Indian Tea: A Chronicle from Past

In India, tea isn’t only a hot drink made with water and leaves; it is an integral part of the rhythm of life, a consistent and unifying presence in an incredibly diverse country. Whether served in a plastic cup, earthenware clay pot, or a silver-plated kettle, every cup of Indian tea is a result of a unique style of brewing and spicing the beverage.

Tea is called chai in Hindi, and draws its origin from the word ‘cha,’ meaning tea in Chinese. The story of tea in India is a long one. Folklore speaks of Prince Bodhidharma, who traveled from India to China in 475 AD to spread Buddhism. The prince committed not to sleep during his mission but was soon overcome by exhaustion. Furious at his weakness, he plucked a few leaves of a tea shrub and ate them. His mind suddenly cleared and focused; he resumed his meditation.

Tea began its modern saga in the early 18th century when the British Raj started to set up tea plantations in India, primarily for its export. An aggressive campaign by the India Tea Company promoted the provision of ‘tea breaks’ for workers in an attempt to increase domestic tea sales.

With the increase in overall tea sales came an increase in the addition of spices to the mix by chai-walas (tea vendors), who diluted the tea to keep costs down. Despite the disapproval of the Indian Tea Company, masala chai quickly became the preferred beverage.

A leaf from the Vedas

Ambootia Tea Group is one of the most well-known brands in the world of Darjeeling tea – be it for the quality and flavor of their range, the sustainable practices followed by them, or their reputation for reviving sick tea estates.

Sanjay Bansal, Chairman, Ambootia Group, was born in the Ambootia Tea Estate (Ambootia means the place of mango trees) and spent his childhood in the tea garden (although, he also admits that he had his first cup of tea at the age of 17!). When his father took over the estate in 1987, Sanjay was asked to go and turn it around. The garden was set up in Kurseung North over a surface area of 966.7 hectares. It had become a sick unit when it was taken over by its present management.

The company adopted the biodynamic method of farming to turn around the plantation. Interestingly, this holistic farming practice, which was initiated by Austrian scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner, has been influenced by ancient Vedic practices of agriculture. Today, the biodynamic farming initiative at Ambootia Tea Estate is recognized as a successful case study in the field. Ambootia uses preparations from locally available herbs and fermented manure to grow the tea crop. The tea grown is of better quality and flavor and is also healthier. A 100 KVA Hydel Project was also made operational in 2004, which powers the factory during the period from June to October. The management has also been cognizant of the needs of workers with a specific focus on areas like healthcare, education, nutrition, and income augmentation.

After the success of this venture, there has been no looking back as the group managed to replicate this achievement across other sick units that it subsequently acquired. Ambootia Tea Group is now the largest producer of Biodynamic Organic Tea in the World. Its operations are integrated across the value chain to include cultivating, processing, warehousing, blending, packaging, and marketing of its tea. The group has benchmarked itself successfully to international standards of production and food safety by implementing good agricultural practices (GAP), good manufacturing practices (GMP), and food safety for market access. It now has eleven tea estates in Darjeeling and one in Assam.

Innovation has also been a critical success factor for Ambootia over the years. It has built a formidable positioning for itself through its high-quality Darjeeling Organic teas. More than 35 varieties are currently on offer from Ambootia’s portfolio, which commands exceptionally high prices in the international market (going up to £ 5,000 per kg). It has created a range of more than 35 varieties of high-end Speciality Darjeeling Organic Teas. Ambootia’s Brumes D’Himalaya, for instance, is specially made for French gourmet tea company Mariage Freres, and the Spring Dance tea is sold at the popular Harrods store in London.

The company bases its marketing strategy on three principles – quality, trust, and confidence; relationships and brands. Ambootia’s management has developed close relationships at the senior level with client organizations, enabling them to respond swiftly and effectively to client needs. It has also been able to successfully leverage co-branding efforts to build its brand equity in strategic markets. Generally, the co-branding happens with the specific name of the tea estate. The company is also looking at taking its branding efforts to the next level, as Sanjay Bansal affirms, “We are also looking at taking it (branding) forward and possibly having our own brand in domains that do not cannibalize on our existing marketing arrangements.” With strong foundations based on sustainable farming and dynamic business practices that have been recognized by customers across the globe, Ambootia is certainly well-positioned to take this next leap of faith.