Before cricket and Bollywood, even before Taj Mahal and Holi, India was known to the world for its spices. Distant empires craved and fought for them. And tea and pepper soared amid it all, forging industries that have largely remained intact to this very age. But those seem to change soon
By: Dimitria Vitanova
Posted on: March 30, 2016
Trade – an ancient activity that bodes adventure, gumption and even belligerence. Traversed by famed explorers and daring merchants, the early sea and land commerce routes that linked the North to the South, the West to the East, coalesced and tangled in the subcontinent of India. A land of bygone mighty dynasties, of fascinating and complex polytheistic faiths, of vibrant bustling societies, India was the terra nova of spices that thrilled the foreign palate the most. It quickly turned synonymous with tea and pepper, among other herbs, that morphed average meals into feasts.
Today, the Asian country churns out around 1.2 million tons of tea – the world’s second largest producer after China, from where the plant originates – as well as more than 65,000 tons of black pepper – a figure that trails only those of Vietnam and Indonesia. Both tea and pepper spur multimillion industries, which, in the 21st century technological era, still heed quaint precepts.
India’s delicate teas have been raised, plucked, sorted, stored, auctioned, packaged and sold in a manner preserved for 200 years. Meanwhile, its indigenous pepper, the king of spices, has bowed to the excruciating global demand, with precious, often community-binding varieties withering behind their high-yield, less labor-intensive kin.
Both India’s tea and pepper industries are indeed ripe for a revamp. And Teabox and World of Origins’ Wayanadan TGSEB (Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold) project – both started a couple of years ago – are ready to deliver. The former streamlines the cumbersome cycle of tea distribution, the latter revives organic pepper farming in Kerala, India. Teabox sheds the middlemen to ship teas to the end consumer in just a couple of weeks after harvesting, instead of the usual three – six months. Wayanadan TGSEB partners with food gurus and retailers in Europe to delight Michelin chefs and pepper enthusiasts. Both reside in the peculiar interstice between the modern and the dated, disrupting antiquated trade wonts with innovative business rationales.
The starters and the start-ups
Teabox and Wayanadan TGSEB boast founders who have walked rather similar – if ultimately distinct – life paths. Wayanadan TGSEB’s Anith Puthiyankath hails from a family, which has for three generations processed and traded edible oils in the town of Kerala, India. Teabox’s Kaushal Dugar was born and raised in Siliguri, India, where his father operated a tea garden supplies and equipment venture. With a penchant for business from an early age, both men went on to study abroad – Mr Dugar in Singapore, where he later worked as a finance analyst, and Mr. Puthiyankath in Britain, where he engaged in international and retail marketing.
While away from India, both launched companies. Mr Dugar set up an e-waste management firm as well as a luxury limousine service. Mr Puthiyankath refined the family operation, starting World of Origins and its signature K BY TYNDIS organic virgin coconut oil brand.
Not until the two young entrepreneurs reconnected with their hometowns – albeit in a business-savvy, mature way – did they embark on their latest endeavors.
Mr Dugar recounts: “ I came back to Siliguri and decided to go work for my older brother who runs a tea export business. Working there showed me another side to the business from what I had seen with my father – I saw the infrastructure that was being used to take the teas from gardens to the consumer and was surprised at how dated it was. And in these challenges, I saw a great opportunity for change.”
E-commerce portal Teabox sprang up. In the short span of two years since its inception, it has already delivered 30 million cups’ worth of tea to clients from over 91 countries.
Mr Puthiyankath – like Mr Dugar – leaned on his business acumen, spotting and seizing a chance to refine what others considered stagnated. Reaping success with Kerala’s exquisite coconut oil, Mr Puthiayankath resolved to widen World of Origins’ range of niche products and, in the process, empower local croppers.
“I did my research and came across this group of organic farmers called Vanamoolika in Wayanad, on the Western Ghats [mountains] of Kerala. It was obvious that they were facing very challenging times and their long term sustainability was under threat. The fact that they adhered to strict organic farming practices meant they were not able to compete in the market place. I felt a connection with this group and I wanted to support their cause.”
The assistance came in the form of Wayanadan TGSEB, which aims to rekindle global interest in the old pepper varietal that, although exalted and sought by mavens, commands a shy presence in the current global pepper production. Now, through the project’s exquisite tasting events and informative sessions held across Western Europe, the world is slowly rediscovering the spice that once pulled Arab and Portuguese voyagers to India.
Although they are the brainchildren of two men who share somewhat kindred life experiences, Teabox and Wayanadan TGSEB tote disparate business propositions, each unique for its potential to agitate its respective industry. Sipping on an assortment of Teabox’s refreshing infusions and wishing to give the next meal a Wayanadan jolt, LuxuryFacts traverses the novel paths the two start-ups are blazing in the grand trade of Indian herbs and spices.
TEABOX: “the process in which a small young green leaf turns into a delicious drink”
Righting the wrong
Tea is a lifestyle. But it is often a compromised daily ritual, robbed of the freshness and delicacy it could have. Blame the fossilized trade. Tea leaves journey from gardens to warehouses, where they usually idle for a month in poorly sanitized and crudely ventilated conditions only to be sampled and auctioned by distributors. Then, they continue to distant countries – with custom clearances further slowing down the jaunt – where importers contract wholesalers to vend the teas to retailers, who, in turn, sell them to the end consumer, three to six months after the fragile tea leaves have been plucked. Dragging and complex, tea commerce has remained largely unchanged since the times of the British colonial rule. That outmoded modus operandi wipes out a considerable portion of the teas’ aroma and flavor.
Enter Teabox, which takes the teas from the terroir to the cup in just two weeks. Adhering to stringent standards that dictate rigorous quality checks, Teabox sources five tea types – black, green, oolong, white and chai – from six Indian regions – Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Kangra, Nepal and the North East. Flaunting state-of-the-art fulfilment centers alongside the first tea cold-storage facility in the country, Teabox’s experts resort to both time-proven and modern procedures to select, clean and manually sort the tea leaves to eliminate any dust or damage that may later cause bitter liquids.
To better protect its precious product from the stress and harm caused by transportation, the company vacuum-packs it in opaque wraps, able to preserve its purity and crispness for up to a year. No matter where you are, order one such savory bundle and it will reach you within three to five business days – in an elegantly designed green and white box.
The World Over
Attentive to both time and value, Teabox’s inventive approach to the stale, 200-year old tea industry is fast appealing to tea lovers the world over – 70% of its sales come from outside India. “We’ve been a global e-commerce company from day one. Our primary target markets are the English speaking developed markets (US, UK, Canada and Australia) and CIS region (ex-USSR Countries). We are also looking to expand into China, Japan and South Korea,” says Mr Dugar, adding that Teabox lodges requests from countries that do not appear on the usual tea-importing list such as Chile, Iraq, Argentina and the Micronesian islands.
That comes as no surprise given Mr Dugar’s swift lead, worthy of a Silicon Valley tech company, and firm dedication to innovation. Apart from its traditional array of teas, Teabox now offers special blends for Diwali and Christmas, and accompanies each order with short, informative notes – from the estate and date of plucking the leaves to suitable food pairings.
Brewing the joy
“As a thumb rule, you can hold that lighter tasting teas, such as greens and oolong or even Darjeeling first flush black tea, be consumed with light foods such as cucumber sandwiches or salads or steamed vegetables and sushi. Darker teas, such as an Assam or summer/autumn flush Darjeeling teas are good with desserts [and] rich breakfast spreads. You want to make sure that the flavor of the food does not interfere with the flavor of the tea,” Mr Dugar says.
With every order, consumers also receive simple steeping advice, which is further available on Teabox’s portal in the form of sleek, clean infographics. However, Mr Dugar believes that “brewing tea and enjoying it, has very little to do with instructions; it is an art that is perfected with time and [by] throwing your heart into it.”
It is a counsel Mr Dugar seems to heed himself. His vim and verve for Teabox have already paid off, attracting an ardent following of tea lovers. It is easy to grasp why – from sweet to astringent in taste, from pale yellow to autumn brown in color, from unassuming to sophisticated in character, Teabox’s ambrosial infusions provide a sensation that once experienced is always preferred.
WAYANADAN: “unlike any pepper that I had seen or tasted”
Bold and hot
A normal pepper stem teems with 30 – 35 peppercorns, while the Wayanadan nourishes around 10 beads, which are bold, hot and full of scent and flavor. A varietal shrouded in various misconceptions, it is the original famed Tellicherry, a name derived from the port town in southwestern India, which has exported pepper since the times of Vasco Da Gama. The pepper that fostered and sustained the ancient Spice Trade does not, however, flourish on the coast, but high in the Western Ghats mountains in the Wayanadan region of Kerala.
“[The pepper’s] uniqueness comes from the local conditions in Wayanad, which is a biodiversity hotspot. There is an ancient story about the local king, and the early Portuguese explorers who arrived in Kerala looking for this pepper. The explorers asked the king if they could take a few pepper plants back with them to Europe. To the amazement of his subjects, the king allowed them to. He later told his people: ‘These foreigners can take the pepper plant but they cannot take our soil, our climate, our monsoons or our natural conditions’,” Mr Puthiayankath says.
Over the hurdles
Despite that unique alignment of the elements, locals have ceased to raise the Wayanadan. Instead, the majority of them have replaced it with hybrid, high-yield varieties, better suited to meet the global demand. But World of Origins’ Wayanadan TGSEB is casting back in time, rescuing the exquisite pepper through an opportune collaboration with the Vanamoolika organic group. It comprises of around 470 farmers, who, initially, met Mr Puthiayankath’s enthusiasm for the project with wary ambivalence.
Mr Puthiayankath says: “When I first approached them, the farmers were not interested. They didn’t believe in my proposal because there wasn’t much [Wayanadan] quantity available, and it entailed additional work and resources. They felt the resulting product would be too premium to have any takers. I suggested we try it and start on a very small scale.”
And, so they did – facing and overcoming hurdles. Each farmer had several Wayanadan vines, writhing around towering trees, which, as a result, require expert climbers to collect the soaring peppercorns. Plucking often entails the stingy bites of hordes of ants that thrive under the no-pesticide organic mores the farmers have adopted under the guidance and scrutiny of Organic Wayanad, the project’s sister organization.
To further complicate the already arduous procedure, farmers need to source the peppercorns with the stem. It provides the sole means of varietal verification as a number of hybrids could bulge to the Wayanadan size, rendering differentiation by the peppercorns’ proportions impossible.
Slow but Steady Attention
Only after the Wayanadan berries juggle around large sieves to single out the ones that are 4.75mm in diameter and above, do those premium beads fill glass jars, signed by Vanamoolika’s head, P.J. Chackochan and sold through specialist and high-end retailers in Europe.
“All of our sales come from outside India, namely UK, Germany and France. Although we currently do not sell in India, we are looking to expand to new markets. We are also in discussions with Michelin star chefs and we are working on establishing cross promotions with other high end products,” Mr Puthiayankath says.
With no current brick-and-mortar venue, the Wayandan project – as part of the select World of Origins line – is to soon obtain an online presence, allowing end customers to directly purchase the peppercorn. As of now food pundits can savour, sniff and appreciate the Wayanandan at the regular tasting events World of Origins holds with its retail partners.
“Most people approach us thinking ‘pepper is just pepper.’ But once they have tried it, they are amazed at how different the Wayanadan is. We have also had some interesting incidents during the tasting events … On [one] occasion, a lady tried the peppercorns and was so in awe of the Wayanadan aroma, she suggested we should create an aftershave for her husband,” Mr Puthiayankath says.
The exhilarating – even if at times quirky – reception the project enjoys has nudged the farmers to treasure and care for their few remaining Wayanadan vines. The once miniscule quantity of the superb pepper has reassuringly risen alongside the increasing international attention. Mr Puthiayankath says: “Most importantly, we have started to communicate, and slowly but steadily the Wayanadan TGSEB and the Wayanadan farmers are becoming known to the wider world.”
The Route Ahead
Both Teabox and Wayanadan TGSEB are already reshaping the methods and channels of their respective industries. Small but determined, they hustle to deliver value. Intricately tied to the very core and communal soul of India’s most treasured commodities, they disturb two of the country’s oldest enterprises – picking up and dusting off their antiquated fame and – with a bow to their past – steering them on a modern path.