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Who grew your chai?

Tea was grown with indentured labour, by clearing large tracts of forest land. In a time of social and climate change, provenance matters

Tea producers have now begun to recognise the opportunity provenance brings.(iStockPhoto)
Tea producers have now begun to recognise the opportunity provenance brings.(iStockPhoto)

Do I need to know where my tea comes from and who made it? asked a friend. It’s like having the magician reveal his tell. Or loving a book and then meeting its author. Some mystery helps keep up the romance, she said.

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It got me thinking about “provenance”. Not unlike my bookshelf, each tea in my cupboard holds a story. And among other things, I know where they come from and how they have travelled to reach me.

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This is true of so many things we consume today; just think of the chatter around farm-to-table produce. In tea, the supply chain from producer to consumer has been long and convoluted. Countries like India, Sri Lanka or Kenya, where the industry began under colonial rule, have had a plantation model. Tea estates came up with indentured labour, by clearing large tracts. Now they have to show they grow tea without compromising on environmental health or human rights. In the last decade or two, activists have demanded brands show they support ethical supply sources. In 2018, the non-profit Traidcraft Exchange ran a campaign, “Who picked my tea?”, in the UK to support workers’ rights in Assam, a major supplier of tea to the islands. Several brands began listing the source of their teas on their websites.

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Certifications, by the Rainforest Alliance for instance, became a seal of assurance of ethics and responsibility for producers. Transparency became a marketing asset. And provenance? A way to build trust and value.

Also read | How a female leader changed Nilgiris tea

Of course, the branded tea in the market has its advantages; the primary goal is to maintain a certain quality at a certain price. But tea producers have now begun to recognise the opportunity provenance brings. They own the story and by showcasing their gardens, the people who work there, the teas they make, they invite us to engage directly. Earlier, they never thought of marketing their own products; today e-commerce has evolved into an alternative distribution channel. One planter explained that while selling directly to consumers might be a small part of their business, its significance lay in the fact that they could get to know the customer better.

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I write this with a cup of tea from a new Darjeeling brand, Dorje Teas. I follow them on social media. We talk about why they started the brand and what they hope to achieve. Among other things, they talk about spotting hornbills on the estate. It’s like chatting with a friend. And it makes me enjoy the tea a little more. I wouldn’t have been able to do this 20 years ago. Knowing the story of the tea brewing in my kitchen is magical.

TEA TAKES

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Makaibari, Gopaldhara and Dorje Teas (Darjeeling), Rujani Tea (Assam), Anandini Himalaya Tea (Kangra), Nuxalbari Tea (Darjeeling district).

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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