. And the buyers of tea in bulk would prefer sustainable products; therefore, the consumer was not part of the sustainability dialogue. But it was always the goal of trustea that we have to reach the consumer because the end beneficiary of everything we do is the consumer, who is always important to us.

    So trustea has launched a program called the Seal on Pack, which means retail packets of tea will have the trustee seat so producers who retail, packeteers who buy trustea verified tea, and then pack trustea verified tea will be able to put the trustea seal on their pack and the consumer who buys this pack will be able to understand and feel the fact that they are they’re buying a tea which promotes safety, livelihood, and environment across the supply chain.

    So there are a lot of consumers today who would like to contribute to the well-being of the supply chain company, especially the lower end and also do good for the planet. So we are also running a campaign educating the consumers about what trustea is and what it means to buy a pack of sustainable tea. And we will have this connection, and this campaign is going forward in a larger way. And we are very excited to give the end consumer an opportunity to have a say in and understand what trustea is all about.

    And I think globally, there is a very clear trend of increasing demand for sustainably produced products by consumers. And this trend I’m sure will also be in India. And those people who sell products with the trustea seal and therefore encourage the trustea program to deliver on its goals, I’m sure, will find it connects with the right consumer.

    Aravinda: When will the seal on the pack be seen in the markets, in the packets?

    Rajesh: Certain retailers have already started putting the seal on the pack. More and more such packs will be available on the shelf. And trustea has this process by which there are rules and regulations which have to be followed for a retailer to be able to claim to be trusted verified. And organizations that meet these and work with us, and we have this two-way commitment, are the ones who put that seal on the back. More and more will be there. We are seeing some on the shelf. And I expect in the coming years; consumers will have more choices.

    Aravinda: I think it’s something for people to look for when they shop.

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

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

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

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

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

    Several Expo presentations covered the topic in detail. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Turn Over a New Leaf

    Few people know that the cuppa tea they cherish is in trouble.

    Every mature industry experiences rising production costs, saturated markets, stagnant prices, and a lack of tech intervention – in tea, the over-dependency on subsidies, risk-averse attitude, complacency, and fear of change add to these troubles.

    Other industries have found solutions through innovation (product, material), new technology (cloud, platforms, software), market expansion (exports, new manufacturing hubs), and cost-saving (zero inventory, automation). However, the woes of the tea industry seem bottomless.

    One of the reasons for this endless nightmare is that since tea is an old industry, many interest groups further their agenda. Due to a lack of consensus, no single entity – the brokers, tea associations, government bodies – has been bold or creative enough to pull the industry out of this rut or at least lead the way.

    Sandip Thapa

    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). Thus, many from that buyer segment, flushed with funds, have bought gardens, opened factories, and turned producers. However, the situation is such that they, too, feel the cost vs. poor price pressure.

    The old way of doing business needs to be fixed. The sales cycle is far too long, large buyers have cornered the trade, exports usually go to traditional markets, no transparent mechanism for credit disbursal, and no grading or packaging standards innovation. The list of problems is very long.

    The need of the hour is a fresh perspective. Green shoots are emerging. Progressive proprietary garden owners have taken the D2C approach and come out with their brands. They are exploring e-marketplaces like Amazon, Flipkart, and even Facebook or setting up their platform and app. Start-ups are directly working with small tea growers, advising them on best practices, plucking standards, and selling those quality teas to consumers while sharing a portion of the premium with the STGs. Many retail start-ups have cropped up and helped the industry by increasing consumption. Taking inspiration from the start-up culture, a few of the old-school plantation agencies have also forayed into tea bars and lounges. And there’s been a gradual shift from regulated auction platforms to private sales. In India, around 55% of total production is sold privately; the rest is through auctions. Private sales will keep growing in the future.

    CuppaTrade (CT) is one platform that holistically addresses the industry’s problems. It’s a global B2B marketplace focusing on the entire ecosystem, not just bulk tea. It’s an India-based start-up with global ambitions. Within a short time, many producers across India, Nepal, and even Vietnam have found value in this marketplace. Their buyer base is increasing by 300% every month. The immediate benefit for the producer is that their tea is seen by the whole world and does not remain restricted to just a particular region.

    One of the core values of CT is speed. Speed in the transaction process. Speed in arriving at a solution and execution. Speed in customer service and dispute resolution. Speed in listening to stakeholders and introducing value adds. This approach has brought down the traditional sales cycle by 75%. Here, the STPs can list the tea directly from the garden or factory and start receiving interest from buyers who know the ‘Mark’ and do not want to wait to see the samples. Buyers can also buy based on CT’s assessment of quality and cup. Provision is also there for buyers who wish to see the samples first before showing interest.
    On the other hand, if a buyer has an urgent requirement, she may post the details on the platform, and CT fulfills the same. These features are being offered for the first time in the tea industry through a digital platform. This brings convenience and pace to one’s fingertips.

    CT believes small is beautiful. Small is hopeful. The growing segment of small tea producers (STP) makes a huge variety but needs more means and connections to showcase these teas to a large audience. They are hungry and take quick initiative. They listen and act fast. Thus, it’s a pleasure to work with them.

    Siddhadevi Tea Estate, Nepal. One of many small tea producers selling bulk tea on the CuppaTrade online platform.

    On the other hand, many buyers do not know so much variety exists at several price points simply because no platform or entity has exposed the small tea buyers (STB) to such teas. CT is bridging this gap. The marketplace connects the STP with STB directly. Without any middlemen, the STP enjoys a price premium, and the procurement cost decreases drastically for STB.

    Traceability is a huge issue in international markets, where mostly blended tea is sold. The buyer needs more knowledge of whether teas are ethically sourced following correct GI norms. With Blockchain and AR, CT brings the manufacturing units closer to the buyers and provides authentic teas with full disclosure.

    Another crucial problem is working capital, both for producers and buyers. CT resolves this issue with a tie-up with financial institutions. STPs are paid a portion of the total tea value as an advance as soon as the CT team inspects the invoiced teas. The rest of the value is paid after the teas are sold. The credit facility is also given to vintage buyers. This is an interesting space that financial institutions can explore further through either Bill Discounting or introducing long-term bonds based on the sold invoices. These bonds could be sold in rich consuming markets like Europe, the US, Middle East. In addition, a portion may be reserved for the stakeholders at a discounted rate so that they have an opportunity to earn secure, healthy profits after the completion of the tenure. This will also result in good behavior and increase stickiness to the platform.

    It is high time that we explore non-traditional international markets. For example, Iran buys loads of orthodox tea; however, due to US sanctions has an issue with payments. In such a scenario, Dubai or UAE can be developed as an ‘export hub’ for that region. While tea is directly delivered to the destination countries, payment comes from a secure source like Dubai. Similarly, Canada, Australia, the US, and South-East Asia must be exposed to quality tea, not the tea-bag variety, but the robust, malty Assam or the fragrant, sweet Nepal. This calls for constant interaction, regular seller-buyer meets, a collaborative approach through country-specific associations, and a non-biased platform that gently binds stakeholders with the proper process and technology, addressing everyone’s needs.

    Excellent Tippy Teas being sold through CuppaTrade. Left Donyi Polo, Arunachal Pradesh. Right, Siddhadevi, Nepal.

    Many innovative approaches are required to take the industry to the next level. Cuppa Trade is doing its bit. Going by the initial response shown by the stakeholders, CT seems to be heading in the right direction.

    Tea is a unique beverage. It’s entrenched in our lives. Its longevity is safe. However, as in any Agri commodity, the farmers’ prosperity and sustainability are paramount. Therefore, the tea grower and producer must be paid well before her sweat dries.

    And whatever minutes it took you to read this article, know that globally, about 25,000 cups of tea are consumed every second. Every second. Maybe you also enjoyed a cuppa during this time. That’s the magic of this beverage. It’s huge, and it’s unifying.

    Related: Q|A Sandip Thapa by Aravinda Anantharaman

    “Many innovative approaches are required to take the industry to the next level. Cuppa Trade is doing its bit. Going by the initial response shown by the stakeholders, CT seems to be heading in the right direction.”

    – Sandip Thapa

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  • World Bank Report: India’s Cold Chain

    World Bank Cooling Opportunities India
    World Bank Report: Climate Investment Opportunities in India’s Cooling Sector

    Tea News for the week ending December 9

    Without explanation, Iran’s Ministry of Agriculture has stopped registering contracts with Indian suppliers to export tea, rice, and other commodities. Registration is required before Indian goods can be offloaded in Iran.

    Beginning in late November, Indian tea traders and traders exporting basmati rice noticed unusual delays in the routine registration of shipping contracts. Iranian officials did not announce or explain the delays, which led to speculation that the disruption was tied to ongoing street protests, a widening trade imbalance, or possibly ongoing discussions to resume oil exports from Iran to India.

    Masih Keshavarz, speaking for Iran’s Rice Suppliers Commission, told IRIB News, “the ban will be lifted as soon as bilateral trade is balanced out or registers growth.”

    The Business Standard reported that a fifth of India’s tea exports are shipped to Iran. Indian exporters told the newspaper, “the disruption in trade has been triggered by anti-hijab protests in Iran. Asa result, Iranian buyers, have been defaulting on payment obligations.”

    Negotiations between the two countries to resume oil shipments are ongoing. India halted in 2019 due to EU and US economic sanctions designed to convince Iran to cease work on developing a nuclear arsenal.

    Anshuman Kanoria, chairman of the Indian Tea Traders Association, said India’s Commerce Ministry, the Tea Board of India, India’s Foreign Trade office, and the Indian Embassy in Tehran are seeking an explanation. He writes that it is “futile to speculate on unconfirmed guesses.”

    Previously registered shipments continue to arrive at Iranian ports.

    | China Eases COVID Restrictions

    China has eased travel restrictions and will permit people to enter public buildings without showing negative test results (except schools, hospitals, and nursing homes). Residents can travel freely within the country, but international travelers must still endure an eight-day quarantine on arrival. The country remains closed to tourists. The immediate impact of lifting restrictions will be a surge in infections due to a low vaccination rate.

    | World Bank Report Reveals Investment Opportunities for Expanding India’s Cold Chain

    Cold storage capacity in India has grown steadily. Still, a gap of 3.27 million metric tons for long-term storage of fresh produce remains, according to a World Bank report on investment opportunities presented at a government-hosted conference on developing India’s cooling sector.

    The integrated development of the cold supply chain across India is severely lacking. The National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) estimates that close to $11.75 billion is required to develop the physical infrastructure and transport-related elements, presenting an investment opportunity to modernize the retail end of the cold chain requiring $1.3 to $1.9 billion.

    Building out that infrastructure will spur the consumption of chilled ready-to-drink tea and make it practical to sell refrigerated concentrates and store perishable green teas.

    Download: Climate Investment Opportunities in India’s Cooling Sector

    | PLUS THIRST has completed its initial assessment of human rights in the global tea sector and is now seeking to understand the root causes. THIRST founder and CEO Sabita Banerji says the non-profit will conduct confidential surveys of tea producers during the New Year. In this episode, she discusses the process with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman.

    Listen to the interview

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  • Retailers Rekindle Tea Culture Face-to-Face

    Andrew McNeill, Business Development Director at Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea, says that stay-at-home tea drinkers exploring specialty teas are eager to share the experience of tea discovery face-to-face. In December, the 20-year-old tea merchant and tea house relocated to a 2200 sq. ft. combination tea shop, tearoom, warehouse, and online fulfillment center.

    Caption: Kai Steerman, left, enjoys a tasting led by Zhuping Hodge

    Listen to the Interview

    Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea Business Development Director Andrew McNeill
    A tea oasis in the Arizona desert
    A tea oasis in the Arizona desert

    Seven Cups Tea House Carefully Crafts a Cultural Experience

    Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea is typical of well-established shops that survived the pandemic. The direct-trade retailer is 20 years old, located in a second-tier city, and generates revenue online and in-store from packaged sales, tea service, and wholesale supply to coffee shops, cafes, hotels, and restaurants.

    Packaged tea has fared well since 2019. A spike in sales has jammed tea cupboards with direct-from-origin and exotic teas purchased online. The growing consumer preference for better-tasting tea favors retailers with quality selections, including herbal infusions. Retailers are remodeling to promote in-shop sampling as it encourages social interaction and repeat business among enthusiasts eager to explore new origins and styles as they learn from experts.

    Seven Cups founder Austin Hodge says, “The business model of our tea house has always been to provide an authentic and high quality product and customer experience. We see the opportunity to expand our tea house is a validation of this model. We firmly believe that high quality tea isn’t just compelling to a niche market of connoisseurs, it’s readily enjoyed by everyday, working class people.”

    “When you enter a traditional teahouse, in China or Tucson, you step into a cultural experience that separates you from your daily problems. It’s a teahouse tradition for tea drinkers to be treated with respect and dignity, whatever their outside problems might be,” says Hodge.

    Dan Bolton: Every successful retailer has plans to expand to a new 2200 sq. ft. location. What led Seven Cups to relocate?

    Andrew McNeill: So, for us, it was realizing that we were hitting a point where we were at capacity. We realized about five years ago that we had to start making a plan. We were sharing a strip mall with several other popular businesses, and it’s great to have the exposure to being next to other popular businesses. But if people can’t park there, it’s a problem. And being there for 20 years, we realized that if people hadn’t found us yet, in this location, they probably weren’t gonna find us.

    We were fortunate in that we had enough of a unique draw in our local area, where people sought us out from far away. We weren’t dependent on foot traffic to drive business and awareness. But that said, after moving to a location with better visibility, we’ve already seen an enormous response.

    You can do everything right with your social media, tending to your tribe, and getting the word out in your community; these are all great and worthy things to do. But finding the right location that’s going to be visible and accessible to your customers can’t be substituted.

    So, location still does matter.

    Dan: Did you decide to buy or lease?

    Andrew: We moved from being a renter to a buyer. And, of course, the advantages of being a renter versus an owner will depend on where a business operates. In our case in Tucson, we saw pretty strong advantages to being an owner, especially with rents increasing; given the economic climate in the last three years, it was clear at the time. Things are shifting now, as they always are, but it was time to move in terms of favorable lending conditions and property valuations.

    That said, we spent a long time finding this place. It was a unicorn location. We knew we were looking for something unusual. In our case, a big part of what we wanted was to consolidate the wholesale and online fulfillment with the tea house. There are obvious advantages and efficiencies in getting your operation under one roof. The challenge there, of course, is that there are very few tea house-restaurant-retail spaces and slash warehouse-office spaces in one building. You must build to suit, to create something like that.

    Ultimately, the property that Austin found was an off-market building, a market space that had been abandoned since the 80s. It was not listed. Our realtor did us a real favor by proposing an offer to the owners.

    Starting negotiations that way, we were fortunate to find a space that could be reshaped into exactly what we needed.

    Dan: COVID created new consumer behaviors leading shops to adapt. Your business does an amazing job educating customers and introducing them to suppliers and producing regions. Will you talk briefly about how this new shop accommodates online buyers and how you approach teaching with sampling?

    Andrew: I think we’re still in the midst of that change. During COVID, we’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. And our consumer experiences have been focused on the home and consumption in the home, the individual, and the family.

    And so we’ve gone from buying stuff to buying experiences. When you’re building out a retail space, it’s very important to focus on the experience and the experience of the product. This is something that, for us, historically, has been the case in our tea room, in the decades past, is been only a small part of our business, but it’s been an integral part of our business. Because what it is and what it provides is that experience, it’s a guided experience in an environment conducive to it.

    When people experience the possibility of what tea can taste like and what satisfaction it can provide when brewed with intentional and beautiful surroundings, this ultimately drives a whole customer lifecycle that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

    Regarding parts of our business, the tearoom is just about 10 or 15% of revenue. So, it’s not a significant part. But the marketing power of providing this experience for folks, that face-to-face interaction with your customer, and the feedback given back to us as a business is invaluable.

    We certainly missed that during COVID. And we’ve seen that people coming out of the pandemic haze are interested in having that interaction from the consumer side. So, we’re happy to be in the fortunate position of opening a new Tea House experience when people are just becoming more comfortable coming out and seeking such experiences. Of course, it’s got to be great; it’s got to satisfy those expectations both in terms of the educational experience and the sensory experience.

    Dan: Tell us about the tasting experience.

    Andrew: Tasting is a central part of the experience; there’s a tearoom, but there are also individual tasting tables. So, these tables are not a place where people would sit down with their own tea, but where they would sit down with the shop owners or some of the staff to have a conversation and chat about tea. And, of course, that conversation is an organic educational experience where people can come up with their own questions. That drives the discussions and the whole experience of tasting this tea and understanding what’s behind it. Of course, it helps us that education flows the other way because we understand how consumers enjoy this tea. We’ve built out places in the new store for people to have those conversations in different parts of the building.

    Dan: How many tasting tables are there in the store?

    Andrew: So we have three different tea tables. The tea room itself is about 700 square feet, which is about the same as we had in our old space. The added space gives us a little more flexibility on where we placed the retail section of the business. In the old store retail sort of ran through the tea room, so you could be having your tea experience in the tea room and people would be walking in back of you along the walls looking at teapots. Here it’s a little more of a private experience. There’s a clear separation between the retail area, which takes up about 500 sq. ft. and the tea room. And so people feel a little more comfortable with getting up close and personal with teapots and jars of tea, while having conversations with our staff over the retail items.

    Simultaneously it makes the tea experience when you’re sitting down all that more special and private and focused.

    “People want to have an intentional, amazing, profound experience every time. If you create that brush with the sublime with your products, service, and relationship with your customer, you’re really in tune with what folks want.”

    — Andrew McNeill

    Dan: Let’s talk about innovations in the back end of the store.

    Andrew: Wholesale is not the profit leader of our business. It comes along with online retail, the tea house, part of a broad revenue mix. So, for us, that makes consolidation more important because we’re all serving multiple roles. You can have conversations not only with different people but with different people as they’re serving different roles. It is also very valuable in terms of efficiencies for building out the wholesale part. A free-standing building enabled us to build the ventilation and cooling system to suit tea storage. It’s of utmost importance to take care and preserve the quality of the tea from season to season. We’re a vendor that focuses on one lot per year. We do not blend 2021 tea with teas from 2022. Selling is seasonal, dated by year, so you must ensure the tea is holding up. As tea ages, people are going to know that it’s aging. We make sure that we’re doing our best to preserve its quality. A freestanding building also means there are no intrusions of smells that will contaminate, there’s no flavor creep from, say, other products that are around. It also gives us the advantage in terms of compliance to have one FDA-inspected facility instead of two, same for health department inspections locally. Being able to focus on getting things just right was one of our build-to-suit goals

    Dan: Online you offer an interesting version of sampling option.

    Andrew: As fresh tea arrives; we offer graded samplers. This is an experiential product. This year we did five different grades of Longjing (Dragon Well) from the same factory. These teas are grown in the same garden, harvested during the same season, and processed by the same tea maker. You can taste the differences from the earliest pluck of their premiere, early spring Ji Pin (ultra grade) Da Fo Longjing (2022), and compare as the season progresses, tasting how the leaf changes and how differences in plucking and processing change as the harvest progresses. You can brew each tea separately for casual drinking or compare different teas side by side to calibrate your taste buds.

    Tasting tables in foreground, retail display at right, tea room in rear.

    Dan: Younger people coming to tea are seeking distinctive taste. I tell people it’s as simple as this; your grandmother drinks tea — her grandsons and daughters taste tea. She seeks consistency in a brand that spans 50 years of her life. Her grandchildren are looking for something novel, identifying flavor notes and asking, where was it grown? How was this tea made? Why does it taste this way?

    Andrew: Yeah, they are looking for an experience every time. I think that’s an excellent way of putting it and describing the generational shift. Many younger consumers are not drinking a whole lot of tea. We have a subscription service, and people said, “this is great, my only complaint is I’m getting too much tea.’

    People want to have an intentional, amazing, profound experience every time. If you create that brush with the sublime with your products, service, and relationship with your customer, then you’re really in tune with what folks want.

    There’s a sophistication with the consumer now since people can learn so much so fast about the supply chain. They will ask those questions to satisfy their own moral, philosophical demands for an ethically managed supply chain, but also to satisfy the sort of epicurean desires of being able to taste the terroir, the provenance of this product.

    With people coming in who have a high degree of knowledge, what they’re looking for is not only answers to those questions but a conversation around those questions. So it’s not just being able to provide that information but being able to have a conversation around that information.

    Because people are used to having this conversation, say on social media and over long distances over the internet, and getting this information directly from growers when they come into their local tea shop, they want to be able to continue sharing their own preferences and learn more about your own sourcing approach and just delighting in a conversation about something that both of you love.

    Taste of China (experiential tasting)

    Discover the wonders of Chinese tea as you taste a selection of high-quality teas featuring different origins and processing methods. Learn about different types of tea and their traditional health benefits. Great for parties and special events (baby showers, client/employee events, birthday parties, graduation parties, cultural experience days, etc.). Light snacks will be served with tea (1 snack per person included in the price).

    Cost: $18 per seat (minimum 6 seats, maximum 30 seats per event, no child pricing), 18% minimum gratuity not included
    Length: up to 90 minutes.

    Download tea and snack menu

    — Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea

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