Speaking the language of tea

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“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.” – Catherine Douzel

The verdant, cloud-shadowed tea plantations at the foothills of the Himalayas are a long way from Melbourne’s emerging tea salons – but it is a journey  that reveals a story of old versus new, of technology disrupting tradition – in one of the oldest and largest industries in the world.

Here innorth-east India, a region that boasts globally recognised tea areas including Assam and Darjeeling, changes are being made to the traditional ways of distributing high-end teas.

Tea pickers in Darjeeling, India.

Tea pickers in Darjeeling, India.

In Australia the market for high-end specialty tea is growing 5 per cent annually, according to the Australian Beverages Council. A slew of cafes and tea salons have opened in Melbourne, aiming to take on the predominance of coffee culture – including Storm in a Teacup in Collingwood, the Oriental Teahouse, the Tea Room at the NGV and the Travelling Samovar Tea House in North Carlton.

Pascale Sameli, co-owner of the Travelling Samovar Tea House , claims we are “at the start of a tea revolution in Melbourne”. “There are more and more tea houses popping up, and there are more and more cafes wanting to serve quality tea, but we are becoming aware that in Australia we really don’t know much about it,” she says.

My first port of call in India is Kolkata, where Krishan Katyal, chairman and managing director of J. Thomas and Co., runs the largest and oldest tea auction house in the world. Over lunch in an opulent boardroom  which dates back to the British Raj – complete with hand-printed 19th century tea ordering books, and a remarkable collection of teapots – Katyal says that despite the fact that India is the worlds’ second biggest tea producer after China, bookkeeping and marketing methods have barely changed since colonial times.

Katyal, who has visited Australia several times, says our country is still “virgin territory” when it comes to communicating the complex vocabulary of tea drinking. “When I visited Australia tea seemed to me a bit like Italian coffee was before the Italian immigration happened. I went to a restaurant and looked at the wine list and saw 100 wines. Then I got to the tea list and there were only two options – Earl Grey and English breakfast. Obviously as a tea person I feel disappointed – it was sadly unedifying.”

He leads me into a cavernous room at the top of the building that he claims in the largest tea tasting room in the world. Rows and rows of small teacups are lined up in front of moist tea specimens – the sheer variety in colour, smell and taste of the teas is staggering.

“No two teas are ever the same at origin,” he says. “It’s the height, the weather, the humidity, the slopes, the plucking standard – so many factors that can radically affect the end product. The analogy to wine always comes to mind. However there is one major difference. Wine is an annual harvest but tea is far more complex because the vintages are happening all the time.”

As we move through the white tasting cups – taking the teas into our mouth, sloshing them around, and spitting them out – Katyal pauses before two particular teas: one a clear white colour and the other a deep brown. “Here we have a high-altitude Darjeeling next to an Assam CTC [Crush Tear Curl – the way that type of tea is produced]. These teas will live and die with the inclusion of lack of milk respectively,” he says.

“The truth is the tea industry has largely failed to communicate the language of tea,” says Katyal. “The language of wine is highly complex and communicated – the vocabulary is there. Unfortunately the language of tea is still intra-trade. We haven’t really developed to the point where we are communicating to any consumers anywhere.”

I take the Darjeeling train to New Jalpaiguri at the Himalayan foothills to visit the plantations and distribution centre of Teabox, a new web-based global tea exporter that is seeking to modernise the Indian tea industry. The office sits amid the squalor of an Indian street but the energy inside is youthful and tech-savvy.

Using cutting edge algorithm technology to predict demand-based consumption habits, internal rankings and pricing, the Teabox model aims to link tea drinkers more directly with growers – by providing more accurate information on tea altitudes, time of picking and crop yields via a sophisticated online portal. The tea-drinking experiences are also explored in blog posts and the information is offered in multiple languages including German and Russian.

During the tea tastings a method of codified information is explained to me. One tea is marked with the letters FFMHMW – an acronym for First Flush Margaret’s Hope Moonlight White. The tea is from the first annual crop, grown in Margaret’s Hope Estate, and picked under a full moon.

Teabox chief executive Kaushal Dugar, whose family has been involved in the tea industry for four decades, says creating Teabox was a labour of love. Prior to Teabox, Dugar worked for KPMG in Singapore as a data analyst – he has now returned to India to marry his knowledge of cutting-edge marketing with the ancient family tradition of tea-growing.

“I’d always been a great believer in the idea that the internet can be a great leveller in this age of global commerce, and I saw that the tea industry in India – steeped in age-old traditions and practices – was ripe for disruption,” he says.

Dugar claims consumers have been short-changed by  the old tea-exporting system that consists of multiple stakeholders such as auction houses, wholesalers, distributors and importers. The Teabox distribution system means the time between the tea being picked to its arrival in customers’ hands can be reduced to a matter of weeks.

“Technology hasn’t traditionally been applied to solve any of the problems of the tea industry, and with us being the first movers in this industry, we’re bringing a new perspective to the traditional problems,” he says.  “We source the teas directly from the growers and ship them to customers the world over by ourselves within a week’s time. This enhances the product quality by a huge extent.”

Teabox has also found a receptive audience online in Australia. Jim Harmon from Ferntree Gully says he had struggled to find first-flush Darjeeling tea for sale in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. “Living out here it’s difficult to get decent Darjeeling tea. Despite reservations about ordering online, I have found their stuff to be extremely reputable and good quality.”

Later in the day in India we visit Goomtee Estate, a beautiful tea plantation about 1500 metres high in the Himalayas, where Teabox chief taster Rajiv Gupta explains how Teabox varieties are selected. “I’ve been in the industry for 17 years managing other estates. Now I can share that knowledge with local growers to ensure they get premium prices for their teas – and that the teas get to our consumers worldwide as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Gupta estimates the turnaround time from the tea being picked to being shipped can be reduced down to a matter of days. As soon as the tea is procured from the plantation it is sent to the production centre where it is checked for quality, vacuum-sealed and dispatched globally.

Krishan Katyal says he welcomes the arrival of online start-ups like Teabox, but points out some limitations of the online model. “It may be true that they can get the tea back to people in a shorter time – but the real question is what tea are you receiving. You can get it in six weeks or six months – but it could be that it is actually at its best after six months. An online purchase doesn’t necessarily make it better – it just means you’re getting it faster.”

Despite still being a tiny player in a massive global market, Teabox is undoubtedly breaking down walls between growers and tea connoisseurs around the globe. For Melburnians looking to step beyond the simple teabag, the brave new world of high quality tea just got smaller.

This article first published in the Sunday Age

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