• SofaSummit 2021

    On May 21st, viewers around the world will tune in to 11 hours of talks with tea professionals from the tea lands. The free event, which will be streamed on YouTube, is the creation of Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. 

    SofaSummit organizer Shabnam Weber

    SofaSummit 2021

    Virtual Tea Chat Unites Tea Commuity

    Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada is again hosting a SofaSummit to celebrate International Tea Day. The virtual event begins at 8 a.m. (EST) Friday, May 21.

    Jessica Natale Woollard: You’ll be streaming for 11 hours straight. What can our listeners expect this year. 

    Shabnam Weber: Well, we started the SofaSummit last year out of necessity because of Covid and the inability to do anything in person. But it was such a big success that I’ve decided to do it again. So we’ve got, I believe, 24 or 25 guests from around the world and we will be traveling through about 13 or 14 different time zones chatting with a variety of people representing all parts of the supply chain. 

    Some are business owners, some are tea lovers and some are heads of companies. Some just have a deep passion for tea which is the tread that connects all of us. 

    Jessica: It sounds amazing. That’s a lot of speakers and over 11 hours. 

    Shabnam: It’s a long day and I can tell you from experience last year it is exhausting, but it’s worth every moment. 

    Jessica: Who do you think would find value in watching these sessions? 

    Shabnam: I think that because our guests represent such a wide range of the industry, I think everybody who has any interest in tea would be interested. 

    Jessica: Do you have any advice for avoiding information overload for viewers that want to experience the full 11 hours. Any tips on how people can get the most out of these sessions?

    Shabnam: I think the best way is what people did last year. They sort of tuned in and tuned out because we’re on YouTube Live all day long. You can come and go as you please, whatever your schedule allows. 

    Another option is to tune into the topics or regions you find interesting. We’ll be posting the schedule in advance so you can pick and choose what you’re interested in initially. We record all 11 hours and segment it out so you can find the point on the video and fast-forward to catch whichever speaker. 

    This lets you dissect it after the fact. It’s not listen now or it’s gone forever, you always have the chance to go back and pick up things you may not have heard at the time.

    Jessica: Your second year sounds extremely well organized and I understand that people can even watch last year’s SofaSummit, correct? 

    Shabnam: That’s right, if you go to our YouTube channel our our website you will find a link. Click on events to launch a microsite that we’ve created for International Tea Day. We will be sharing the link for the YouTube channel the week before the event and we’ll have that on our social media platforms as well. 

    It was a big leap of faith last year and a big testament to the tea industry that on a Monday morning I decided to do this and by Tuesday afternoon, everybody I sent invites to had said yes, I’m on board, count me in. 

    This year has been no different. Everybody wants to connect. We are part of this amazing industry we call tea. 

    Jessica: That speaks volumes to the contacts that you’ve built around the world. Canada isn’t a country strongly associated with tea culture or industry although we have passionate, devoted tea drinkers and tea professionals, why did the tea and herbal Association of Canada decide to be the one to organize this celebration of International Tea Day? 

    Shabnam: There are different events happening with different people in different parts of the world. There are many different associations doing different things. This just happened to be my brainchild and I just happened to be Canadian so that’s really what it boils down to.

    Globally the celebration is a testament to tea. It’s ability to draw us all together is quite phenomenal. The people that you connect with are even more extraordinary. It is a business and they’re earning a livelihood but at the same time, there’s this deep deep love that connects everybody to tea. 

    Learn more at SofaSummit.

    UN Tea Forecast
    Report of the FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea | Current Market and Medium Term Outlook.

    Tea and Sustainability

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

    Learn more on the United Nation’s International Tea Day website.

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  • Q|A Pranav Bhansali

    Pranav Bhansali is Managing Partner at Bhansali and Company, one of the major export houses for CTC, Orthodox and Darjeeling tea in India. The family-owned export house, headquartered in Kolkata, has been in the tea trade for 90 years. The company buys from all the major auction centers and directly from tea gardens across India, while operating two blending facilities in Kolkata and Coimbatore. Currently, Bhansali ships to Russia, the CIS countries, Iran, and the UAE.

    India Tea Field

    Digital Convenience Steeped in Tradition

    Transactions at tea auctions in Mombasa, Kenya, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and across India account for more than 75% of the world’s trade volume. The first tea auction, in London, dates to 1679. The digital convenience of tracking tea and processing payments make modern tea auctions far more efficient, and transparent, than out-cry but describing tea quality and formal rules regulating trade remain steeped in tradition.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: How relevant are auctions today in Indian tea as private sales grows in significance?

    Pranav Bhansali: The split is as follows (approximately): auction 45 % vs private sales 55%. Auctions continue to be very relevant and play an important role. Certain tea producers and estates consciously believe in being an ‘auction mark’ while the bulk of bought leaf producers in north India believe in producing and selling their produce as quickly as they can, which makes the private sale mechanism more suited to their requirements.

    Aravinda: Is the auction price still the benchmark? 

    Pranav: Yes, auction levels, I would say, are accurate and reflect the dynamics of demand and supply in the market.

    Aravinda: How have e-auctions been for Indian tea? Have they brought any advantages to producers and buyers? 

    Pranav: Yes, of course, there has been an advantage from switching to e-auctions. If we look at what’s happened in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Africa where the switch to e-auctions is a recent phenomena, it reiterates that changing to e-auctions was the right decision. And if it wasn’t for the e-auctions, the tea industry would have come to a halt during the pandemic.

    Aravinda: It is still a buyers market, isn’t it, despite the drop in production in 2020? What is needed to make it a sellers market? Quality? Less tea but better tea? Innovation? 

    Pranav: You are correct. The only way the sellers can take control is by producing quality. Meanwhile producers continue to produce more tea than the market and a healthy pricing structure can bear. Who or what will break first?

    Aravinda: How did 2020 change the market for Indian tea? 

    Pranav Bhansali: The pandemic was disastrous for Indian tea exports. Many markets were lost to African teas. India’s deteriorating relations with Pakistan has meant that Pakistani importers have increased their reliance on African teas. We all had to consider the whole concept of just-in-time inventory. Shipping and logistics was another nightmare, from which we are still reeling.

    Aravinda: In black tea grades, what sells well in the export market and what sells well in the domestic? What would you recommend that producers make more of? 

    Pranav: In the domestic market, it’s  mainly CTC grades like the BP (Broken Pekoe), BOP(SM), PF/ OF (Pekoe Fannings/ Orange Fannings). In the export market, we sell various orthodox grades like the Barooti, FBOP, GBOP, GFBOP. The markets of Syria, Turkey, Russia choose OPA/ FOP, BPS while Saudi Arabia and Iran like whole leaf grades the OP1, and it’s OPA/ FOP for Afghanistan and Russia.

    Looking at African prices, it is clear that producers will do better producing orthodox grades. Last year has taught us that there are very few grades of tea that have a more robust demand than a well made OPA/FOP and BPS(O) Pekoe.

    Aravinda: The tea auction in Mombasa, Kenya, which transacts 450 million kilos annually, has announced it will move to a five-day per week auction. What are you views on that? Will daily volume/prices increase? Should India increase auction days?

    Pranavi: Since the offerings will be spread over five days, I feel it will be difficult to find trends and gauge the market. In north India, we have Kolkata and Guwahati auctions which are distributed over two days leaving other days time to prepare for the upcoming auction and other back end office work. Personally, I find the Indian system more convenient.

    Aravinda: Can you sum up the season so far, in terms of quality, exports and prices? 

    Pranav: CTC first flush teas this year were slightly below par as far as quality is concerned. Indian CTC prices are non-competitive as far as export is concerned thanks to massive production in Africa. Orthodox teas are selling well thanks to demand from Iran.Unfortunately, even though Iran continues their support for Indian teas, lot of uncertainty remains as far as payment is concerned.

    Bhansali and Company
    Bhansali and Company operates two blending facilities in Kolkata and Coimbatore.

    Bhansali and Company

    Bhansali and Company is a professionally managed firm that employs the finest experts and industry professionals. Partners are closely involved and conduct the majority of its tasting, buying and selling operations personally.

    “Our clients treasure the personal involvement as it leads to us having a solid understanding of their needs and requirements and ensure exceptional attention to detail.”

    Learn more…

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  • Marketing Organics with Humor

    Dennis Weaver is the co-founder and president of the Organic Marketing Association, a non-profit that growers CANNOT pay to join. The consumer-facing OMA celebrates the fun side of organics by building awareness with slogans, puns and Instagram-inspired illustrations of vegetables like celery with the headline “Stalking You” or lemons calling you to “Pucker Up Baby.”

    Organic Marketing Association President Dennis Weaver


    OMA Hero Image
    The Organic Marketing Association sells with humor.

    Organic’s Market Share Has Plateaued

    Organic Marketing Association President Dennis Weaver explains that organic food is delicious and nutritious, “So why is organic stuck at 5% market share with plantings on only 1% of US acreage?” he asks. One reason is that organic suppliers spend too much time talking about what’s not organic, he explains. They are in a defensive bubble, he says. Consumers are far more interested in how tasty, fun and easy it is to choose organics.

    Dan Bolton: Sales of organic foods and beverages are steady with broad distribution in the US, but growth plateaued in the 15 years since organic foods first became available at mainstream grocers. How did OMA come about?

    Dennis Weaver OMA
    Dennis Weaver, president and co-founder Organic Marketing Association

    Dennis Weaver: A group of us from a wide range of backgrounds happen to believe that organic good food is the best for you, me and the planet and that more people ought to be enjoying the wholesome, healthful benefits of organic good foods and so we’ve created the Organic Marketing Association to do just that to inspire you. 

    The Organic Marketing Association is a new, fresh bold, high-energy nonprofit designed to present organics in positive ways. We’re flipping the script to the fun, delicious, and entertaining side. We won’t try to educate anyone. Instead, we’ll focus on making positive associations with the word organic and the things that make people happy.  

    It’s a simple formula that works. It’s called the Law of Attraction.  

    The law of attraction states that people are more apt to move towards what they want rather than avoid. We’re walking away from the tired organic narrative that was negative, argumentative, disparaging. 

    “We won’t try to educate anyone. Instead, we’ll focus on making positive associations with the word organic and the things that make people happy. It’s a simple formula that works,” says Weaver.

    Dan: Describe OMA’s newly launched website and how it breaks free of the conventional paradigms for marketing organics. 

    Dennis: The website is full of color and fun and smiles and people living life to its fullest, a presentation of organic that’s always on the positive. Lot’s of fun stuff to see, read, do and buy and it’s real easy for brands, retailers, distributors, brokers, manufacturers, influencers, sponsors, allies and farms to get in where they fit in and join the fun ‘good works’ of driving the healthy and delicious Organic Good Food and Beverage Market Share forward for the good health of people and planet.

    You can buy boosted Facebook ads. The most important thing is the engagement rate. In 2019 the average engagement for food and beverage was 0.12%, for all industries it is 0.09%. Why? They’re not very fun.

    Sqeeze Us. Covelli

    Our taglines and headlines cause a smile if not “out loud” laughter, cause conversational comments and lots of personal shares with their friends. Because we load in fun and happiness, our average engagement rate is 13.5%! We claim we’re 13,166% funnier than anybody else. Proof fun wins! That engagement rate is where the money is and so we’ve refined that skill.  

    Organic Good Food is the life of the party and we’re bringing the party to their house! Organic Good Foods are the healthy high!  

    And way back in 1944, songwriter Johnny Mercer got it right in his song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”! 

    Dan: How can OMA benefit the organic segment of the global tea industry? 

    Dennis: The most important ingredient in tea is the workers and farmers. Farmers can participate in the Organic Marketing Association for free, because without the organic farmers, we’ve got nothing you can buy.

    All of our organic good food, farm health, and beauty fabric friends benefit by the Organic Marketing Association positioning their organic good food, tea, wholesome fun, delicious over-the-top taste. It’s designed to encourage people to make the organic good food choice for their own good health.

    We tell your story singing a song and with product and storyline placements, put your organic tea in their hands, mind, and mouth.  

    Join the fun. 

    Revised|Updated DWB May 3, 2021

    Organic Marketing Association

    Flipping the Script

    The Organic industry has struggled to speak outside of the Organic bubble—spending way too much time focusing on what’s not in Organic when the mainstream consumers care a lot more about how tasty, fun, and easy products are and how cool the brands will make them look. So the Organic Marketing Association is flipping the script. Instead of continuing the 5% narrative, we speak to and pursue the 95%.

    Organic Foods
    Organic variety is extensive and availability mainstream, “Why only 5% market share?” asks Weaver.

    ”If you want to introduce the mainstream consumer to the fun side of Organic while building awareness for great Organic brands…”

    Join the Organic Marketing Association

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  • A 6.4 Quake Shakes Assam

    Residential damage
    Residential damage at Bhootechang Tea Estate due to 6.4 magnitude earthquake April 28

    No Deaths, a Dozen Injured, Tea Factory Damage Minor

    Guwahati | Assam

    A strong earthquake followed by several aftershocks rattled rafters and nerves on April 28 but caused only minor damage to tea processing factories throughout the region. Several estates reported damage to outbuildings and dwellings for workers. There were 12 injuries, none life-threatening, following the 30-second shake at 7:51 am April 28.

    The quake was felt throughout northeaster Assam, parts of Bihar, West Bengal, and Bangladesh. Damage was reported within a 100-kilometer radius in Sonitpur, Nagaon, and Guwahati.

    “We were lucky to have got away with no injuries to employees and their dependents from member gardens,” said Bhupinder Singh, chairman of the Assam Branch India Tea Association (ITA) Zone 3.

    A hill collapsed in Bhirabkund in the Udalguri district due to soil liquefaction caused by the quake and area residents were warn to be wary of land slides and damage to local bridges.

    “The high-intensity earthquake early Wednesday caused damage to houses and buildings with people running out of their homes and other places in panic, obliterating social distancing and other COVID guidelines amid a raging pandemic. The massive quake has caused only light damage to buildings and there have been no fatalities reported,” writes Prof. T.G. Sitharam, director of IIT Guwahati and president of the Indian Society for Earthquake Technology.

    The heritage bungalow at Durrung Tea Estate “stood firm and intact,” said Mrityunjay Jalan. At Kopati Tea Estate, Rohit Pareek said he was in the factory at the time of the quake “when everything started shaking for a good 30 seconds. Jolts were so massive that the ceiling of our packet tea house cracked immediately and we rescued our workers. There were aftershocks for one hour and when it calmed we started our factory

    The National Centre for Seismology put the epicenter of the quake near Sonitpur, a “very seismically active area” along the Kopili Fault. The Kopili is a strike-slip fault aligned from northwest to southeast. The quake originated 17 kilometers underground and 43 kilometers west of Tezpur.

    During the first 48 hours there were 15 aftershocks measuring 2 to 4.9 on the Richter Scale. The quake caused many fissures, exposing liquified soil within a radius of 50-70 kilometers. 

    Every year the Indian Plate moves roughly 5 centimeters northward, pushing under the Eurasian Plate and forming the Himalayas. The Seven Sisters (Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur) are considered by seismologists to be the sixth most earthquake-prone belt in the world.

    The region’s last major quake, in July 1960, measured 6.0. The epicenter of a 5.9 quake in November 2011 was in Myanmar about 130 km from the city of Imphal, capital of the sate of Manipur. The region experienced two of its worst earthquakes in 1897 and 1950. 1897 quake measured 8.0 and Each killed 1500. The magnitude 8.6 quake in August 1950, with an epicenter in Arunachal Pradesh, killed an estimated 4,800.

    Quake Damage

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  • Q|A Rishi Saria

    Darjeeling is the most famous of India’s tea growing regions. Revenue from its spring flush also makes it the most lucrative, but the plants there are aging, wage inflation is high, and workers are restless. Innovation is overdue. In this podcast segment Aravinda Anantharaman speaks with Rishi Saria a third-generation planter, managing the Gopaldhara, and Rohini estates in Darjeeling.

    Gopaldhara Tea Estate, Darjeeling, India

    The Way Forward for Darjeeling Tea

    Rishi Saria is a third-generation planter, managing the Gopaldhara and Rohini estates in Darjeeling. Among other things, he has put Darjeeling’s autumn flush teas on the map by producing a flavorful range of oolong-styled teas. Rishi spoke about Darjeeling from the point of view of a planter, describing where things stand, and what it needs. He tells the story of how Darjeeling began producing oolongs illustrating the need for innovation and he offers personal insights into rival Himalayan tea produced in Nepal.

    Aravinda Anantharaman: The conversation on Darjeeling tea often turns to Nepal and how it’s affecting the Darjeeling tea market. What are your views on that?

    Rishi Saria: I am an Indian whose mother is from Nepal and I’ve never thought of Nepal as another country. Our borders have been very closely tied. We have gone to Nepal whenever we wanted to. Siliguri as a community has always traded with Nepal. So for me to say that there is competition from Nepal, it’s like saying my friend has planted a tea estate. I think he’s allowed to, they are allowed to do their thing.

    The only problem is that I think Nepalis are not doing enough to promote tea in their own country.

    Secondly, Nepal is a Bought Leaf Model and there is a lot of dumping of tea that goes on. Their per hectare revenue must be lower than that of Darjeeling. The factory and traders may be making money. Last year I heard that they even sold the high mountain green leaf for INR 20. Our CTC leaf last year was selling at INR 30, and at INR 32 this year.

    The Nepal tea industry needs to understand that they have to stop this dumping model. They send the buyer 2,000 kgs of Darjeeling style samples. The buyer is going to pay you peanuts and they refuse to buy Darjeeling tea because Darjeeling tea producers don’t sell it for peanuts.

    The gap between Nepal tea industry and Darjeeling tea industry is huge. Our cost is higher. If you look at the cost structure, Darjeeling tea will offer more to a worker than the Nepal tea industry.

    They have to do more. There are exceptions like Jun Chiyabari but the bulk of the Nepal industry is not like that. They don’t have an auction centre. They don’t have a buyer-seller meet. They need to have a large spread to deal with the kind of quantity they have. They are not small anymore.

    One problem there with Nepal is the organic certifications. If you are not a tea estate over there, it’s very difficult to get an organic certificate. For a Bought Leaf Model to have an organic certificate is extremely difficult because of the expense.

    Most of Darjeeling is organic and competes in a different segment. That is one strategy, which some Darjeeling tea producers have taken. And the rest of us, we try to make better teas.

    Aravinda: Is it in the tea that Darjeeling can differentiate from Nepal? Or is the differentiator in the working model of these two regions?

    Rishi: I can tell you for sure that in the Bought Leaf Model, speciality tea has not worked for these issues: the clone is not known, the cultivar is not known. The transportation cost is causing damage. The transportation system is causing damage them in and there is very less confidence between the buyer and the seller.

    We started making a lot of speciality tea at Rohini and Gopaldhara. Now we need a system to sell it. We are trying to increase the number of buyers. We try to do something different; we try not to offer what others are offering. If we offer what Nepal is offering, why will someone come to us? We charge more as our costs are higher. I cannot say that we are more efficient than them but we offer a better lifestyle proposition to the workers.

    We also do a lot of direct marketing that helps. We sell directly to retailers and even to consumers. If we can sell 10 to 15%, 20% of our produce directly to consumers, it will take a lot of pressure off our balance sheet. In my mind, this is what we can do rather than harping about how Nepal is hurting us.

    Look at Bhutan; you can see the kind of ties that India enjoys with Bhutan. Minus Darjeeling tea, we have the same relationship with Nepal. So how can we disturb that equation because of one product.

    Rishi Saria and his son at Gopaldhara
    Rishi Saria and his son at Gopaldhara Tea Estate

    Aravinda: Where does Darjeeling tea now compared to say even 10, 20 years ago?

    Rishi: There’s been a lot of progress. India is a far more progressive country than what it was doing between 1980 to 2000. We have certainly outpaced the economic growth by a long margin. That has had an effect on the tea industry as a whole. Our wages have gone up faster than what we would have planned. That is one challenge. That is one of the reasons why there is a lot of hue and cry. Wage Inflation has been rampant. Pre 2006, wage inflation was roughly 3 to 4% now its close to 10 to 11%, sometimes 15%. So wage inflation is a huge issue.

    But if you look at the offer of teas, Darjeeling has added green tea. Darjeeling was never known for speciality tea. If you go through catalogs from 20 years back, you will find Darjeeling first flush and second flush in a retailers catalog. In a tea shop, if you asked for Darjeeling, they’d say, we have Darjeeling first flush and second flush. That has changed. You have very tippy Moonlight style teas now, we have the traditional china hybrid, we have green teas, we have white teas, we have some special hand-rolled, handmade stuff also. From two teas we have gone to at least eight or 10 teas.

    Aravinda: So there is a lot of product innovation?

    Rishi: There is a lot of innovation happening and it’s happening more with farms which are realising the changes that need to come in. Let’s talk about oolongs. Who thought Darjeeling would make oolongs. We don’t have a proper tea research Institute which guides us to all these things. But if we did, that would be wonderful, you know. Whatever effort planters have made, they are all taking a lot of effort. Learning and effort go hand in hand.

    Today, some retailers will describe a tea as “oolongs from Darjeeling”. Until recently, we were told, “You don’t know how to make oolongs.” We asked, why can’t we make oolongs. They said, “You don’t know how to make oolongs. You don’t even have an oolong clonal with you.” So we started defining that, we started learning how to pluck, we used to send samples and get the response, not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. Then we started hitting some right notes. We started thinking about what is mountain tea…  we started thinking about the style of making mountain teas.

    Most of the machinery in both of my factories are not what we had pre-2000. We have a lot of electric dryers now. We have fixing machines, we have small rollers, we are even trying to get chaangwithering into the system, we have outdoor withering… so one sits on top of the other. You learn, you ask, you learn more and you think of more things. Every day you learn. Today, I was having a tea in the office; it was a very lovely oolong style green tea, very, very lightly oxidised and very fragrant. And the thought that occurred to us was why didn’t we try this before.

    Aravinda: What do you think has to change in Darjeeling to support this innovation?

    Rishi: I think the Darjeeling tea fields have to get upgraded and that will take a lot of time. That, in my opinion, is one of the biggest challenges. Can we upgrade our field fast enough to still be relevant? That will be my concern. That is one of the biggest concerns there. And our biggest safety with respect to that is we are the only tea growing region in India which is trying to make tea without milk and sugar. I think that advantage can continue for sometime.

    We are moving in a direction where we think hundred percent of our produce in the leaf category should be without milk and sugar. That is what essentially is there in the back of my mind. What to make is the next question.

    So business advantages, there’s a lot of demand for these kinds of teas within India. Internationally, we have to compete with China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya, Japan. There is a lot of competition and unless you have a price competitive offering — which we don’t have because our fields are outdated.

    Gopaldhara used to make 120,000 kgs in 1992-93. Now, it struggles to make 70,000. So, 40% of the crop is gone because the fields are old.

    So we started replanting. My family before me did too and for some reason, those fields are still not ready; it’s been 12 years. I’ve done eight hectares since 2016 or 17; mine are also not ready. We are trying to put in close to at least one lakh plants every year.

    It’s difficult to work in the mountains. Half of these areas don’t have roads so you have to carry all the plants. People have to have access to irrigation. We can only plant in summer. But it has to be done. There’s no alternative. So we now have close to 40% of the garden almost clonal but the balance 60% is there, that will take 30 years. But even if we get to 70:30 ratio, that’ll still be good. We’ll still be better off than many other estates that are not doing anything. All these things help in the long run.

    For example, Rohini is completely clonal. You see the advantages straight away. The shoots are much better. Compared to 2019, Rohini produced 500 kg more than 2019. That kind of advantage is welcome. If you can get some irrigation going and wear out the drought, and you can get some of this e-commerce going for you, and get some retailers, buyers as partners who trust you and supply to them regularly… all these things will help you tide over.

    Aravinda: Why don’t we see much Darjeeling in the auctions? Is that no longer a relevant route for Darjeeling’s teas?

    Rishi: Auctions help if you are the exporter. It’s very difficult to trade in tea without an auction system, that is a fact. The system allows you a lot of availability, otherwise product sourcing can be quite difficult. It is based purely on demand and supply. I think it sets the benchmark for the lower grades. If you are a buyer, you tend to buy the cheaper grade because you know it’ll always be there. Nobody tries to do private sale of ordinary teas unless they are looking for a quantity, which they want to contract and not fight in the auction so that prices go up.

    The top offerings never make it to auctions. So what happens to top offerings? Either you’ll find a wholesaler with whom you have good contacts and he feels confident buying your expensive tea and selling it. Which means he doesn’t want competition and wants some assurance that he won’t face too much competition. Otherwise you have to sell one bag, two bags, because everybody may not like paying such a premium for that tea. That is the difficulty in speciality tea. Everybody will not appreciate it. I have not found many buyers appreciating the same tea in speciality; they always want variety. So they buy one sack of this, one sack of that, different ranges so they know they’ll be able to sell something or the other.

    So privately, if you want to sell specialty tea you need a large set of buyers. Otherwise you will not sustain. It’s not easy to sell a speciality tea at a price in which it is remunerative. It’s really difficult.

    I know a lot of people who don’t even buy one kg of speciality, and I know so many buyers who don’t buy a single kg of ordinary tea. And I sell to both of them.

    Auction cannot help you in speciality. And we don’t have those kind of tea fields to make common tea. There’s a garden in Darjeeling with yields close to 900 kgs / hectare. In Gopaldhara, I cannot produce more than 400-450 kgs/hectare. So how can I compete with them if I don’t make something special. Those that are like Gopaldhara and organic, they are even lower yielding than us. Everybody is not on the same boat. If Rohini makes a decent quality tea for the whole year, it is fine. Gopaldhara really needs a speciality tea market to survive.

    It’s got a lot to do with what kind of tea fields you have, what kind of elevation… elevation of 87 gardens is from 500 feet above sea level to 7,000 ft. and they’re all Darjeeling. So everybody’s on a very, very different boat. They cannot do the same thing that’s and they cannot cater to the same market.

    Every tea garden in Darjeeling has its own story to tell.

    Aravinda: What about markets? Is Darjeeling still reliant on the export market or is India emerging as a market for Darjeeling tea?

    Rishi: It is changing for sure. Last two years have been a washout for the Indian market because of the virus. It has been shut. So we may be forgetting some of our close friends. We have not been in constant touch with them. They are not in our memories and we are not in their memories. Frankly speaking, the virus has killed the speciality tea trade. Unless they’re buying by e-commerce, there’s no reason why they will go to a tea shop to risk themselves and have a cup of tea.

    I think the high end Indian market is out. I don’t think that is coming back again this year.

    Internationally, things are more open. UK looks like they will lift their lockdown soon. Germany is also lifting some of the restrictions as are some of these Western European countries? US is opening up completely…

    I think it’s better than last year. I don’t know if we are going back to 2019 so quickly…  Let’s assume the vaccination in Western countries is over by July, realistically speaking. So we’ll have some kind of semblance July onwards, that is what I feel.

    Aravinda: And the prices?

    Rishi: The production for the medium segment is still not out. We are still in the very expensive category of teas. We have not done any major deal in the medium end.

    Last year, the prices nosedived. That will not happen this year. But the speciality tea sold. There could be a percentage decline but it’s not like what I saw in second flush. We were hardly able to move the tea in second flush. We were not able to sell much of the autumn flush also.

    Aravinda: What is a way forward for Darjeeling tea?

    Rishi: I think we really need support from the government to help us revive the tea fields. It can be in the form of a long-term loan, It can be in the form of a subsidy. It can be a combination of both. Let’s say you are removing an old area in Gopaldhara which is yielding 300 kg/hectare. I think the average price would be something in the region of INR 500. If we do 2 – 4 hectares a year, that reduced revenue can come as a subsidy, partial subsidy or a combination of loan.

    Aravinda: What about the plantation model itself? Is it still workable?

    Rishi: In India we have not been able to make quality tea from Bought Leaf Factories. If there is some example, it is Tea Studio. But it’s certainly not happening in a large scale. So to say that the plantation model has no future is not fair. The combination of an educated resourceful owner with  assured workers has its strength. You cannot say its completely useless. That combination has something to offer.

    It can all be worked out provided you have the field in order, that is the basic requirement. Whenever I think about what is missing, the field is missing. Once that is available, then you can start going back to the drawing board and start doing things.

    The problem with the plantation model is that you have to pay the workers, whether you have work or not. So we will always be plucking in the rains and we will always be doing a lot of the produce even during the banjhee (dormant) period. Among mountain regions, we must be the only tea region in the world which will be plucking during the banjhee. That’s the disadvantage of having a plantation and having to provide work 365 days a year.

    As an industrial body, I think planters need to start selling first, second and autumn differently from rain flush. We don’t do this. It can be very confusing for the consumer and buyer community as to what is Darjeeling. If you go to my website, we have a bai mudan that we made this year from that very fine artisan plucking, selling for INR 800 for a 20 g pack. We also have 1 kg Darjeeling broken at INR 800 or 900. This can be confusing to the consumer that the same estate is selling a kg for INR 800-900 and is asking INR 30,000 for another.

    We have to develop the terroir. How do we stand out, what is Darjeeling capable of… We have Japanese bushes at Rohini and they look like a cousin of Japanese tea. We make them mildly oxidised. They are different from the tea made by the same bushes in Japan. The place, the culture, the climate impacts the tea.

    We need to define this space. There’s a lot of false promotion that is happening. We need to get some intelligent content out there. There is a lot of misinformation that we have to clear. We need to say: This is what we make. This is how it is different. This is what kind of flavors you can expect. This is how you have to brew it.

    I think all these things need to come out and is currently missing.

    Aravinda: What about second flush this year with the weather?

    Rishi: I think it’ll be better than last year. We should have our regular buyers back. They’ve been writing that they’ll be buying this year and that’s encouraging. For estates that are catering to the HORECA segment, I think that is quite a welcome news.

    Rohini Tea Estate is located in the Kurseong valley of Darjeeling. The estate was closed for 38 years from 1962 to 2000. From the old 1300 Hectares around 38 ha remains. These teas are of the Chinese origin and in the second flush produce exquisite muscatel teas. The total are of the garden is around 146 Hectares of which 108 ha is young tea.


    This year, Darjeeling is trying to make up for a poor 2020. Official plucking dates was February 21 and the season began on an optimistic note. But at the end of the first quarter, the mood is of concern from drought-like conditions and a severe second wave of the Covid pandemic. Rainfall was less than half received in March last year, at 27.8 mm as opposed to 66.2 mm in 2020. Number of rainy days was down to 3.8 in March 2021, from 6 in March 2020. Temperatures have seen a 1 C rise in maximum temperature and 0.6 C rise in minimum temperature, at 23.3 C (Max) and 13.3 C (Min).

    March production data shows 172,294 kgs which is lower than March 2019 which was 227,790 kgs. We will be tracking Darjeeling climate, production and market news in our weekly Tea Price Report.

    Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal is home of a tea that comes with a 150-year legacy. Located in the far eastern part of India, almost at the Himalayan foothills, Darjeeling’s tea regions are Mirik, Kurseong, Darjeeling, Teesta Valley, Rungbung Valley and Kalimpong. The elevation ranges from 500ft to 7000 ft, impacting the flavours of the tea that is produced here. While black tea has been the mainstay of this tea region, we now see a wide range of tea types and tea styles from here. Darjeeling enjoys three main flushes – spring, summer and autumn. Darjeeling tea is protected by the Geographical Indicator (GI) tag which means that only 87 tea gardens can call their teas as certified Darjeeling tea.

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