New Delhi: Globally, the US is the world’s third largest importer of tea, just behind Pakistan and Russia. However, when it comes to the country importing tea from the world’s second largest tea producer, India is way behind Canada, Argentina and China. In 2016, for instance, the world’s largest economy imported a mere 17.2 metric tonnes of tea from the world’s fastest-growing major economy.
So, why has Indian tea failed to get the right traction in the US? “Because the people who make them are good at making tea. But a product isn’t a business, it’s not a marketing plan, it’s simply a product,” explained Amy Dubin, promoter of the New York-based tea room, Janam Indian Tea, in an exclusive interaction with EastMojo.
“The US is an extremely complex gist of different cultural groups, different parts of the country, different habits and different cultural norms. The Indian tea growers shouldn’t be expected to know that and just march in and start competing,” she emphasised.
Dubin, a self-taught tea curator, recently became the first American to be invited by India’s commerce and industry ministry for her efforts at promoting Indian teas. In January, she shared her expertise with 700 international buyers at IndusFood-II, the world supermarket for value-added food products from India held in Delhi-NCR.
How a sip of ‘masala chai’ changed a life
Dubin first came to India in 1998 on a vacation with a friend from college. Her Gujarati friend’s grandmother made her a cup of “the most amazing masala chai”. The experience made her curious to know more about tea. Once back in the US, she started visiting libraries, asking questions and went for afternoon teas available in New York at the time.
After finishing a course at a film school, she started working as a video editor with a leading advertising agency in the Big Apple. Other than good money, the job provided her with invaluable technical and marketing experience that would later come in handy. Simultaneously, she was getting very restive and wanted to try her hand at something different.
Meanwhile, she had also become a regular visitor to the Tea Board of India office in the iconic Empire State Building. Impressed with her dedication, the director there reportedly told her, “Amy, if you need to learn about Indian tea, you need to actually go to India.”
“So, in 2002, I put all my stuff in storage and decided to spend half a year in India studying tea of my own volition,” said Dubin.
As luck would have it, she connected with a few industry people who upon realising her sincerity invited her to visit their plantations. “The second week I was in India on that six-month trip, one of the tea garden managers in Assam got married. I met 500 tea garden managers all at the same time in Guwahati at this wedding,” she informed with a glint in her eyes.
There was no stopping her thereafter.
Talking about her association with the Northeast region, she remarked, “When I came to study Indian tea, my intention was to embrace wherever tea is grown in India. Therefore, the Northeast is a significant part of the fascination because a pretty huge amount of tea comes from that area.”
A journey of experiences
Her first month was spent at the Sonapur Tea Estate, an hour’s drive from Guwahati. It turned out to be a memorable stay that provided her with a first-hand glimpse of life in a tea plantation.
The time spent in Assam also afforded her an opportunity to explore the local culture. She learned how tea tribes became an intrinsic part of the plantations. She was privy to this and several other details as she patiently listened and learned from the stories that were narrated to her around bonfires. She also had her first encounter with terrorism. “I experienced that while trying to leave a tea garden with a manager and him telling me to stay in the car, whilst he got out and paid a group of men with guns money to leave his own house,” she reminisced.
She also witnessed the manufacturing process, which made her realise the delicate economic engineering that goes into ensuring the right flavour and pricing for the commodity. “I saw that it really wasn’t everybody operating at the same level but were still expected to turn out similar quality tea,” she disclosed.
In Dubin’s view, Assam grown tea’s biggest strength is volume as the state is the largest tea producing area of India. There are many gardens making orthodox and oolong varieties, and some gardens following the Japanese tradition to make the Indian matcha. The state is known for growing tea that is multifarious in character because of the indigenous Assamica variety. The other variety, Chinary, which is indigenous to China, is used in places like Darjeeling and Sikkim. “When you have Assamica type planted in the plains and Chinary type planted in high altitudes, you are going to get completely different styles,” said Dubin.
According to Dubin, Assamica has profound chocolatey, earthy and malty notes. The Chinary variety is more fragrant, sweet and flowery. “So, the two are like night and day. They are two children of the same parents but it’s a boy and a girl; they are equal but they are not the same,” she revealed.
When asked what she considered to be the biggest challenge for tea plantations in the Northeast, Dubin opined that is was essentially logistical. “Moving tea from point A to point B is a challenge, especially during the monsoon season. There are also a lot of wildlife issues. Since it’s a rural area, how does it grow and become more efficient yet respectful to the environment that would be very helpful.”
She suggests that to cut down on the extra time and save costs, the possibility of auctioning tea directly from the gardens must be seriously examined.
Introducing Indian tea flavours to Americans
Talking about the US market, Dubin said that when she first started learning about tea, she cut open tea bags to explore what was inside them. “I asked myself if it was animal, mineral or vegetable. My brain didn’t recognise the material at all. There is so little understanding of tea. People don’t know green and black tea from the same blend. They don’t know that tea is a plant. They don’t know that English breakfast tea is really not grown in England!”
It was over two years ago that Dubin started her tea room in New York. Cellphones are disallowed inside the premises to both encourage guests to have a conversation as well as create the right context for people to try new flavours. The response has been encouraging.
Her business card interestingly describes her as ‘The Experience Director’ at Janam, which translates as ‘birth’ in English.
“It takes somebody with vision, with style, with an understanding of Indian teas to translate all of that into what Indian tea means for the US market. It again takes someone like me to translate the very complex US market for the Indian tea industry to explain the disconnect. But then I am here to help make connections. And my way is through experiences,” she surmises.