A rare red loose oolong from Darjeeling, this glowing amber tea tastes of dark chocolate and cherries.
About four years ago I met Young Mountain Tea at a farmer’s market in Springfield Oregon. I had just wrapped up a season of harvesting seaweed along the California coast and was visiting a friend before trekking back to Minnesota for winter. As I walked through the late fall market something more unusual was illuminated amongst all the vegetables – a tea stand. Behind the candles flickering below the glass teapots stood Raj, founder of Young Mountain Tea. He happily welcomed people to his booth, pouring samples and speaking to the various teas with enthusiasm and care.
Over the past two years, I had spent time on both the east and west coasts learning about where food came from. In upstate New York, I spent time dabbling in vegetables, bees, and dairy while on the west coast I delved into permaculture, earthworks, and foraging. Despite covering a wide array of food and farming endeavors, one of my daily staples was missing from field and forest experience… and that was tea.
Up until this point, tea was a mystery to me. I knew I liked tea and preferred it to coffee. I often made a habit of going to the Asian grocery store buying teas with the most interesting names, or ones whose labels were in anything but English. I was well aware of the transformation the coffee industry was experiencing regarding direct-trade and total transparency in the supply chain – but did not see that mirrored in tea. Little did I realize that those flickering lights at the Young Mountain Tea table would be at the catalyst for that demystification.
I tasted every sample Raj offered as he described his experience with each grower, and how their teas were made. I learned that all tea came from the same plant and it was a matter of processing (among other factors) that accounted for their differences. I left that meeting with a bag of Indi’s Gold and returned to Minneapolis. Later, as the winter snows began to fall and my tea supplies needed replenishing, I emailed Raj with a proposition. “I think your teas would do really well in Minnesota. There are lots of people interested in socially responsible sourcing, and… it’s COLD here!” With that Raj and I decided to give tea sales in Minnesota a try. With no marketing experience - he sent me a kit of written materials, glassware, tea, a video clip of how he presented the teas, and with that, I became a traveling tea peddler of sorts.
Since then I have been working to bring Young Mountain Tea to tea drinker’s cups in the Midwest and around the US. My friends can hardly hide their surprise when they hear that their friend Ingrid, usually dabbling in gardening or sports, is doing SALES work. But I reassure them, “I don’t do sales … I do storytelling.”
Since day one, sharing Young Mountain Tea has been an opportunity for me to participate in the timeless ritual of pouring tea for strangers. Every time a grocery manager or café owner agrees to sit down with me, I realize I am treated to a rare and precious exchange – 2 people carving out time in our busy days to give a moment to an unscripted meeting. Sure, we will of course talk about tea and the people who grow it, but with a warm cup in one’s hand, it is easy to talk beyond the tea and laugh about a mutual experience or empathize with a difficult day. And as tea contains L-theonine, an amino acid responsible for producing a calming and relaxing effect on the body, I also believe that these mid-day tea interludes are good for everyone’s balance and peace.
Young Mountain Tea has given me friends around the world, connection to my community, and a deeper knowledge of the world’s most consumed beverage after water. It is a pleasure to share Young Mountain Tea with you. I hope we all keep our cups full and continue to pour tea for dear friends, family, and the occasional stranger.Continue reading
Nestled on the lush terraced hillside of a sleepy Nilgiri community lies Tea Studio. This glass structure with soaring ceilings and red trim is the only modern feature on these age-old terraces. This state of the art tea processing and educational facility was the longtime dream of Indi Khanna - who has been producing fine Indian teas for decades.
While Tea Studio was being conceptualized, Indi asked his daughter Muskan to leave her work in the city to join the team as Operations Manager. She debated, and then made it clear to her father that she would be interested only if she was able to explore incorporating traditional Chinese methods into their production. Under Muskan’s leadership, the factory is producing one of a kind Chinese inspired teas with distinct Indian tastes. Tea Studio is also an educational space designed to host groups and teach professionals how to make fine whole leaf teas. The factory is currently run and operated exclusively by a team of women – rare for the tea industry.
We visited Tea Studio on the India Tea Tour and had Muskan helped us get our hands in the tea leaves. We reached her by email to ask her a few questions about her work at Tea Studio.
What is Tea Studio to you?
Tea studio to me is my calling! It’s my home away from home, it's my happy place.
When did you know you wanted to get into tea?
To be honest… I didn’t. From studying Media Studies at the University of Birmingham, to working in advertising, I ended up working with Indi (my father) who has been in tea all his life. And before I knew it, I started enjoying the world of tea more and more.
What was it like to grow up with your father working in the tea industry? Did that feel special, unusual, or just normal?
To me, it felt normal. That’s the only profession I’ve ever seen him at. Of course, now that I’m in the same business as him it feels special. He’s such a well-respected person in the tea world and there is so much I learn from him EVERY day.
What is your daily routine like at Tea Studio? Can you walk us through a typical day?
I get to the Studio by 9:00am, check my emails, do the accounts from the previous day, and then head down to the factory floor where we start manufacturing. From handling the fresh leaf, to making the teas, to hand sorting the made tea and even sweeping the dust off the floor, I do it all. Once we finish manufacturing, I usually go back to my office to check for any new emails or client leads and head home at about 6:00pm. Since it’s a totally woman run operation we do not like to work past 6:00pm.
Your female colleagues - did they have experience in tea when they began working with you, or did you train them on the job? What interested them about working at Tea Studio?
They had no prior experience working in a factory, they all were leaf pluckers from around the area. They have all been trained on the job. When I asked them what they liked about it they say it’s because of the environment. “The 'bosses' are so kind, they make us feel important at every stage. It is so nice working in a factory which is only managed by women, we can be free and be ourselves. The best part is we feel at home here, we don’t want to go back home. If working on Sundays was an option, we would do that too!”
What excited you most about Tea Studio?
Everything! That’s like asking someone “what do you love most about your child?” I’m excited about the teas we make, the positive feedback we get, my hardworking team of girls… all of it.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to someday becoming a known face in the industry, and for Tea Studio to be right there on the map.
How does it feel to be a young woman in the Indian tea industry? Has anything surprised you?
It feels a bit unusual. The tea industry, in India especially, is still a very male dominated place. It did take a while for people to take me seriously. However, I’ve seen that change gradually, where people actually respect what I do. Though every now and then I do get a “you manage a tea factory?” – implying it’s clearly a man’s job.
What is your favorite tea and why?
Oh this is tough, but if I really had to choose, I’d say the Nilgiri bamboo (Green Mist). This is a tea I invented myself. I was trying to think of ways to not waste the stalk. I tried different methods, and eventually came up with the bamboo. We're in the process of getting a patent on it too.Continue reading