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’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: 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.
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.
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%.
”If you want to introduce the mainstream consumer to the fun side of Organic while building awareness for great Organic brands…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vahdam India this week donated $50,000 to launch a fundraiser as part of #RiseTogetherForIndia, a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund. Donations will assist the non-profit Doctors for You deliver relief services across India. The company seeks to mobilize tea drinkers worldwide to set up temporary COVID treatment facilities, acquire oxygen cylinders and concentrators and facilitate rapid vaccination efforts. India reported more than three million on new COVID cases in the past two weeks. Eighteen million are currently infected.
Funds totaled $86,000 from 225 donors with 14 days remaining in the campaign.
Covid-19 has emerged as a pandemic affecting the entire globe. This has tested public health preparedness to the optimum level even in developed countries who are still struggling to deal with the situation. In India as of 30 April 2021 there were 18.8 million cases of Covid-19 reported with 208,000 deaths.
Covid-19 has created fear and made us realize how bad this can turn out to be for the poorest, for those who will lose their livelihood, or those who wouldn’t know what to do to save themselves when the virus has reached someone close to them. It has also put additional strain on the already challenged healthcare system.
Doctors for You is operating 15 locations including 45-bed rural Covid Care dedicated Hospital (CCDH) in Anekal, Karnataka and another in Yelahanka General Hospital a which is 33-bed facility having 3 HDU beds and 30 oxygen beds.
WHO, UNICEF and other organizations are rushing staff and supplies to India to help fight the crushing tide of new cases. UNICEF is delivering critical oxygen concentrators and diagnostic testing systems, hygiene supplies and PPE kits to protect health care workers.
The Red Cross is responding with disaster resources including the delivery of medical supplies and emergency services across India. In March Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Chairman of the Indian Red Cross Society inaugurated a Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT) Testing Facility at the IRCS NHQ Blood Centre. He also inaugurated three fully equipped vehicles, including two blood collection vans which would be used to hold blood camps and add blood units to the Red Cross Blood Centre.
Hospitals urgently need oxygen cylinders and concentrators across India. Mission Oxygen is a crowd funded volunteer effort organized by 250 young entrepreneurs to raise funds to locate and distribute thousands of concentrators and cylinders the fund had raised $3.8 million from 28,000 donors as of the first of May.
Caption: Researchers and members of the London Tea History Association smelling a 172-year-old yak-butter container during a workshop in January 2020. Image used with permission, Andrew McMeekin Photography
In 2019, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew began analyzing the provenance of more than 300 tea specimens of mainly Chinese and Indian grown teas dating to the 1850s. Ethnobotanist Aurora Prehn began by examining labels. She then proceeded to record non-textual evidence experienced through sight, touch, and smell. In this interview she shares her findings and offers some interesting insights into the work of Horticulturalist Robert Fortune whose specimens are included in the collection. Listen as we learn about tea from 1853.
Q|A Aurora Prehn
Aurora Prehn is an ethnobotanist working independently researching the nexus of culture and nature while consulting in areas of expertise under her LLC, People & Plants. She completed her BA in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2013 where her research examined local food culture, health, and the environment. Following graduation she spent five years in the specialty, organic tea and botanical industry at Rishi Tea finishing as a tea taster and educator. In 2019 she completed her MSc in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the United Kingdom.
Dan Bolton:Will you share with our listeners what it’s like to examine tea from 1853.
Aurora Prehn: The collection is quite old, so the leaves are different shades of brown. Of course they’re oxidized but the different shapes expose different tea types. Compression was a major theme that surfaced right away, as well as a whole slew of different Orthodox shaped leaves.
I didn’t touch them directly without gloves, and very rarely, very sparingly to preserve them, but rotated the jars to expose different labels that were hidden and even bits of metal that were stamped labels as well as a little bit of tea chests.
We all know tea absorbs scent. I was shocked to smell white tea and pick up nuances, smelling some greens that are now brown, but you can tell that there’s still that green heart there.
Yak butter has a very interesting, distinct smell, and 175 years old is still a little bit pungent.
And as far as how the collection tastes?
Well, maybe one day if Mark allows, I would love to try some.
Dan: The storied botanist and tea explorer Robert Fortune is part of the narrative. He was not working for Kew, but many specimens that he collected ended up in the museum. Will you briefly describe his adventures.
His story is fascinating.
I read a wonderful biography by Alistair Watt (Robert Fortune: A Plant Hunter in the Orient) that really covers his whole life and career. He’s a horticulturalist by training and is a plant hunter who traveled to Asia, mainly China, on five expeditions between 1843 and 1861.
Fortune was hired by the Horticultural Society of London and then the East India Company and traveled on behalf of the US government. He also collected insects and different antiquities and wrote extensively about his work in the Gardeners Chronicle as well as the Journal of the Horticultural Society of London.
He also wrote five books on his expeditions with a map of the tea lands which shows what was believed at the time. It doesn’t show the experimental test plots in Darjeeling or in South India and the area of Assam that we know that grows tea. We know that Korea has been growing tea for hundreds of years and was left off the map so it’s really quite interesting.
We have two artifacts in the collection from Fortune. One is a set of 24 paintings showing how tea is grown and process on paper that was requested by the collection’s founder. William Jackson was writing about the plant used to make that paper, so I think the paper itself was slightly more of interest than the depictions.
The second was this fancy or twisted tea that was collected in 1852. It came from Yunnan, where Fortune wasn’t traveling, so it was likely he collected from a port.
Dan:Kew hosted multiple workshops in January 2020 for members of the tea community from the UK and Ireland – prior to closing the gardens during the pandemic. Aurora, how can listeners learn more about this marvelous collection?
Aurora: One way that people can engage this collection is through the online catalog available on Kew’s website. Search economic botany collection by just typing camellia.
One of the really remarkable things about this collection is how intact it is. Teas that were identified in the 1850s, they’re still here and still intact.
This is what’s pushing me to keep going remotely during this pandemic, because I know that listeners and tea nerds around the world are really just going to love it. There’s going to be even more coming out of this project.
Rediscovering 174 Years of Tea, Chai, and ?
By Aurora Prehn and Mark Nesbitt
There are many histories of tea’s material culture, each depending on the perspective of the historian and, crucially, the raw material and methodology of analysis. This collection is distinct from those of most other museums and archives in being composed primarily of tea leaves, rather than teaware or documents. The majority came from across Asia, between 1847 and 1914, and include all parts of the tea plant, from root to seed, as well as clay, other woods, bamboo, and metals. Alongside processed tea leaves from all six tea categories, the collection also contains: seed husk and flower bud cakes, rare tea types, bricks from remote trading outposts, wooden statues, teapots, adulterated tea, fermented lappet, extracts, and a single yak butter container with an aromatic note left from its contents approximately 172 years ago. As one can imagine, these artifacts contain many biocultural stories, histories, and perspectives.