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The New Face of Nilgiri Teas

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The New Face of Nilgiri Teas

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!

Nilgiri Woman in colorful clothes gently sorting whole leaf teas in a large round and shallow wicker tray

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. 

Female and male tea farmers standing in lush and sunny tea fields in the Nilgiris, with big smiles. The woman is giving the thumbs up.

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 of Tea Studio standing next to each other and smiling

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.

The red and modern Tea Studio Factory building in the Nilgiris at dusk, perched on top of tea fields, with angled roof and light coming from the inside.

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. 

 Female tea factory worker in her navy uniform leaning against a tea table, looking out into the lush tea fields, with a red tea set next to her.

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.

 Four smiling women tea makers at the Tea Studio factory in the Nilgiris

Want to Learn More About Our Tea's Origins?

READ ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ASSAM

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Blog Author:

Raj Vable, Founder of Young Mountain Tea

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. 

Comments on this post (43)

  • Nov 14, 2020

    Indi and Muskan,
    a most delightful read from Raj Vable.
    I’m certainly impressed with what the two of you are doing at your Tea Studio and look forward to visiting the next time I’m in the Nilgiris.

    A couple of suggestions; have you considered adding a few tourism-related activities to your website offerings?
    There should be a market for well organized tea estate visits and homestays.
    India’s younger demographic is always looking for new and unique experiences and this could help extend the Tea Studio brand.

    Warm personal regards,
    Nanjoo

    — M.N. Apaya

  • Nov 14, 2020

    A wonderful read!

    My very best wishes to Indi, Muskan and the Tea Studio.
    It’s great to read of Indi blending his many years of tea experience with modern technology and
    allowing Muskan to take the unique enterprise forward.

    Success!

    — M.N. Apaya

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Muskan; Inspiring, creative, passionate and above all, empowering women who bring so much to the art of tea. Building new traditions whilst learning from the past. Muskan, Indi and team. World beaters.
    All the very best.

    — Tony Revill-Johnson

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Delightful article. This is the way to go. Not only in manufacturing tea but in building a winning team. I speak as a former tea planter and a leadership development expert with a global consulting practice over now 35 years. All power to you Indi and Muskan and your team and hope to visit you sometime soon. Beautiful website and lovely pictures.

    — Mirza Yawar Baig

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Young mountain tea tales : One can see that the apple never falls far from the tree for the the new face of Nilgiri teas.

    — Krishna

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Indi and Muskan,
    You both fit the “Two Peas in a pod” term to the T.
    It is wonderful to see your path breaking initiatives to give Nilgiris Tea a completely NEW and tantalizing identity.
    Muskan, waiting to see many more innovative Teas from you.
    Inspite of my sixty years association with Tea, my visit to Tea Studio and to see your team at work was a rewarding and learning experience .
    Wishing Tea Studio and you both deserved recognition from the Tea industry and trade.
    May your venture prosper and go from strength to strength.
    Ranga Bedi

    — Ranga Bedi

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Very inspirational….looking forward to more from Raj and Young Mountain Tea !
    Beautiful photographs,too!

    — Ravi Mathews

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Well done Muskan! I love your tea. I start my morning with a cup of Nilgiri Frost. Good to see that you are empowering women. Keep up the good work.

    — Shelly Sahay

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Congratulations to this (now famous) father and daughter team! I’m sure they continue to produce teas with that special character that comes only from their deep commitment to their pursuit of this gorgeous beverage! I have a sneaking feeling that the Dad’s mustache may play a role in his ability to blend teas that produce a “muskan” in every cup!

    — Neeraj Kumar

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Tea has many stories to tell and its a fascinating world! Mr. Khanna undoubtedly is one of the most passionate tea makers in the country today. I have been an ardent fan of his works for years.
    Congrats Muskan to become the flag bearer!
    Warm wishes…

    — Krishnendu Chatterjee

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Well done Muskan! Great going!

    — Jaidev Singh

  • Oct 17, 2020

    Humbled by all the lovely comments & pats on our respective back.
    Thanks all.
    The hard work is all Muskan’s. The rest of us involved are simply put, her support structure!

    — Indi khanna

  • Oct 17, 2020

    I had the privilege of visiting this amazing tea factory some weeks ago.

    Muskan and Indi are creating s revolution in this industry, and Muskan’s dedicated and professionalism are commendable. It’s a delight to see women leading the charge in such a male-, dominated industry.

    BTW, they make the best green tea ever. And their range of products and add-ons are just brilliant. I’m a customer for life.

    — Sangeetha Shinde

  • Oct 17, 2020

    thank you all so much for the pat on the back! But it really is all dads doing, im just following in his footsteps. And a BIG BIG Thank you to Raj vable for this write up!

    — Muskan

  • Jan 25, 2020

    Congratulations Muskan!! It’s really nice to know that you are following your dad’s steps. I know you as a little school going girl, when you visits your dad’s office in Jebel Ali “Excel International”, where I was working as Mr. Khanna’s assistant.
    Good Luck dear. Long way to go!!

    — Naseem

  • Jun 13, 2019

    It’s very much encouraging. Would like to meet you personally or at least prefer to have a word with.

    — S H Rahman

  • Nov 13, 2018

    I had the privilege to visit Tea Studio a few months ago together with my wife. It was a great learning experience. Great going Mr. Indi Khanna, Mr. Jibin Samuel and MS Muskan.
    Hope to remain in touch.

    — sajjan bagaria

  • Sep 11, 2018

    Congratulations I Khanna Family and Muskan
    shiV
    Rohini Darjeeling

    — shiV k saria

  • Sep 11, 2018

    It is such a wonderful news. I congratulate the young entrepreneur Muskan Khanna and her team in their venture of Tea Studio and wish them big success . Having spent thirty seven years in Assam tea plantation Tea is synonymous to life for me and my husband Rajan mehra ( 1967 – 2010) He has been tea manufacturing adviser and tea taster for Assam company. Passion and hard work two chief ingredients and you seem to have inbibed both from your father. congrats to him too.
    Keep it up

    — Shalini Mehra

  • Sep 10, 2018

    Congrats,Muskan,Indi and the entire team.Wishing you lots of luck n success,always.

    — Nimish

  • Sep 10, 2018

    Congrats! Taking up a responsibility & debeloping suttle passion towards tea, is amazing and that too developing a new flavor!

    — Venkatesan

  • Sep 10, 2018

    I was delighted to know that you had joined Indi in this unique Tea Project, all his dreams have come true!!
    “With an estimated 3.5 billion cups of tea consumed in a single day through out the world,this beverage has emerged as a global icon around which relationships revolve. Discussions are held, views are freely aired, social contacts developed, matrimonial alliances are confirmed, guests are received, long lost friendships are renewed, commercial deals are clinched. All this over a cup of tea.” This apt description could only be given by your father.
    What more recognition do you need, as you have already, invented a tea – Nilgiri bamboo (Green Mist). Does Indi describe the tea thus? -“To take a sip of fresh (Green Mist) is like paying a silent tribute to the senses. The amber golden translucence fills the eyes, the fragrance brings back memories, the exquisite flavour unfurls before you the mists of the mountains and the smell of spring showers”
    Muskan, I have taken this opportunity to show case Indi – as he is a humble man who never talks about his knowledge of tea, he is a world authority on Black Tea. I say this as I worked for him and his advise to me on Chinese tea machinery was invaluable.
    Looking at the factory, I am sure the structure is made to face the morning sun, and the soaring ceiling allows the circulation of fresh air – the first of its kind.
    All the very best to you both.

    — Ronnie Asirwatham

  • Sep 10, 2018

    Wow! How wonderful to see innovations and fresh faces in tea… Talking about faces, Muskan looks a younger version of Aunty!

    — prabhdev singh

  • Sep 10, 2018

    When the beginning is so hit can imagine the goal……congrats to muskan and her team…..

    — Praveen Mittal

  • Sep 10, 2018

    Congrats Muskan & team.Have been there, very inspiring.Job well done.All the Best, hope u be a role model to the tea industry .

    — Rajesh Chander B

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