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How the pandemic made tea change its colours

How an entire generation of ‘kadak’ CTC-drinking tea lovers suddenly found succour in green tea and various wellness tea blends

Tea drinkers in urban India have shifted their focus to quality teas recently, moving away from the mass-produced CTC teas. (Istockphoto)
Tea drinkers in urban India have shifted their focus to quality teas recently, moving away from the mass-produced CTC teas. (Istockphoto)

Till a few years ago, Kartik Banota, who works as a supply chain consultant in Mumbai, used to drink only milk tea—made the Indian way by boiling water, milk, sugar and black CTC tea together for long minutes. But over the past couple of years, Banota started getting interested in other types of tea, such as green teas, white teas and other varieties of loose-leaf teas, seen in advertisements for new Indian tea brands. “Brands like Vahdam, Teabox etc were all over my social media and I finally switched to loose-leaf tea,” he says.

Banota is among many tea drinkers who’ve shifted their focus to quality teas recently, moving away from the mass-produced CTC teas that Indians make millions of cups of every day. Indeed, for a tea-drinking nation, we are often strangely reluctant to make the pure brew; the predominant chai culture of the subcontinent often precludes the need for flavour and aroma that loose-leaf tea, made without milk, provides.

But covid-19 has made a lot of devoted chai drinkers try out new types of loose teas and blends. “The pandemic has had a positive impact on our brand as well as a surge of a new type of customer; younger, more health and beauty conscious. The pandemic has brought the natural health benefits of tea to the forefront – immunity & health being the buzz words over the last year,” says Roopali Misra, brand head, The House of Tea at Foodhall.

“Our order volumes have gone up two to four times post pandemic,” Susmit Pratik, proprietor of Janardhan Enterprises that sells tea online at Ketlee.in, says. “Earlier, people had green tea for health reasons and later for taste, a trend that has moved into other loose-leaf teas too.”

There’s a strong wellness component to this shift. “The share of the wallet on wellness products has gone up during the pandemic. Most leading tea brands have introduced wellness tea blends hoping to get a fair share of the grocery basket,” says Shikha Puri, founder and CEO of online tea store TeaCupsFull. “The consumption of tea has increased during the lockdown owing to the ongoing pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of tea as a healthy alternate beverage over juices and fizzy drinks,” she adds. Along with teaware bought for convenience of home brewing, the average cart order of TeaCupsFull has gone up by 20% since the pandemic began.

Other direct-to-consumer (D2C) tea brands have seen their sales go up exponentially as well. Snigdha Manchanda, founder of Tea Trunk says that sales of their turmeric tea have gone up by 350% in the past year, jumping into the top three teas sold by the brand. “A lot of people have started consuming loose-leaf tea as a form of preventive healthcare. We’ve even had our younger audience send care packages to their parents in smaller towns,” she says. Turmeric was a bestseller for Vahdam as well. As Bala Sarda, CEO and founder of Vahdam, says, “ The Ministry of AYUSH recommended turmeric, golden milk and kadha for building immunity. In order to cater to the need of the hour, Vahdam launched a range of certified organic, immunity boosting turmeric teas and turmeric latte blends. It received a phenomenal response globally and is one of our highest growing categories now.”

TeaCupsFull has also seen a surge in sales of matcha tea and traditional Indian Ayurvedic teas like those containing turmeric, ginger, saffron, ashwagandha and nutmeg. The company has got enquiries for their Ayurvedic teas from as far as Australia and America. “We’re seeing a shift internationally too from sugar-loaded iced teas to green tea and ayurvedic tea,” Puri says.

There is a gender-driven impact on teas. “We’ve seen females in the age group of 20-45 who are open to trying teas that are good for their skin, reduce anxiety and help them sleep. Men, on the other hand, want tea that will help them stay focussed through online meetings and Zoom calls, leading to rise of sales of Japanese matcha tea,” says Puri.

Loose leaf tea is more expensive and has a learning curve to get the right brew, two things that went against their widespread popularity as compared to, say, ground coffee. As Shiny John Shaju, a Gurugram-based data scientist, says, “Tea becomes more expensive than coffee very, very quickly.” Shaju bought tea samples before the lockdown in 2020 and was surprised by how much it added up to. “There was a sale from Teabox and I bought all their samples, and ended up spending 8000. It was a huge jump for me from just spending a few hundred rupees earlier,” he says.

While many people started consuming loose leaf tea for its health benefits, Pratik says that green tea’s health benefits may be slightly overblown. “There is no concrete proof of green tea’s health benefits, especially those related to weight loss, and the anti-oxidants by themselves don’t do anything. We don’t market the health aspect at all,” he says.

Manchanda of Tea Trunk cites the example of ashwagandha, shatavari and shilajit teas, which can cause changes in women’s menstrual cycles and matcha green tea that can create disturbed sleep patterns if not taken in moderation (one-two cups a day).

Mugdha Pradhan, founder of health and wellness startup ThriveFNC, agrees that tea shouldn’t be used by everyone just because of its health benefits. “Immunity has become the most marketed word post pandemic but there are things to keep in mind before you start consuming endless cups of green tea for its health benefits. Remember to use medicinal plants as medicines and consume in moderation,” she says.

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.

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