WHEN RADHIKA Chopra Anandan was growing up in Vernon, New Jersey, US, she would treasure her parents’ morning tea ritual. The tea, with milk, sugar, ginger and cardamom, was something they would set aside time for. “I think it brought them closer to home,” says Chopra, who went on to become quite a tea addict herself in coffee-dominated America, drinking up to 10 cups a day. She’s been a banker and an art collector but the role she is currently enjoying the most is that of luxury-tea entrepreneur. Subconsciously perhaps she has always wanted to honour her parents, by naming her tea brand No 3 Clive Road after the Delhi house her father was born in before Partition. The tea itself was a silent homage to her mother who came to New Jersey as a young woman and perhaps retained this one comforting bit of her heritage living miles away from home. “I guess I wanted to bottle up all those memories forever,” she now says.
Now, three years later, the 11 blends of tea sourced from Darjeeling, Assam, Munnar, Kangra Valley and Nilgiri, including a green tea from a family-run estate in Meghalaya, sell online and in trendy retail stores at varying prices (the Artist Blend by Thukral and Tagra is Rs 1,450 for 100 g while the Kangra is Rs 995 for 100 g). “Whenever I travelled, I would encounter these beautiful tea brands like Mariage Freres and Fortnum and Mason and I would be so inspired by the branding and packaging,” she says. So was born No 3 Clive Road in 2016 with 400 boxes of four blends, all done inhouse, as in “my house”, laughs Anandan.
India’s been drinking tea for centuries, primarily for medicinal purposes, until the East India Company started growing it in Assam in the 1820s. That was to reduce its dependence on China. As William Dalrymple writes in his new book, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, the biggest success story of the East India Company was tea from China. ‘By 1795, tea sales had doubled in less than a decade to 9,000 tons: one former director of the company wrote that it was as if tea had become the ‘food of the whole people of Great Britain’. The only thing holding back further growth was the question of supply.’
The amazing aspect of tea is that it can be as democratic as it is exclusive, in its price, in its consumption and, most certainly, in its sale
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And supply came from India, which was to become one of the largest producers and exporters of tea in the world. Tea has been a staple of most Indian days, from the ‘bed tea’, a quaint English ritual that lends its name to most of India’s morning tea, to its evening avatar, usually accompanied, on rainy days, with pakoras in more desi-loving homes and with scones and cucumber sandwiches in those which still long for the British Raj. Indeed, as Mary Poppins sang, a spoonful of sugar can change bread and water into tea and cakes.
Tea in India has a thousand different avatars, not the least of which is its association with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who famously served tea on trains and has been proud to call himself a chaiwala. The amazing aspect of tea is that it can be as democratic as it is exclusive, in its price, in its consumption and, most certainly, in its sale. Second-generation tea sommelier Anamika Singh who grew up on the tea estates of Darjeeling would see her father, legendary tea estate manager Abhay Singh, make blends that were immediately exported. A delicate first flush, an exquisite second flush and, sometimes, a blend. “My earliest memories are of my father pouring out tea for all of us, on white wicker chairs, a different tea every evening, one he had made himself that morning, with my mum serving us naankhataa is she had made,” says Anamika. Ever since she can remember, she would accompany her father to the estate and the factory, armed with a diary. “I was not allowed to talk. Questions would have to wait till we got home,” she says. She moved with her father to Dharamshala where he was invited to revive the Manjhee Valley estate, and that is where five years ago she launched her own brand Anandini (endless joy).
Beginning with Blush, an oolong tea with hibiscus, rose petals and rose hip, she now has 150 blends. “Between my father and me, we have 80 years of tea-growing experience,” she says. She draws inspiration from everywhere: for instance, Firdaus, a classic green tea with the coscomb flower, saffron, cardamom and marigold, came after a life-altering visit to Aru Valley in Kashmir. “For me, tea is like a hug in a cup,” she says. She is particularly proud of her handrolled needle tea (which sells for Rs 32, 850 per kg) and the handrolled rhododendron needle tea which sells for Rs 37, 850 per kg. She does customised teas too and recalls one occasion where she had to handroll gold and silver tea on request from a client in Mumbai. The silver tea cost Rs 2,600 per 10 g, while the gold tea cost Rs 12,300 per 10 g. Price is clearly no bar for tea purists.
TWG, the Singapore-based tea house that prides itself on sourcing teas from 46 countries, retails a tea, Yellow Gold Tea Buds from China, for Rs 8 lakh a kg. “It is harvested once a year and blended with 24-carat gold. We order it on special request and it is sold almost as soon as it reaches us,” says Geetanjali Joshi, tea sommelier, TWG. This store alone, she says, pointing to the TWG outlet at The Oberoi, New Delhi, sold Rs 1.5 crore worth of tea last Diwali. With its tins hand-painted by a Parisian artist, its exotic blends, which range from the first flush at Margaret’s Hope (one of 85 tea estates in Darjeeling named after Lady Margaret, daughter of the garden manager Cruikshank) to White Darjeeling (a rare white tea harvested from the finest young tea plants in the early hours of the morning, with just two kg harvested each day), it embodies singularity.
As in everything with luxury now, there has to be a story. And the story of tea is one closely intertwined with India’s story. It’s something TWG does very well, whether it is the 1837 Black Tea, named after the year tea trade came to Singapore, and a blend of tea, caramel and strawberries. Or TWG’s first tea, Silver Moon, a blend made by its cofounder Taha Bouqdib, a blend of green tea, strawberry and vanilla, to go with mooncakes, a Singapore specialty with butter and fox nuts.
TWG has 800 blends, of which it sells 300 in India, in three stores in Delhi, with one each coming up in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata. It is also available in major five-star hotels. Their tagline to every connoisseur? ‘Which country would you like to travel to today?’ Indeed, freshly minted-tea enthusiast, Dehradun-based ad filmmaker Vineet Panchhi says the beauty of tea is its diversity: “There’s a tea to wake you up, a tea to energise you during the day, something to calm you at night. There will always be my mother’s adrak ki chai but there is so much to explore in the world of good tea and good tea manners.” Indeed that is something Anamika Singh is particular about, saying most people ruin a perfectly good tea with the wrong prep. “There is a certain quantity of water that has to be heated, for a certain period of time, placed in a certain teapot and then consumed in a particular way. It’s not for nothing that the Chinese say water is the mother of tea,” she says. As important is how the tea is stored, she says.
Even as luxury tea drinking takes off, the tea industry is in a crisis. The renewed interest in it from a luxe consumer who is willing to experiment may well see the start of its survival
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And tea rooms, such as Amrit and Nimisha Dugar’s Morsel and Tisane in Hyderabad, ensure the culture of drinking tea gets a fresh boost. “The idea is those who love their teas can now not merely drink it, but romance it,”’ says Amrit Dugar, whose tea room pairs teas from TWG with special food. Just a month into the tea room and he says he has already had a lot of repeat customers. Ditto with ITC Royal Bengal’s spanking new Darjeeling Lounge, where fine teas rub shoulders with old Bengali ladies sharing fish fry, dim sums and old family tales.
For designer Madhu Jain, tea is the ultimate gift: “It has healing properties, for anxiety, stress, cold, flu and sore throats, weight loss. It protects your bones, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.” She lists her favourites: master blenders Harney and Sons, followed by Harrods’ premium teas, TWG and Yunnan Sourcing that gets teas straight from Chinese farms and loose leaf tea from Fortnum and Mason.
TeaBox, founded by the Siliguri-based Kausshal Dugarr, is a beautifully packaged tea brand that sells online and sources its teas from Darjeeling, Assam, the Nilgiris and Nepal. Founded in 2012, it has attracted funding from Ratan Tata, apart from two customer-turned-investors, American Robert Bass and Singapore-based angel investor Cameron Jones. TeaBox sources its teas directly from over 200 growers and estates.
Dugarr, a former corporate finance executive in Singapore, now shuttles between Siliguri and Bengaluru and sells some of the country’s finest teas, blended by an in-house product development team driven by data. His earliest memories of tea are accompanying his father as a six-year-old to tea estates where his family supplied machinery and thinking the tea growers were magicians. “That is one of the greatest problems in our industry. Unlike wine growers in France, we don’t see tea growers as artists but as mere labour.” TeaBox’s most expensive tea ever? It’s the exclusive white tea from the Badamtam tea estate in Darjeeling, which costs Rs 2 lakh per kg and was plucked from a particular section of the tea garden at a particular time of the morning. “Its bouquet of flowers, its tea chest and the story of the Darjeeling estate behind it made it a bestseller,” he says. His favourites: Mountain Rose (a black tea from southern India blended with rose petals imported from Bulgaria) at a cost of Rs 10,000 per kg and the single estate Badamtam, which can vary from Rs 15,000 per kg to Rs 90,000 per kg.
Ironically, even as luxury tea drinking takes off, the tea industry is in a crisis beset by labour problems, competition from other nations and lack of standards. The renewed interest in it from a luxe consumer who is willing to experiment may well see the start of its survival. In the Age of Bespoke, every tea house’s offering has to stand for something. It’s an adventure on which things can go wrong: Anandan’s first iteration of the Jodhpur blend was a disaster, so she replaced the star anise with fennel. That was 100 boxes down the tube. It’s an enterprise that needs support, with passionate consumers willing to pay extra. Panchhi, who describes himself as a “sadak chhaap” sort of chai-lover who was converted by Anamika, says once you have a tea like Firdaus or Pinewood Smoked (which reminds him of the first taste of Laphroaig single malt), you’re willing to pay extra. “You have to appreciate its art and craft,” he says. Look at it not merely as a commodity, but as a premium experience, says Dugarr. Change the mindset.
And as the world rediscovers the pleasures of slow consumption, perhaps it’s time to revisit J Alfred Prufrock who in between measuring out time in coffee spoons also found time for a hundred indecisions, and a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of a toast and tea.
About The Author
Kaveree Bamzai is an author and a contributing writer with Open
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