• Tea Biz Podcast | Episode 49

    Hear the Headlines

    | Omicron Cancels Restaurant Reservations
    | Sri Lanka Barters $5 Million of Tea Monthly to Settle Iran Oil Debt
    | Foodservice Tea Still Recuperating, a TEAIN22 Forecast

    Seven-minute Tea News Recap

    Caption: Two years of COVID reset tea consumption at restaurants and cafés, initially reinforcing traditional expectations of comfort and warmth but evolving to permanently disrupt delivery, takeaway, menu choices, and celebratory occasions with tea.

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    This week Tea Biz travels to the Republic of Ireland to visit Teacraft founder and research scientist Nigel Melican who explains the necessity of mechanical tea harvesting and describes an innovation in two-man harvesters that features a rotating head that simulates a “selective” pluck without shearing leaves.

  • Tea Biz Podcast | Episode 48

    Hear the Headlines

    | TEAIN22: Bulk and Specialty Tea Prices Diverge
    | France Will Pay €1 Million to GI Certify Ceylon Tea
    | Sotheby’s Inaugural Tea & Teaware Auctions Total HDK8 Million

    PLUS Frugal Innovation, Part 2

    Seven-minute Tea News Recap

    Caption: A few of the 24 rare Puerh cakes and aged teas that were auctioned at Sotheby’s first tea auction. Photo replicated from Sotheby’s auction website.

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    This week Tea Biz travels to Asheville, North Carolina to meet teaware potter and ceramist Mary Cotterman who discusses the artisan spirit and state of mind of those embracing native clay and how COVID-19 lockdowns focused her attention like a monk… 

    …and then to Assam, India to hear Part 2 of the series Frugal Innovation. In this segment, Aravinda Anantharaman explores the application of Frugal Innovation in the tea garden and factories.  Shekib Ahmed of Koliabur Tea Estate explains that “Objective data changes the conversation in the factory from vague concepts to thresholds and parameters. It makes operations scientific so that we can improve.”

    Mary Cotterman turning a teapot lid at her studio in Asheville, North Carolina

    Aritisan Teaware Born from Native Mud

    By Dan Bolton

    Mary Cotterman was 12 when she learned to throw clay on a potter’s wheel. In the decades since, that wheel has never stopped spinning for this accomplished teaware artisan.  She describes the foundation of her work as functionality, “because for me, no matter how it looks, if I’m making a piece of teaware it needs to be a precise tool for pouring tea, so a lot of my design I take from traditional Chinese vessels, but I have learned small techniques and vernacular from all over.” Read more…

    Listen to the interview
    Mary Cotterman on crafting teaware in the US and the state of mind of artisans embracing native clay.
    “Technology has become much more affordable today than what it was 5-10 years ago because processing power has made it affordable. Devices are more affordable. Technology has become simpler,” says Shekib Ahmed.

    Embracing Simple Technology with Scalable Impact

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Frugal innovations utilize simple technology to address some of the most vexing challenges facing the tea industry. It’s an umbrella term for innovations that do not require much capital, carry a low financial risk, and can be done safely with high reliability. Abhijeet Hazarika, former head of process innovation at Tata Global Beverages, describes several innovations that have moved from the drawing board to become successful pilots at partner estates. explores the application of frugal innovations in the tea garden. Shekib Ahmed of Koliabur Tea Estate in Assam talks about experimenting with frugal innovations in the field, but it’s in the factory, he says, where these simple technologies show the biggest impact. Read more…

    Listen to the interview

    Frugal Innovation

    In Part 1, Aravinda Anantharaman explores the application of Frugal Innovation in buying and selling tea with Abhijeet Hazarika, former head of process innovation at Tata Global Beverages. Listen to Part 1 in Episode 47 of the Tea Biz Podcast


    TEAIN22: Bulk and Specialty Tea Prices Diverge

    By Dan Bolton

    The combined annual growth rate (CAGR) predicted for tea in 2022 suggests consumer preference for health enhancements and premium taste will widen the profitability gap separating bulk CTC (cut, tear, curl) from whole leaf and specialty grades.

    The fortunes of the tea industry are cyclical with better prices ahead.

    Demand in recent decades has been resilient, including during the Great Recession – some would say relentless. During the five years ending 2019, demand grew at around 4.5% per year. The pandemic slowed that pace but consumption in 2022 will top 6.5 billion kilos, enough to make three billion cups a day. Until recently growers managed to quench that thirst.

    What disrupted that equilibrium in 2020 is that tea output declined for the first time in 20 years. The resulting scarcity in domestic markets including India and China boosted prices. ICRA, a division of Moody’s Financial Ratings, in October 2020 predicted correctly that the bulk tea segment would report the highest operating profits in recent history. 

    In 2021 the situation reversed as more tea became available and prices declined. 

    Compounding the supply-demand equilibrium is the fact that consumer behavior rapidly changed consumption habits as office drinkers vanished, foodservice sales plummeted, and health and well-being became a daily concern. 

    Better tasting teas triumphed

    Once content with commodity offerings at the office and in restaurants, the pandemic accelerated growth in the residential segment. Sales of botanicals and blends in grocery and online spiked. In Germany for example, per capita consumption of teas and botanicals increased by an average of two liters to 70 liters per person per year.

    Market research firm Techanvio writes that “consumption of tea for residential use is significantly growing as consumers are continuously seeking changes in their lifestyles and food habits and experimenting with cuisines & beverages. Moreover, the rising at-home consumption of tea is expected to grow at a steady rate owing to increasing urbanization and the changing eating habits of consumers across the world.”

    Technavio predicts recent growth rates of 3% to 4.5% per year will accelerate to 6%+ (or greater) for the specialty tea market through 2026. The segment will add $5.5 billion in sales from 2021-2026, according to Techanvio.

    In contrast, bulk tea is predicted to have a challenging year, according to ICRA and The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM). In a joint report titled Tea Industry at the Cross Road, ASSOCHAM predicts that declining prices and increasing energy and labor costs will be a drag on financial performance.  

    ICRA Vice President of Corporate Sector Ratings, Kaushik Das says, “Players who are focused on producing quality teas are likely to witness a much lower decline this year as average auction prices of teas manufactured from own garden leaves of the top 50 estates of Assam and Dooars have witnessed a decline of only 8.5% against 25% for the overall auction average during the first half of the fiscal year 2022.” 

    In North India prices during the first half of the fiscal year declined 23% year-over-year, a drop of 60 rupees per kilo on average compared to 2020. Declines are even more severe in the bought leaf segment, dominated by smallholders. Averages in that segment fell 77 rupees per kilo, down 33% year-over-year. In Kenya, auction prices dropped 8% to $2.18 per kilo in the 12 months ending July 1.

    Globally tea production has now returned to pre-pandemic totals, increasing 13% during the first six months of 2021 as growers in India and Sri Lanka adjusted to the pandemic. Output in 2021 is expected to top 15% in Sri Lanka and India has so far produced 100 million more kilos of tea than during the same period last year. Output declined by 10% in Kenya but exports grew 19% helping keep demand and supply in balance.

    Biz Insight – The Economist Intelligence Unit first reported tea deficits in 2019 and 2020 and now forecasts demand will exceed supply in 2022 and 2023 by 427,000 metric tons. Warehouses are filled with tea so a shortfall of a few hundred thousand metric tons will not lead to shortages in the grocery aisle, but when combined with the cumulative harm from climate change and with food inflation at record levels, disrupting the long-standing equilibrium will certainly firm up prices that had fallen well below the long-term average of US$2.85 per kilo.

    TEAIN22 is one of a dozen New Year Tea Biz forecasts

    Tea remains unearthed from ancient tombs in Zoucheng, Jining City, Shandong Province, China. /CMG

    Sotheby’s Inaugural Tea Sale

    Legendary auction house Sotheby’s concluded its first rare tea and teaware auctions in Hong Kong this week. Sales totaled HDK$4 million for the teas. Reserve prices approached $1 million Hong Kong dollars for Puerh, some aged for more than a century. Teaware as old as 1000 years was featured in a parallel auction titled Echoes of Fragrance: Tea Culture from the Tang to the Qing Dynasties. Sales of teaware totaled HDK$4.3 million (about $552,000 in US dollars)

    The online catalog included a 1900 Chen Yun Hao puer cake and a 1950 Jia Ji Blue Label Tea that sold for HKD562,500 ($72,000). Bids for a 1937 basket of Sun Yi Shun (aged Liu An) opened at HKD $240,000 and sold for HDK300,000 ($38,000). A bid of $500,000 Hong Kong dollars is equivalent to about $65,000 US dollars and while that threshold was met for only the rarest of teas, all but two of the 24 lots were sold. Several of the more recent teas including a 1985 Snow Label sold for $112,500 Hong Kong dollars (about $14,000 US).

    The companion teaware auction featured 63 lots including a Jian black-glazed bowl dating back eight hundred years to the Song Dynasty and a rare iron-red crane cup dated to the reign of Emperor Jiajing in the 1500s. Temmoku patterns include a “hare’s fur” (that sold for HDK189,000) and a “partridge feather” (that sold for HDK403,200). Also purchased were celadon cups and stands, Yixing teapots, and a carved Tixi lacquered tea bowl that sold for HDK529,200 (about $70,000 in US dollars). During the Tang Dynasty, beginning about 1,400 years ago, tea was boiled and served as a soup with condiments. Examples from that period include conical tea bowls, unique utensils, tea caddies, trays. Winning bids ranged from HDK 25,000 to HDK50,000 (about $6,000 US)

      ? By Dan Bolton

    Yi Chang Hao (Jing Pin-Song Font) 1999 – HKD40000
    Blue Label Tea Cake (Jia Ji) 1950s
    Sun Yi Shun Aged Liu An
    (Five tickets) 1937 – HKD300,000

    France Will Pay €1 Million to GI Certify Ceylon Teas

    The French Development Agency (AFD) and CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development) announced a $1 million Euro grant to qualify Ceylon tea as a protected Geographical Indication (GI).

    The four-year grant finances technical assistance to enable the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) to protect its national brand from counterfeiters while assisting the Ceylon tea value chain “to become more productive, inclusive and sustainable,” reads the AFD press release.

    Eric Lavertu, Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka, said that “France has been a pioneer in the establishment of Geographical Indications to create added value to its quality products and to preserve the reputation of French gastronomy over the world. I am confident that the solid experience of CIRAD in partnership with the… [tea board] will allow a broad endorsement of the Geographic Indication by all stakeholders, based on high-level product quality, together with sound environmental and social standards.” 

    Currently, Ceylon tea does not have protection to uphold and authenticate its quality, resulting in counterfeit sales in various consumer countries.

    Biz InsightSri Lanka is Heading for a Fall | Fertilizer banned earlier in the year is now available but the cost has risen from SLRs1500 rupees a kilo to SLRs6600 rupees, about $33 US dollars per kilo and rising. A ban on the herbicide Glyphosate that was eased in November was reversed in December. Output recovered in 2021 but that recovery is highly unlikely to continue due to ongoing economic problems with widespread protests by farmers over the cost of food and unions pressing for a big wage increase. Sri Lanka, where tea is hand plucked, has the highest cost of production in the world, averaging SLRs 269 ($1.33) per kilo.

    – Dan Bolton

    • Read more… indicates the article continues. Learn more… links to reliable outside sources.

    India Tea Price Watch | Sale 49

    Kolkata Sale 49 saw good demand for all teas. The Middle East was active for orthodox tea. Sales of Darjeeling and Dust relied on local buyers. Hindustan Unilever was active in Dust. Prices dropped marginally when compared with Sale 48; Darjeeling saw the biggest price drop of INRs 50. However, there were fewer out-lots of Darjeeling this week, compared to Sale 48. In Guwahati, the market opened to good demand with major blenders active for both CTC leaf and dust. Read more…

    India Tea Price Watch | Aravinda Anantharaman

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  • Frugal Innovation

    There are few entry barriers to tea. It does not demand heavy infrastructure. But the complaint from smallholders selling raw leaf to large-scale tea producers operating multiple factories is that for the past decade, farmgate prices are not commensurate with costs. Now the economics of the tea trade is gradually shifting from oversupply to scarcity. At the same time, some quiet work underway in India is yielding encouraging results that lower the cost of tea production, improve quality, and ease a shortage of labor. The most powerful driver for change is revenue. Prices globally, on average, increased by $0.21 cents per kilo during 2021, according to Trading Economics. Abhijeet Hazarika, IT analyst @TeaSigma and former head of process innovation at Tata Global Beverages, observed that “Tea is not a very high profit yielding commodity and will not be so in the foreseeable future until some tech breakthrough happens.” The frugal innovations described in this series, combined with higher prices may herald that breakthrough.

    • Caption: Shekib Ahmed at Koliabur Tea Estate in Assam
    Hear the interview (Part 2)
    Abhijeet Hazarika and Shekib Ahmed on frugal innovations that scale

    Tea bushes ready for a plucking round at Koliabur Tea Estate, Assam, India

    Embracing Simple Technology with Scalable Impact

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Frugal innovations utilize simple technology to address some of the most vexing challenges facing the tea industry. It’s an umbrella term for innovations that do not require much capital, carry a low financial risk and can be done safely with high reliability. Abhijeet Hazarika, former head of process innovation at Tata Global Beverages, describes several innovations that have moved from the drawing board to become successful pilots at partner estates. In Part 1, Aravinda Anantharaman looked at frugal innovation in buying and selling tea. In Part 2, she explores the application of frugal innovations in the tea garden.

    Shekib Ahmed of Koliabur Tea Estate in Assam talks about experimenting with frugal innovations in the field, but it’s in the factory, he says, that these simple technologies show the biggest impact.

    “With data,” says Ahmed, “I have an objective source of attention to detail. I don’t have to depend on someone who has been working in the industry for 40 years, who uses his expertise and muscle memory to guide us. I have objective data. And that really helps me change the conversation in the factory. I’m not talking of vague concepts. I’m talking about numbers. I’m saying, this is the parameter that we want, and we must keep it within this threshold. It makes it scientific.

    “What happens is that even the youngest boy or girl who’s joining as an executive, he or she can pick it up very quickly. She doesn’t have to be there for 20 years. Now, we have a young lady in one of our factories in Dubba. She’s running a 12-hour shift by herself and it’s just data. She has the data. She knows that we must stay within these parameters for the quality to be good.

    “She’s in her 30s. Normally, guys running factories at that level, are in their late 50s and 60s, because you need to have that much experience. But if we can objectify data, we can have younger blood come in quickly. They are also not operating blind. I’m not just telling them, make good tea. I’m telling them this machine should be running from this much to this much. The sensor will inform you whether you are in that range. In our shared platforms, we have a cloud-based platform where we share the data, and we keep verifying it. There are many little things in production where we were operating blind and now, we have a certain level of clarity so that really helps us improve.”

    Ahmed meters temperatures in the factory. Incidentally, this was developed by a young boy at a cost that Hazarika only will say, “is laughable”. Three machines are ready, and one of them is at Ahmed’s factory. Attention to detail, which was once subjective, has now become scientific and objective, says Ahmed. He likens processing tea to cooking, and how by tweaking the temperatures and the RPM of machines, the quality of tea changes exponentially. These innovations are sensor-based, that are already in use in other industries. Ahmed reminds me that the color sorters in orthodox tea production were derived from rice sorters.

    Saurav Berlia with visitors at LR Group’s Dooars estate.

    And finally, innovation in the field

    During our conversation, Hazarika discusses people, welfare, and productivity. Speaking on low productivity, he says, it’s not because people are shying away from work but because of the nature of the work.

    Hazarika says “There are times when I stand in the gardens in August, and it is so hot that I could not stand more than 45 minutes to an hour before I felt unwell. But these people do it day in day out. It’s difficult and I don’t think anybody talks about this. So much hype about the romance of the woman carrying the bags, how many realize what goes on in that case, it’s like a furnace!”

    We talk about harvesters. Most of the harvesting machines, he explains, are handheld machines and they tend to be noisy and heavy to carry. Therefore, men are assigned the machines. Not only is it tiring but it’s hard to keep one’s hands steady with them. This means that the quality of the plucking is not very good. Terrain poses another challenge for harvesters even in Assam’s valleys, where it is an uneven terrain. This challenge is amplified in the hills. Hazarika talks about harvesters not as a means to increase quantity but to aid quality.

    He is looking at two major deliverables. One, the quality of the finely plucked should be at least 5x better than what is plucked by current machines and at least 2x better than what has been plucked by hand. Two, pest controls. The cost of pest and disease control is significant, especially where there are large areas to monitor, which is the case with estates that span many hectares. Pests can spread within two to three days offering a very small window to arrest their spread. An early warning system, says Shekib, can make an enormous difference. However, this seems to be a mammoth task — perhaps the most challenging space to build innovation — because, for every pest, Hazarika says, a year’s worth of data needs to be collected to feed the algorithms.

    Nowhere does the conversation turn to machines replacing people. Instead, the conversation repeatedly brings up utilizing labor effectively to increase output but with better quality.

    “I think the tea industry supply chain is completely out of sync with the way modern supply chains work. There is no concept of made-to-order.”

    – Abhijeet Hazarika

    From ‘make to stock’ to ‘make to order’

    Ultimately, it comes down to the perennial problem of oversupply and reduced demand, and the mad scramble for markets. Indian tea producers do not make to order but make to stock, their priority is to sell. And the circle that begins with variability in the quality of tea closes with variability in price realization. Made-to-order brings other advantages, as it is collaborative and brings both technical and technological inputs as part of the process.

    “I think the tea industry supply chain is completely out of sync with the way modern supply chains work,” says Hazarika. “There is no concept of made-to-order. They will say forward contracts are made to order. I beg to disagree because, when you say I will take a tea from you, I mean I will take a tea off a particular quality from you. The guy who’s making the tea, in many cases, is not even aware of what you want. So, the buyer has permission to reject it.”

    “One of the most important aspects of made-to-order is to leverage the unique aspects of an estate of the factory that has consumer value. Somebody might make tea that makes good color which is preferred in Maharashtra or some may make tea with a sweet after taste which the Gujaratis like. We need to be able to treat every garden as unique and not as a commodity.”

    While this is a familiar story, of not treating tea as a commodity, Hazarika offers a roadmap of sorts that is possible with frugal innovation. Once you have quality specifications, a producer can do real-time monitoring during manufacturing. All the resources are focused on producing only what meets the specs. This in turn optimizes the cost of production and increases the likelihood of the customer buying it because it’s been made to their specs.

    Which brings the conversation to buyers because the change has to begin with them. If the large tea buyers are procuring 1,000 mn kilos of tea a year, assuming an average estate produces 1 mn kilos of tea, that’s 1,400 estates that can cater to one single buyer. Change can begin with one single buyer.

    Frugal Innovators from left, Ratan Ghosh, Bappa Dutta, Mr. Sakil, Nayan Sarkar, SN Singh, Jamil Aktar, Prasenjit Mandal, and Sohag Mandal. Photo courtesy LR Group.

    Saurav Berlia talks about how he is piloting the make-to-order model. He has partnered with a buyer who has agreed to buy his tea at a higher-than-average price. In return, Berlia assures the buyer will receive:

    • – quality (achieved by managing the parameters while processing in the factory)
    • – consistency (ensured by recording data such as temperature, moisture levels)
    • – safety (being done by educating growers on chemical usage and monitoring it)

    There may not be certifications here, but data is being recorded digitally and analyzed. For those who have wondered about the alternative to expensive certifications, this may well be it. Because the proof is there for anyone to see.

    Ahmed talks about how the conversations are changing, becoming more specific. It’s helping him build a young team who are learning, not averse to technology, and who are razor-focused on quality. Innovation, he says, is no longer just for multinationals but for everyone.

    “The only way I can do something better than the much larger tea garden groups is if I can execute innovation quickly and if I can execute quality improvement better and in the most cost way,” says Ahmed. And that can only happen with teamwork.

    The larger outcome is more significant. Frugal innovation will change the way the industry is run. It will no longer be about waiting for an executive to invest 30-40 years in the factory to be relied upon to run it. Frugal innovation can bring effective processes into play in a way that someone young can be trained early on. This is important in a state like Assam where migration is extremely high and the intellectually able who leave don’t return.

    The work on frugal innovation is being made possible by harnessing vast industry experience, a wide network, and an active collaboration with academia. Support and partnerships have come from major tea buyers. The possibilities where tech can play are vast and are seen by both Ahmed and Berlia as the way forward.

    “Come in with an open mind,” advises Ahmed. It requires a willingness to try piloting the various options. And because these innovations are frugal by design, it’s affordable even for small growers and small gardens. Berlia confesses that he didn’t buy into it readily but the potential to earn a better price for the tea was a strong pull. Within a month, he says, he could tell it was working and he’s since been advocating it.

    For an industry that’s been grappling with multiple challenges, frugal innovation is a low-risk and impactful option, spearheaded by an industry veteran with an eye for innovation. For every successful experiment, there are many that fail, but these are essential to the process that begins with the question, “What if…?”

    Those interested in pilot projects can contact [email protected]

    Hear the full interview (Parts 1 & 2)
    Abhijeet Hazarika and Shekib Ahmed on frugal innovations that scale

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