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
“In 2050, will there be Tea?” was the question being posed. Over 40 people had gathered at Tea Source’s warehouse on Father’s Day to hear guest lecturer Nigel Melican speak on the future of tea. This lecture was part of Tea Source’s Master Series to educate the public on relevant issues related to tea. Bill Waddington, founder of Tea Source, assured the audience that it would be a “sobering and heartening conversation,” to which the audience cautiously chuckled. While it was clear that lecture would dip into the grim realities of climate change, urbanization, and a shifting face of tea, Melican said he would “steer the middle course between optimism and pessimism.” He would balance the doom and gloom through highlighting the possibility for change that could be achieved through human creativity and innovation within the tea industry.
Melican began by bracing the audience for big shifts in the tea industry to come. “I predict we will see more changes in tea during the next 30 years than we have seen in the last 300.” The major contributing factors he outlined were: urbanization, population growth, land scarcity, climate volatility, and technology.
In 2010, the world’s population of rural inhabitants matched those of urban dwellers. Currently, 54% of the population lives in urban areas, and that number is increasing with the UN estimating as many as 70% in 2050. Many of the rural tea growing communities in India and China are suffering labor shortages as young people are enticed by urban job potential and higher wages. Tea pluckers – many of whom are 60-70 years of age – do not want the younger generations to go into tea. “Mother’s want their kids to be doctors or lawyers and make good money in the city,” Melican explained.
General population growth is making viable agricultural land scarcer. “We have more people alive today than have ever died,” Melican said putting population growth into perspective. Currently, only 3% of the world’s viable agricultural land is dedicated to perennial crops – which includes tea. Good land is becoming increasingly sparse, and more expensive, and it would be natural that beverage crops would lose out to food crops.
Climate change is evident worldwide, but especially in extreme environments like the Himalayas. Places where tea has historically been grown, may not be able to produce tea in the near future. Volatile weather patterns, that encourage pests and disease, erosion, droughts and record rainfall, are increasingly the norm and can wreak havoc on once productive gardens.
With the challenges rurally based tea production face, it is natural that technology must be incorporated to keep the industry viable. “Where there is money, there will be technology,” Melican said. Teas are already being produced in artificial environments, and can certainly be incorporated into creative urban design. However “… we will need to learn to mimic natural conditions and apply them under grow lights,” Melican said. For instance, naturally grown teas need to experience some sort of stress in their life, which contributes to their unique tastes. Melican predicted that these teas, on average, could cost upwards to 100 times more than their naturally produced counterparts.
On the India Tea Tour guests visited a research institute in Assam working on developing drought resistant varieties.
At this point in the lecture, Waddington asked a question on behalf of the forlorn faces in the audience, “So Nigel - is there hope for the future?” Melican smiled and, apologizing for the “spoiler”, said that yes, indeed, “There is hope.”
Melican described the 2050 picture evolving into two business models. He predicts there will be commodity tea producers fighting to provide low priced industrial tea using advanced technologies to stay solvent,” and “specialty tea makers using traditional and sustainable techniques with modern marketing to justify their high prices.” Then it will be up to the consumer which type of tea they select and why.
“Tea has been around for 5,000 years…. While Darjeeling and Assam teas are on their way out, soon we will be drinking teas from Myanmar and Rawanda,” Melican said. Hopefully, it will be around for another 5,000 more…
Nigel Melican will be leading our annual India Tea Tour. Designed for tea professionals – this experiential trip gives participants a comprehensive look at the Indian tea industry from crop to cup. The trip is likely to fill so reserve your spot today.Continue reading
What makes a cup of tea taste good? Is it flavor notes? The feel of the loose leaves in your hand? The memory of the place where you bought it or of the person you brought it to you?
For many, the story behind the cup of tea is as important as the taste. The faces, personalities, and landscapes we associate with the teas are woven into the steam wafting from our cups and enhance each cup we sip and share.
As part of our annual sourcing trips and cultural exchanges to India and Nepal - I was lucky enough to visit the people growing, plucking and processing one of my favorite teas, Darjeeling Green, through a homestay program at the Makaibari Estate. These homestay programs allow visitors a chance to step deeper into the lives of tea garden workers and communities. In addition, fees for the program go directly to the host families where women can earn additional income outside their professional garden work. We arrived at Makaibari one late October afternoon. After riding the narrow mountain roads, tossing honks back and forth with the other skilled Himalayan drivers, I was happy to have my feet on the ground. Upon arrival, our things were whisked away and brought to our respective residences for the next few days. Mine was a house right off the main road belonging to Manju Devi, a household where three generations and a drum-set lived together overlooking the steep terraced slope. The matriarch immediately set to work preparing lunch, a noodle dish that tasted less Indian and more Nepali, a testament to the Ghorka’s (the Nepali ethnic majority) living in the region. While we waited for the vegetables to cook, we were serenated by her son who had a drum set. A skilled musician, his hands danced wildly over the apparatus as I watched in awe. Soon Manju Devi summoned us for the meal.
After lunch and a little rest, we were invited to walk the tea fields with estate owner Rajah Banerjee and other guests. The realities of Himalayan life were immediately apparent - nothing is flat here. Life on a tea estate is a test of leg strength and lung capacity as work on the mountainside means two things: up and down.
The tea gardens were a landscape of their own; polycultures of waist high tea plants among towering jungle forests. The mountainside was cut with rivulets running perpendicular to the terraced gardens, oasis’ of bird life and big mammals (including panthers). Rajah proudly described his gardens as “a sea of forest surrounding islands of tea”, highlighting the various hues of green invigorating the mountainside.
We returned from the walk as the sun dipped low and the sky relaxed into that light blue of dusk. I walked into our home where Manju Devi was squatting on the floor beside her small roti rolling platform. I spoke to her in English explaining I wanted to help make roti. She understood my smile and hand gestures and handed over her tools. I was able to slowly produce imperfect rounds that kept her laughing as she pulled them over to warm over a pan and then sear quickly with the flame. We swaddled the roti in cloth as they came off the fire, and when a sizable stack was produced we sat down for a delicious gobi (cauliflower) stew.
Despite the well-traveled day, my first night sleeping in the mountains was fitful. Whoever said that roosters crow first thing in the morning was wrong. With hiked up plumage billowing over their chicken skinny legs, these proud poultry ignore all midnight sensibilities, their tenner solos accompanied by howling choirs of dog-song, a sound track to the starry sky above.
I lay awake and watched the light to tiptoe into the house. From the wooden bed tucked in the corner of the living room where I slept, I could hear the waking of human activity outside: pots banging, the sweep of the broom against the steps, and morning greetings, “Namaste”. At home, rising at the crack of dawn sends shivers up my spine, however the sun coaxed me from my sleep and I joined the grandfather on the steps as he stood there watching the day roll in. I wondered how many mornings he had done that.
Manju Devi was outside doing last nights’ dishes, squatting low at the bottom of the stairs leading to her house. We smiled at each other and I made the motions of exaggerated yawns and stretches to communicate I was waking-up slowly. She smiled back and said something in Hindi which made me feel like she understood. She asked “chai?” and I said “haan” meaning yes. She had already prepared tea and went inside to pour it from a thermos. She gave me a cup steaming in the light; a floral, unsweetened black tea from the very hillsides I watched being revealed in the morning sun.
This was my first of three mornings at Makaibari as part of the homestay program. Each night I slept better, and each day I learned more about the tea and culture of the Himalayas. The homestay program is a special opportunity to engage with other, not over profession or language, but by the laugher that comes from sharing smiles, chuckles, fumbles over communication, and the ever-present roti rolling that are staples of Himalayan life.
Nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, 200 miles west of Nepal’s border, lies a little-known tea region called Kumaon. One of the most remote regions in all of India, Kumaon was originally settled in the 1400s by Indians fleeing religious persecution as invaders entered the subcontinent.Continue reading