• Folklore Tea

    A recent development in tea in India has been the rise of new brands, many that have their roots in tea regions. Almost all of them seek to bridge producers and consumers. Most rely on the narrative that accompanies a product from its place of origin. For consumers, it’s in part vicarious living and a window to another world. This is as good as it gets for those who want to know who made their tea and where it comes from.

    Listen to the interview

    A conversation with Subhasish Borah, co-founder Folklore Tea, Assam

    Birinci Borah at Folklore Tea

    Exceptionally Local Teas that Connect with Consumers

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    Emphasizing the local characteristics of Assam (instead of crafting tea to the expectations of export markets) shows respect for the land, customs, and artisanal craft, according to Folklore Tea co-founders Subhasish Borah, an urban planner, and Bidisha Das, a business management grad.

    Folklore Tea founders Bidisha Das, left, and Subhasish Borah

    Folklore Tea, based in Guwahati, actively works with farmers to become something more than a marketing platform for their teas, explains Borah, 30, and Das, 29. The couple run the Kohuwa Collective, a space that comes with a slow food café and tea room, with rooms for collaborative clothing and pottery workshops – concepts that seem to drive their work. They launched Folklore early in 2020 and, as a brand, are keen to carry the farmers’ stories.

    Folklore is anchored in the idea of storytelling and connecting to consumers intimately. Each tea acknowledges the farmer who grew it. Each tea is given a name, and a poem accompanies it.

    Each eco-friendly packet is numbered with a handwritten note addressing the recipient. And while this helps connect with the drinker, it’s not Folklore’s unique sales proposition. That lies in the experiments and work they do with their farmers.

    Folklore works with three small growers, Beeman Agarwalla, Birinsi Borah, and Tarun Gogoi, who collectively cultivate about three hectares (seven acres) of tea. They also run Prithivi, a farmer producer company that now includes 56 members with farms ranging from 0.2 to 3 hectares in size. All the growers are geographically located close to each other, making this a community enterprise. Beeman, Birinci, and Tarun have chosen organic farming and work with the other members to convert inorganic farms to organic. The process takes a long time, up to five years, during which farmers have to face a loss in yield and income. The association supports them by way of small scholarships for children and providing compost from a small vermicomposting unit.

    Beeman Agarwalla and Tarun Gogoi. Behind it all, there are real people – small tea growers whose innovation improves the craft and whose land stewardship protects the environment and the quality of your tea.

    “Behind it all, there are real people – small tea growers whose innovation improves the craft and whose land stewardship protects the environment and the quality of your tea. It is their passion that makes the tea taste better.” – Folklore Tea

    In Assam, small tea growers sell their green leaves to bought leaf factories that manufacture and sell tea. Most of these factories make CTC tea, which is bought and blended for the domestic market. Farmers adopting organic cultivation find no advantages in price as CTC factories are not always organic. Here, the tea is mixed, and the source and style of cultivation are lost. With no advantages to producing organic tea, the farmer has no incentive to stay the course. And this is something that Folklore is trying to address.

    Subhasish describes a proposed project for a mini-community factory that will be used to manufacture organic CTC with leaves sourced from their own farmer community. Currently, they have six small units where their tea is made. These units are not heavily equipped with machinery, and even the CTC is made using traditional wooden tools.

    Related: A Local Movement is Brewing in Assam

    “Right now, there are 56 growers who have joined us. So, collectively, whenever we will be able to set up the factory then we have a huge leaf bank. If we get this funding, which I’m not sure we will get, then of course we go for CTC as it will help not only these three people but all 56 families. That means almost 180 people will be benefited with this factory, it will be huge change in the village,” he said.

    “Whatever we can do in terms of packaging, design, or marketing will help them,” he said.

    Folklore’s association with Prithivi is a close and mutually beneficial one. Prithvi and its farmers brought knowledge of cultivars and tea making, along with market intelligence. Says Subhasish, “Most of the small tea growers with whom we are working started back in the early 1990s. They planted whatever tea bushes they could get from nearby tea gardens. The knowledge of cultivars was not very prominent at that time.”

    The Folklore team decided to study tea and brought knowledge and the willingness to experiment in tea making. Their experiments are with clones, leaf-to-bud ratio, and processing methods such as pan-roasting and naturally scenting tea. Only a small volume of made tea, not more than 300-350 kilos, is sold under the Folklore brand, primarily black and oolong whole leaf tea and some CTC.

    On average a small tea grower can pluck 6-7 kilos of unprocessed tea daily to make 3-4 kilos of finished tea.

    They are experimenting with rolling techniques to improve appearance, experimenting with blending to get the right flavor. And they have also taken on the immense challenge that oolong brings to tea making.

    Artisanal tea making is still has a niche market within India. Folklore seems conscious of this, taking a B2C approach for India and a B2B platform that caters to a global market, with customers in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. Since the scale is still small, the brand can sustain its relationship and customer base.

    As Subhasish says, there are two main challenges and opportunities of Assam’s tea industry: people who live in the tea areas of the state don’t know enough about loose leaf teas. The irony of producing one of the finest teas and yet sending them to faraway markets is the story across India’s tea-growing regions.

    “It’s very sad,” says Subhasish, “because people in their own region, especially in the villages and towns that are surrounded by tea gardens, the people don’t know much about loose leaf teas. It’s absurd that mainstream media is promoting the concept of green tea in Assam. Green teas have been grown here for years. It is supposed to be the other way around,” he says.

    “Paying 500 rupees for a kilo of tea is not a thing here,” he says. The economic status is not very high. Assam’s annual per capita income is INRs 119,155 ($1,700 compared to the all-India average of $2,100 per capita).

    “People collectively have less money so marketing loose leaf teas at a higher price is difficult. It takes a lot of effort to make loose leaf tea and if you’re selling it for let’s say INRs 300 to 400 rupees per kilo then it’s not giving me anything.

    “Consider that you can get a kilo of CTC for INRs 90 to 100 rupees ($1.20). In this scenario everyone is going to buy CTC but it’s weird. In Assam the culture of water-based tea is also very high but that water-based tea is made using CTC, not loose leaf teas.

    “Most of the growers face difficulties here, they don’t have the human resources or the financial resources to do marketing or packaging. Many people who start making teas go back to selling fresh leaves so that they don’t have to think about marketing again. And many people go back to inorganic because if they ultimately have to sell the leaves to bought leaf factories then then there is no point in maintaining organic because the factories are not certified to process organic tea,” he said.

    Due to financial limitations, few of our growers can afford the expense of the organic certification process, but the growers are far beyond it. They preserve ancient processing traditions and care deeply about their environment. They put their heart and soul into the teas they make naturally, says Subhasish.

    As much as the conversation is on branding and experimentation, ultimately, what will make a brand like Folklore work is its impact on the community. Already there are plans to set up a bamboo cottage on one of the tea farms open for experiential travel. Assam has a lot on offer, from textiles to food, and of course tea. “We want to bring people,” says Subhasish. We want to show the things that are going on here. That it’s not only tea, but a lot of associated cultural elements too.” He talks about the vision to make the area an open museum, where “the entire place can act as a museum, all the houses can act as a museum and the traditional tools which are used in the processing are living heritage.”

    Subhasish describes Folklore as a “passion project.” Perhaps that’s what Assam needs more of, passionate marketers who can join hands with farmers to create quality teas and find a market for them for the greater good of the community. And if it includes nudging local preferences towards better tea for their consumption, that’s a bonus. 

    Trouville Black Tea

    People have spun stories on my genesis.
    Was it a monk who discovered me? or
    Was it a king who dropped me in boiling water?
    Yet my origin is unknown
    Since then, I have grown
    And grew and grew some more
    Moving across spaces and borders
    A living chronicle of several cultures.
    I’m Trouville. I was found through pure chance.

    Subhasish Borah

    Birinci with his wife. Small holder farms ranges from a half an acre to seven acres.

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  • Q|A Henrietta Lovell

    Henrietta Lovell seeks to redefine good tea as a beverage that tastes amazing. Tea must also benefit the people who craft it and those who drink it, she says. Her firm buys direct from farmers globally, advocating farmer support and development over costly certifications and rejects teas grown with pesticides and herbicides or blended with additives and flavoring.

    Listen to the Interview

    Henrietta Lovell discusses her passion for tea

    Rare Tea Lady
    Since founding The Rare Tea Co. in 2004, Henrietta Lovell has charted her own course in tea.

    The Value in High Quality Tea

    Having read Henrietta Lovell’s fabulously engaging book “Infused, Adventures in Tea” earlier this year with TeaBookClub, I jumped at the chance to chat to Henrietta the tea person, founder of Rare Tea Company, mistress of the artful blend and champion of tea farmers. Join me as the Rare Tea Lady spills the tea.

    Kyle Whittington: I’m fascinated about the moment someone “gets” tea. What’s been your experience of this?

    Henrietta Lovell: It’s very interesting. If they’ve already got a preconception of what tea is, it is harder. So if I’ve got a young person, or they don’t have a very firm, fixed preconception. They might be a little bit more fluid, bit more open to experiencing new things. So then it’s like, “Oh, I’d love to try.” And then “Oh, this is amazing, this is delicious.” But when someone’s got a very strong opinion beforehand, then it’s a really wonderful revelation. Because you know that you’re not just making someone fall in love, you’re making them change an established thought pattern and it’s super exciting. But I don’t really do it, the tea does it. I’ve got a very privileged position where people will trust me enough now to try things and it’s just absolutely wonderful.

    It’s one of the most life a?rming experiences. Really, the most is when they’re very resolutely not going to like it. They think they know what they like. And then, they have a taste of something that just starts to excite them. And it’s like “Oh, okay” but their face is still completely closed, they’re just there because they need to be or they’ve been dragged in. And then the face softens, the body language softens, and a sort of joy starts to creep into the face.

    Because pleasure is a joy. Let’s not forget. It’s not just amazing flavors. It’s really a sense of euphoria that overcomes you when you discover something that is so beautiful, and so joyous.

    Kyle: So is there one tea that really captures people?

    Henrietta: I mean that obviously we will have very di?erent tastes and flavor profiles that we enjoy most. But interestingly, it’s often either an English breakfast or jasmine tea because we know those teas very well. And experience is so extraordinarily wonderful because you think you know something, and then it’s opened out to you.

    Jasmine silver tip because it’s so clean and bright and fresh and it’s scented with jasmine flower. There’s no flavoring in there. This is just the flowers that have given up their scent, and it’s been absorbed into the tea. That is such an extraordinary experience. People are like “Oh, ooh!” And it’s so extraordinary. They’re sort of, “I know it but I don’t know it.” And they feel quite discombobulated at first, and then very joyous.

    And then the other thing is to do is an English breakfast with an industrial teabag, and then an English breakfast made with beautiful teas crafted to be something better than the sum of its parts. And that’s really amazing. You try them side by side, and then there is this revelation because you’ve probably drunk that industrial teabag tea every day of your life, maybe six times a day. And then you have something that is remarkably better. You’re like shit, what have I been missing out on my whole life. And that can be a little bit hurtful. You can’t argue with your taste buds. So when your taste buds say, “Oh my God this is better.” you have to just let go of the past and go Okay, the world is opened out. Whatever their taste background, whatever their profession, whether they’re a taxi driver or a famous chef, or a sommelier, everybody can taste the di?erence. So it’s much more accessible. It’s just having that first sip.

    Kyle: You’re known for creating some fabulous blends. But sometimes, blending is seen as the poor relation to a “pure” tea. How do you see blends and the art of blending?

    Henrietta: I think it’s the intention of the blend that’s absolutely important. Are you trying to create something that’s better than the sum of its parts? Or are you trying to disguise or make bland and easily indistinguishable? But it can be something really extraordinary. And with such a huge cornucopia of flavors within black teas, but then with blending, it becomes exponential. Absolutely exponential, what you can achieve. I’m still shocked. I’m still surprised now.

    Because it’s never the sum of its parts.

    The history of scientific revolutions is often led by mistake and that’s often been the case for me.

    My favorite thing that I’m drinking at the moment is a blend of almond blossoms from Tarragona with Croatian Camomile. But I never thought I would do that, I did it totally by mistake. I have to admit that to you. I charge lots and lots of money for making blends for people and then sometimes I just do one very good one by total mistake.

    Kyle: I’m interested, what’s something that bugs you in the tea world?

    Henrietta: But I wanted to say that there’s a lot of snobbery around tea and we should be more inclusive. If we’re going to make a real revolution in the tea world and get people to understand that there is this cornucopia of deliciousness and joy and flavour. Which will in turn, nourish and support the tea community throughout the world. We got to stop putting our noses in air and being snobby and shutting everyone out who doesn’t know, you know, the names of tea estates in Taiwan. It’s really not that interesting, what the code of that that particular varietal is. Because there’s so much more to do with flavor.

    Kyle: Talking of snobbery, how do you deal with the naming of a tea? What’s your approach?

    Henrietta: Two of the farmers that I admire most (one is Jun Chiyabari in Nepal) they refuse to use any of the old colonial terms. So they won’t do a TGFOP or whatever and they’re now even not calling things green or black tea. Because why is it that it has to be a green or a black tea? One of the teas we have is called Himalayan Spring and it’s actually technically, if you’re going to be super technical, a black tea though it tastes like green tea. And so if we called it black tea it would disappoint everybody. So why do we need to? The flavor profile is softer, richer, much greener than a lot of green teas. If you’re comparing it with a very deep Sencha, you’d be like, well, this is not. How can we call these two things green tea? It’s like trying to compare a whiskey with a rum almost.

    If you really love tea, if it’s a real love, not an intellectual challenge, then it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. And if you need to know more about it, you should be able to delve in. I ask questions of my farmers all the time passed on from my customers because that connection is jolly important. If you really need to know varietal number of the tea then we’ll find that out and get it to you. But I don’t think that should be the thing that leads because it’s really o? putting.

    People often question me on our packaging, it’s often very simple on the front. It might say just green tea or oolong tea and then on the back it says more stu?. And that’s because I began in 2004 and no one had ever heard of oolong tea, so I didn’t call it Tie Guan Yin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy. So I’ve really tried and it’s been super interesting how farmers have adopted that same thing.

    My favorite new terroir, and one that I admired tremendously is in New Zealand in Waikato. They’re producing tea and again they’re not using traditional names. They’re making oolong teas and they’re not calling them oolong they’re calling them, you know, dark or light or whatever. Just simple words that people will be able to understand from about the flavor.

    Kyle: You work directly with farms, what is it about working directly that is so important for you?

    Henreitta: Working with farms. Working with people to understand, number one, there’s a value in high quality tea, but working with farms. That we don’t just ostracise people or communities that have been reliant on industrial tea. We don’t just say “Oh, we can’t work with them.”

    Often people speak about farms that produce speciality tea and non speciality tea. If the person who’s picking the tea is paid the same for both. Well then that’s not fair really, because then the value of that speciality tea is not getting to the picker. And this is not okay. We shouldn’t really work with commercial farms that are producing non speciality tea. 

    There is not a problem with supply in the world of speciality tea. There is a problem with demand. That is the problem, right? 

    So it’s our job to try and spread the demand and to educate people and to show people that there’s a reason and a value for buying more expensive tea.

    “We no longer work with the Fairtrade organization. We realized we could have more impact by working directly with our farms. We return a percentage of our revenue (not profit that can be fudged).”

    But if a farmer is trying to come out of a world where they’ve been reliant on selling commodity tea, cheaper tea because that’s where the market was, we can’t punish them when they’re trying to then create speciality tea. And this makes me so mad. And when you talk about wages and you say, “Well, I shouldn’t work with a farm where the wages are low.” How are they going to improve the wages if we don’t buy more speciality tea? We need to work with these farmers because we have to understand that we need to have relationships. How do you get to that? Like working in a farm in Malawi; wages are low, life expectancy is low, standard of living is low. How do we make a fucking difference there? How do we do it differently? And it’s not by only working with a tiny small holder or tiny farm that just makes speciality tea. That’s part of the solution. But it’s not the only solution. 

    Rare Tea Co.

    Henrietta Lovell is perhaps best known as the Rare Tea Lady, after her company “Rare Tea Co.” rareteacompany.com. Sourcing directly from farmers since the very beginning, Henrietta has traveled the world, searching for rare and precious harvests of teas and tisanes. Her quest has taken her on many adventures, from the far flung and bizarre to those closer to home. She has worked with some of the most prestigious restaurants and hotels around the world, pairing teas and creating bespoke blends. Henrietta founded Rare Charity, which works to bring educational opportunity to young people in tea growing areas.

    “The people working in tea estates represent some of the most marginalized communities in many of the world’s poorest countries,” writes Lovell. “Our aim is to give ambitious young people the agency to uplift themselves, their households and their community. Education enables these young people to return to their community as qualified professionals, to implement long-term social change,” she said.

    — Kyle Whittington

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  • Victory for Japanese Tea Marathon

    As athletes from around the world competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, tea lovers participated in an event of their own: the Japanese Tea Marathon.

    The marathon included 15 days of online events that shone a spotlight on Japan’s teas, producers, and the 15 tea-producing regions. Led by the Global Japanese Tea Association and Japan Tea Central Council, tea marathoners learned about 30 Japanese teas, how to brew them, and where they’re grown.

    Kyle Whittington, a Tea Biz contributor and host of the TeaBookClub, attended every tea marathon event, tasting 30 teas over 15 sessions. He gives the event a gold medal!

    Listen to Tea Biz’s interview with Kyle Whittington:

    Kyle Whittington on successfully finishing the Japanese Tea Marathon.

    Marathon hosts were members of the Global Japanese Tea Association

    A Race for Tea Lovers

    Jessica Natale Woollard: What was it about the Japanese Tea Marathon that inspired you to attend so diligently?

    Kyle Whittington: It was the range of teas, that’s what really got me hooked. I have to admit, I fully intended not to attend all the sessions when I signed up for the Tea Marathon. But once I got started, I was so caught up with the variety and quality of the teas, I developed a serious case of FOMO and couldn’t miss a day! After the first few sessions, I thought, I have to attend tomorrow’s. The presentations, chats with the farmers, and videos, got me hooked into exploring each new tea region of Japan each day.

    About midway through the marathon, I decided to sign up as a Pioneer Member with the Global Japanese Tea Association. I thought what they were doing, their passion, was inspiring, and I had to support it. Whenever I struggled to get up early to attend the marathon, making sure I turned up to support them was what spurred me on.

    Jessica: Did you set up your own tea rituals when partaking in the tea marathon? For example, did you select specific vessels to use with certain teas or set up your space a certain way?

    Kyle: I have a little bit of an admission here. I attended the first few events from the bath — with camera and microphone off and sticker over the camera on the iPad, just to be sure that I wasn’t flashing the world! I’m just not a morning person. So being compos mentis, awake and functioning for 8 am and looking respectable for the camera was not going to work for me and took some getting used to. My solution was to soak in the bath while I adjusted to the schedules. The first two or three sessions I did from the bath, and then got up and did the tea tastings downstairs. The rest of the sessions I did on my iPad while I did the washing up, made breakfast, and went through my morning routine. When it came to brewing the teas, then I would sit down, get out my nice Japanese tea ware and enjoy brewing the teas along with everybody else on the marathon.

    That was really nice — delving into my collection and selecting pieces based on the tea we were brewing and its requirements for brewing, the recommendations the farmers gave about volume and water temperature. I got to use pieces I haven’t used in ages. It was so nice to do that and then post some pictures to Instagram.

    The first day of the marathon was quite special as I had my first tea ceremony guests since before the first lockdown last year. I saved the teas from that day’s session to serve to my guests. I used the Fukamushicha from Kagoshima and brewed it cold to serve when they arrived as a refresher. I served it to my guests in the garden while we chatted. Later, we brewed the tea hot. I made a ponzu dressing (soy sauce and lemon), and we ate the tea leaves after brewing three infusions. It was a lovely touch to open the first day of the marathon in that special way.

    Jessica: How did hearing from the tea producers right before you tried their teas influence the tasting experience?

    Kyle: We heard from the farmers before and during the tasting, learning about their growing and processing. What I really enjoyed was them teaching us how to brew their teas. You can’t get much better brewing advice than that. It was interesting to explore with them their individual approaches and practices. We learned so much from them — new and interesting brewing methods for specific teas. They had great fun showing us the special tea ware they had developed with local potters specifically for those teas that they grow. You were actually learning how to use the tea at home from the person who grew it.

    Jessica: Did any particular farmer’s story capture your imagination?

    Kyle: Several! Their passion and dedication really shone through, as did that of the marathon organizers. I was particularly caught by the story of Otoyo Goishicha Kyodo Kumiai from Kochi prefecture. He makes Goishicha, a rare fermented tea. He was the last farmer making it at one point and saved it from extinction. There are now three producers, but he saved this tea; it would no longer exist otherwise. It was captivating.

    Slabs of dried, fermented Goishicha. Photo credit: Simona Suzuki

    I also really enjoyed Forthees from Nagasaki. We heard a really lovely story of four young tea farmers who joined together to open a factory and create their special teas, which we tasted. It was just lovely, the way they’d come together in their community to push forward and promote tea together. We tasted their Tamaryuokucha and Bo Hojicha, made from the stems from matcha production.

    Jessica: Is there one tea in particular that, because of the marathon, is on your list to explore further?

    Kyle: How to pick just one? I might have to pick two or three.

    Goishicha absolutely! I only heard about this rare, fermented Japanese tea last year. I was excited when I saw it was on the list for the Japanese Tea Marathon, and I was looking forward to hearing from the producer. I loved it. It was amazing. Absolutely delicious. I drank it all day; it’s one of those teas you just keep on brewing. It’s way at the top of my shopping list.

    Sannen Bancha, note the unusual inclusion of thick, woody stems. Photo by Denis Torres.

    I also really enjoyed the Sannen Bancha, which I’m sipping as we’re chatting. It’s made from tea bushes that have been left to grow for three years before being harvested and processed. It has huge big chunks of stem in it, and it tastes really delicious. It’s sweet and gorgeous.

    The other one that stood out for me was the Gyokuro from Yoshida Meicaen in Kyoto. It was amazing. I had goosebumps when I took the first sip. It was one of those incredibly amazing teas.

    Gyokuro from Yoshida Meicaen in Kyoto. Photo credit: Kyle Whittington

    Jessica: After this rigorous test of your tea endurance, are there any lessons learned you can share with our listeners?

    Kyle: One thing that really came through is the importance of brewing techniques. Understanding each individual tea and its brewing requirements and characteristics. Especially with the Japanese teas. With the farmers showing us different ways to brew, it showed how much a difference it makes. The Japanese method of boiling the water and then cooling it to the required temperature actually makes a huge difference to the taste of the tea and how it brews rather than what we tend to do, which is heat the water right to the required temperature.

    I hope we’re going to have more of these events in the future, given that we’re used to online events now. With any event like this, I think it’s important to find a way to make the structure and the time work for you — like I did, by attending from the bath! When events are digital, we have flexibility that we wouldn’t have if we were attending in person.

    Explore Kyle’s favorite Japanese teas — Yokuro, Goishicha, Sannen Bancha — and all the other teas from the Japanese Tea Marathon on the Japanese Tea Association website.

    The Global Japanese Tea Association reports that association membership increased by 25% during the course of the marathon, with some 89 new member registrations. GJTA has therefore, thanks to the Japanese Tea Marathon, achieved their target of reaching 100 Pioneer Members, those who were the first to trust in and support the association.

    Listen to Tea Biz’s interview with Simona Suzuki of the Japanese Tea Association.

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