The music spills out of the open doors and onto the lawn of the Coonoor Country Club. It’s a crisp October night, and I’m standing next to Muskan, the manager of Tea Studio, who is creating quite a stir in the Nilgiri tea industry by upending centuries of traditions. However, right now she’s relaxing with friends, passing a cigarette in a circle while the band inside gets ready for another number.
It’s the tail end of an incredible first day in the Nilgiri mountains of south India. Following a full day of making tea at Tea Studio, we’re now drinking rum on ice. By request from Muskan’s father Indi, I brought a bottle of Hercules from Bangalore, where I had flown into yesterday on a direct flight from San Francisco. Indi is a few feet away, deep in conversation with a visiting tea buyer from Holland, most likely trying to get him to purchase some of Muskan’s teas. Slightly jetlagged and completely in bliss, I marvel at how this father-daughter duo represents the vanguard of Nilgiri tea. And they’re just at the beginning of their work!
The History of Nilgiri Tea
My favorite way to reach the Nilgiris is by car. The 10-hour road trip begins at my 90-year-old grandmother’s kitchen table. She’s made us hot chai and crisp masala dosas, a south Indian delicacy akin to savory crepes stuffed with spiced potatoes and served with fresh mint chutney. After breakfast, we strap our luggage to the roof of the hired cab and begin journeying through the bustling Bangalore morning traffic.
After an hour of driving south and west, the city begins to recede and the roadside construction sites are replaced by palm trees, coconut vendors, and rocky plateaus. The highlight of the drive is passing through a protected animal reserve full of peacocks, deer, and elephants. Immediately after exiting the reserve, the Nilgiri mountains erupt out the earth, their cliffs drenched in the golden afternoon sunlight. We wrap our way up switchbacks, passing through fragrant eucalyptus groves with dramatic views to the plains behind us.
The road we’re driving on was first built by the British in the late 1700s. They were looking for a way to escape the blazing heat of the plains, and turned the hill station of Ooty into a summer resort town. A few enterprising British tea planters from Assam visited the area and recognized the opportunity to grow tea in a new, warm climate. In the 1830s, they planted the hardy Assam varieties of Camelia sinensis in the Nilgiris soils and a new Indian tea region was born. The favorable weather allows for year-round tea harvesting. As a result, the Nilgiris produces four times the amount of tea as Darjeeling despite being the same size.
Besides growing conditions, the primary difference between Nilgiri and India’s famous regions of Darjeeling and Assam is the role small-scale farmers play in tea’s production. In the Nilgiris, the majority of tea is grown on land owned by local communities who sell their harvest to privately run “bought-leaf” factories. This bought-leaf model is markedly different from the estate model that dominates Darjeeling and Assam, where a private person or entity owns the land and the factory. When the farmers own their harvest, they are in a stronger position to negotiate than when they simply work the land for private owners. Further, because the communities can grow whatever they want on their land, they aren’t solely reliant on tea. This gives them increased resilience against the failure of any single harvest. Rather than following the estate practices of monoculturing huge swatches of mountains, Nilgiri farmers are planting tea alongside other food crops and native species, ensuring the soils keep their vitality and richness.
However, there are challenges to this model. As any bought-leaf tea factory manager will tell you, it’s difficult to make consistent tea when each farmer uses different cultivation standards. Also, community politics are always at play. Since land is so scarce across all of India, real estate developers tempt tea communities to sell their land, which often leads to internal family conflicts. It’s a complex scenario, and one that I’ve found essential to study closely. Interestingly the Nilgiris is the only established tea region in India that doesn’t operate on the estate model, offering important lessons for our work with small-scale farmers in Kumaon.
From the beginning, Nilgiri teas were made to be black, strong, and bold. The high elevation gives them a bright, fruity complexity that often evokes memories of apricots or plums. These teas also don’t cloud over as they steep, which makes them popular for high-end iced tea. Initially, the main buyers for Nilgiri teas were the Soviets, who were notorious for being lax in their demands for quality. As a result, for much of the 20th century, Nilgiri teas had a poor reputation on the global market. With the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, the region was forced to reinvent itself. That’s where Indi and Muskan enter the picture.
Muskan and Indi Khanna
Indi Khanna is one of the most interesting people in tea who I know. Born and raised in northern India, he entered the tea industry as a young man and worked his way through just about every role in the industry: from tea planter, to international tea trader, to tea maker. He’s a self-made man with a deep well of experience, including a story of losing a fortune to the Russian mafia and a daring attempt to get it back that ultimately failed.
He’s also the first tea maker I met. In the summer of 2013, I was exploring the idea of starting Young Mountain Tea and made a journey down to the Nilgiris. A mentor in the tea world directed me to Indi, who invited me to his house to chat. With a mixture of excitement and fear, I knocked on the door and was greeted by Indi’s daughter Muskan. She was a stylish young woman who explained that she had just quit her job at a Mumbai ad agency to join her father in the tea trade. As we waited for Indi to wrap up a phone call, we connected over the fact that we were both entering tea professionally at the same time, although from two different angles.
We all sat down in Indi’s office, where he explained that he saw a huge opportunity to reinvent Nilgiri teas. He had bet his career on it by moving to the region to adapt Chinese and Japanese styles of processing to Indian teas. He had begun by convincing the manager of a local tea factory to experiment with processing techniques, and sitting at his desk, we tried the initial batches of the new teas. They were outstanding—fruity, bright, juicy, and unlike anything I had tried before—so I took samples, and when I got back home to Oregon, I placed our first order.
Over the next few years, Indi traveled the world extensively to study how tea makers in China and Japan were advancing technologies for tea processing, and how Western markets were responding to these new creations. Along the way, he pulled together a host of international partners and convinced them to help him launch a new state-of-the-art tea factory, with machinery sourced from all corners of the globe. While Indi focused externally on gathering resources to bring to the Nilgiris, Muskan dove deep into the world of tea making and discovered an untapped well of creativity that she could express through the leaf.
Creating New Indian Teas in a State-of-the-Art Factory
When the doors opened on the new Tea Studio in 2017, Muskan was ready to lead the charge. She stepped into the role of Manager and in an unprecedented move, she began by hiring exclusively women to run the factory. Free from the baggage of tradition and equipped with the finest imaginable tea factory, the team set out to rethink every aspect of Nilgiris tea’s production. They began paying unthinkably high prices to get top-quality leaf from local farmers, making teas that other tea makers had never heard of (including the Nilgiri Forest which is awaiting a patent). And, most profoundly, they were transforming the role women play in making tea.
The members of the Tea Studio team all come from local families that have spent generations growing tea and selling it to independent factories. For the first time, these women were now inside the factory and in positions of real power. Take for example, Vaideghi Kanan, the head tea maker at Tea Studio. Her family has been growing tea for generations, and Vaideghi was destined to the same until Muskan hired her. Now, Vaideghi decides the purchasing price of the harvest from other local farmers. She’s determining the value of men’s work, shattering centuries of tradition.
In a trade dominated by men and commodity grade black tea, Muskan and the all-women team at Tea Studio are providing a refreshing burst of invigoration with their new whites, greens, and top-quality blacks.
As I stand next to Muskan and Indi outside the Coonoor Country Club on my first day in the Nilgiris, I marvel at how change is driven by people exactly like these two. Then, the guitar player inside strikes the first notes of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Muskan heads back inside, ready to dance into the future.
Raj Vable, Founder
He has been confounded by the leaf since his first transcendental encounter with white tea in 2010. Three years later, he started Young Mountain Tea to bridge his budding tea obsession with his interest in traveling in the mountains and previous experience creating job opportunities in rural India. He revels in working across cultures and can be regularly found trying to get the rest of the team on board with another outlandish tea project. His favorite teas remain white, and he’s always searching for the next cup of magic.