What tea means to Assam
On a regular day in Assam, you would find local brewers in the suburbs rolling or drying their tea leaves in withering makeshift shops. These women and men are contributing their own quota to what is today the largest tea producing city in the world.
In Assam, tea is more than just an industry; it is a culture, a crucial part of life in Assam, both in cultural and economic terms. What many say began with the Singhpos is today a mega industry (from Assam to the world).
Assam presents the ultimate vacation for tea drinking tourists. You can simply kickback with a cup of your favorite tea flavor or try out one of theirs, gazing upon the beautiful landscape and enjoying a nice conversation with friends. Even if you’re not an ardent tea drinker, being exposed to the enticing fragrance of sprouting tea leaves just might tickle your appetite. All over the state, even around the Brahmaputra river, low budding tea plants add to the captivating beauty of the state’s scenery. Little wonder these gardens are some of the major attractions for tourists.
The Tea Leaf Theory: Their story
Over the years, as the number of tea drinkers increase all over the Assam and the world at large, the market for tea production and distribution has also steadily grown. This has led to the launch of several entrepreneurial startups aimed at generating more mainstream attention to the tea culture in Assam. Startups like The Tea Leaf Theory (TTLT) are focused on providing Indians and other tea lovers across the world with quality tea varieties. Founding duo Upamanyu Borkakoty and Anshuman Bharali began TTLT as an extension of their love for tea and its production process. Riding on the success of this venture, the duo has launched other brands, like Woolah, which is the world’s first true dip tea.
Their journey began in Sivasagar in Assam. As childhood friends, it was natural for the duo to begin the startup together. They aimed to achieve a lot with this initiative, mostly to bring global attention to the tea culture in Assam.
“It was in 2014 when I came across a small farmer in a grocery store who was trying to sell his organically grown handcrafted green tea. Even though I was born and brought up in Sivasagar, in Upper Assam, we never had access to high quality teas, and so, I never knew tea could be hand processed and look so appealing. I bought one and tried it for myself. Until then I was only used to the bitter tasting green teabags. That was my ‘aha!’ moment and I realised there is definitely a gap in the market that needs to be tapped. I was fortunate enough to have met Ramen Gogoi, tea taster at Tocklai Tea Research Institute, in Jorhat. He was the first one to have introduced me to tea tasting and specialty teas that helped us build the foundation in the initial days whatever was possible in his personal capacity,” Upamanyu Borkakoty tells EastMojo.
The journey started by reaching out to a handful of enterprising farmers who were practicing organic farming solely because of the harmful effects of pesticides that are being sprayed in the tea estates for higher yield.
“We managed to convince them to setup micro tea processing units to produce handcrafted green and black teas in limited batches. The main intention was to develop the entrepreneurial skills in them to rise up creating an alternative livelihood, keeping in mind their similar interest and passion into consideration,” Anshuman Bharali says.
Production started by the second half of 2016 and the TTLT project was launched in Nov 2016.
“The production quality was average but not great. Hence, we decided to visit China (China being the global leader for specialty teas) to understand the kind of specialty teas they produce and sell, and we were surprised to experience such huge variation in quality standards. That made us think of an alternative model to research on the tea production,” Bharali adds.
This led to setting up of the “tea experimental station” at three of their smaller tea farms with limited resources and investment to research the different tea production styles. By 2019, some of the TTLT boutique farm marks like Latumoni, Koliapani, Mandal Gaon became one of the highest rated in tea assessment platforms of North America.
“And in 2020, our teas have also found a place at the Great Taste Awards in UK,” says Borkakoty.
In last three years, TTLT has witnessed a growth of 30-40% year-on-year in a segment that never existed for small boutique tea producers, especially from Assam. According to the duo, their group farmers currently earn the highest average as per industry standards. However, they made it a point to reinvest the profits to research more on futuristic ideas to change the way people consume tea with the launch of ‘Woolah’.
Talking about the crucial problems they are setting out to resolve, Bharali says they work with a number of small sustainable tea growers across Assam, Darjeeling, Sikkim and Arunachal, who make a living by selling green tea leaves, with the prime objective to convert them from green leaf producers to specialty tea crafters.
“Single Origin Limited Batch Specialty Tea category, especially from Assam, was almost nonexistent in the global map and we wanted to revive the lost glory of the Assam teas. In the process, we ended up reaching out to farmers from Darjeeling, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Arunachal. The main objective of TTLT is to organise a category which is a sustainable boutique of specialty tea producers, which has a lot of potential.”
The competition in Assam is massive. Great potential presents great opportunities. And their belief that TTLT is unique in structure and approach is a selling point for this duo. “We are more of a production and research focused startup with an inclination towards developing more innovative, sustainable and futuristic tea concepts. Both TTLT and Woolah cannot be compared to any other startup, as both the projects are first of its kind and cater to different segments.
“TTLT is a B2B sourcing platform for rare crafted single origin limited batch specialty teas only while ‘Woolah’ is an innovative tea brand focused only on launching a series of innovative teas to change the way people consume tea. Wolaahtea.com recently launched its patent-pending product TrueDips which is also a first of its kind product in the world,” Bharali explains.
A few of their bestselling products include Latumoni Golden Tippy Signature Black Assam, Latumoni Spring Bohagi Assam, Koliapani Signature Black Assam, Koliapani Xuwola Green Assam, Mandal Gaon Spring Ramrocha Darjeeling, and Mandal Gaon Summer Black Darjeeling.
With the business world experiencing a major paradigm shift before our eyes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, some entrepreneurs have been forced to employ innovative methods in keeping their doors open and retaining their customer base, while some have had to shut down. For these entrepreneurs, there’s an opportunity in every problem.
“We’ve seen a rise in the consumption of specialty tea due to the pandemic, mainly because of the health benefits of sustainably grown teas, which resulted in a little higher demand post-lockdown. Woolah has been our post pandemic launch; we are thrilled by the kind of response we have received within just a month of the launch which we never expected. This has given us immense confidence in the product,” says Borkakoty sporting a wide smile.
The emotion of happiness in Assamese and its ardent definition is what describes the brand Woolah. It is a specialty tea, re-imagined in the form of tea dip where the leaves are tied to a string (the way it is plucked) and then compressed with their patent pending technology that locks the true exotic flavours for a longer period of time and also cuts down on all the leaf breakages in the handling, packaging and transportation. This makes the brewing process hassle-free without the use of any brewing accessories. It requires only boiling water to dip and enjoy the beauty of the unfurling of the tea leaves in 4-5 minutes (which is also a standard steeping time). The existence of true unbroken whole tea leaves keeps its authentic flavour true to its nature and lets the active ingredients flow into the cup to maintain a healthy and clean lifestyle. The presence of the wholesome two leaves and a bud in each cup makes multiple brewing possible without any astringency or bitterness and can be repeated until the flavour fades away.
Both entrepreneurs continue to make feasible plans for the future, with the love and satisfaction of their customers in mind.
“We will keep working on creating new products and concepts. TrueDip was one of our first patent-pending products which is at present, positively circulating amongst our audiences. Hopefully, in the next five years, we will be able to give a commercial shape to few more patent pending prototypes and completely change the way people consume and brew tea. We have our minds focused on technologies that will be able to retain at least twice the flavours and brew a cup of amazing tea in the blink of an eye,” Borkakoty says.
Giving us an insight into the revenue generation model and its target customers, Bharali mentions that the revenue is generated directly through the sale of tea. TTLT currently generates more than 97% of revenues through exports. In TTLT a larger percentage of the revenue goes directly to the farmers and huge percentage of profits are invested in research and product development. Woolah tea is focussing mainly on the domestic market while a percentage of the same shall be sold through distribution networks in parts of Europe, N. America and Australia. Woolah currently engages only their TTLT boutiques farms through contract manufacturing agreements and aims in generating 2x profits for the producers and 6x employments for women. A single contract manufacturer currently employs more than 20 women only for the manufacturing of Truedips.
Large tea gardens covering huge acres of land fills continues to saturate the air in Assam. Fresh tea leaves fill the sidewalk, even by simply walking on the road you are further immersed into the tea culture, meeting local tea farmers who are experts in the business of drying and rolling of tea leaves, and even packaging them. What Borkakoty and Bharali have set out to do is to give a new dimension to the buzzing tea industry, by providing much more researched, healthy and satisfying varieties for those who need them.