Aideobarie was already a hundred years old when I joined my father in the tea business, back in 1992. We were producing crush-tear-curl (CTC) tea for the wholesale auction market. As a wholesaler, we were not getting the full value for all the hard work we were putting into making our tea. But that’s the challenge with producing tea as a commodity, which is what tea in India has been. As a commodity, production volume and supply dictates price. I would look at the end of the year revenue, and it was painfully evident that it had plateaued, and business had stagnated.
I was attracted to the idea of retailing directly, and began to think about creating a house brand. While neither of these can be achieved overnight, other unforeseen circumstances further delayed this journey. Within a few years of joining the business, my father fell ill. My plans to start for a brand were immediately pushed to the backburner. This was also the worst period in the tea industry in nearly a century. Between 1999-2006 prices fell, productivity was low, and demand for CTC teas in the Indian market plunged. It was very, very difficult to keep going. I also lost my father during this time.
From 2007 on, things began to look up again for the tea industry. I needed to strengthen our business, and I chose to focus on commodity trade. After this prolonged recession, the tea business trended towards a production model, and we too joined the rat race. We increased the capacity of the factory to produce larger volumes. I had opted for the trading model, but there was no joy in it for me. It brought back the old dream of doing something different, of creating a brand. But it was, I would find out, a more significant task than I had ever imagined it to be.
An eye-opening tea trip to China
I was making CTC tea at Aideobarie. I wanted to offer value. I thought my USP would be to compete on price. With these thoughts, I decided to visit the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, China. I had assumed that China would have inexpensive teas, especially green teas. Green tea was growing in popularity with India’s youth at that time, and I thought I could buy some, at low prices, in China. I researched and inquired about import formalities before booking my tickets to China. However, to my absolute shock, there was no such thing as a cheap tea. Every tea was priced five, even ten times more than Indian teas.
When I realised that I couldn’t find teas to buy to take back home, I decided to see a bit of China. I discovered that the Xiamen Tea Exhibition was ongoing in the city of Xiamen, and I decided to attend it. There I bumped into my cousin, and a few other traders from Kolkata, all trying to sell CTC tea. I found out much later, to my ever-increasing surprise, that this was not CTC for consumption but for polyphenol extraction, to make ready to drink tea. I also met some Sri Lankan tea producers, including my now good friend, Chaminda Jayawardana of the Lumbini Tea Valley. Through them, I met Mr Wang, who made tea machinery and had sold his machines to several Chinese tea farms.
This was the moment when I realised that tea leaves are the same in China as they are in Assam. It was a moment of epiphany to realise that we could change the ways of our industry.
Mr Wang lived in Anxi County near Xiamen City. He had a small factory. When we visited, oolong production was underway. The region is famous for the Tieguanyin oolong. I spent the night there, and visited tea farms the next day.
The Chinese model, as I saw, was very, very different from the Indian model. They didn’t have the commodity-selling mechanics we do in India. There are no auction centres in China. An auction is the fundamental essence of commodity trade. Instead, every producer sold tea directly to a customer. The Chinese, in 5,000 years of tea farming, did not create a formal auction. That trip to China opened a new way of thinking about the teas I wanted to make and market.
Mr Wang demonstrating the rolling table. It was one of the machines I brought back to Aideobarie.
Lessons from Chinese tea making
I returned home to Assam, buoyed by what I had seen, and brimming with new ideas. I decided that I would make premium whole leaf teas to sell directly to the customer. I also bought three machines in China, a roller, a dryer and a fermenting machine. It took a year for them to reach me. They lay in the factory, unused for another year as I couldn’t convince my team here to use them. We were still stuck on CTC.
In the 90s, China opened up to the world. Tea drinkers in Europe and America were discovering Chinese teas. Austin Hodge, who runs Seven Cups, was among the first to take the Chinese tea story to America and generate the buzz around it. My next trip to China was in 2013, in Austin’s company. At Hangzhou province, I was introduced to the tea that’s famous as the Darjeeling of green teas, the Longjing. By this time, green tea was trending globally. And China set the standard for good green tea. In comparison, our green tea tasted awful.
At the Anxi Tea estate on my first trip to China, in 2012. Two days before I was to leave for China, I fractured my wrist. I remember having my hand plastered by Dr Hazarikha, and tentatively asking if I could proceed with my travel plans. As one who has endured multiple hip fractures himself, Dr Hazarikha sagely replied, “I would go if I were you.” Those were the words I needed to hear. Two days later, I left for China with a fractured wrist and plenty of tea. It was the trip that changed my understanding of tea.
I decided to replicate the Longjing and succeeded in making a green tea that looked exactly like it. When I took it to China, it surprised, no, shocked them that it was made in India. Debajit Borthakur, a Tocklai scientist with a PhD in tea science from The University of Hangzhou, said, “It was not the shape or the sheen alone that mattered; it had to taste good. Although I had made a tea that was a replica of a Chinese Longjing, it tasted terribly bitter. Debajit and I started working together, on developing a high-quality green tea, in a project with Tocklai, and funded by BIRAC (Biotech Industry Research Assistance Centre), New Delhi.
Truth be told, I was not prepared for how long it takes to get a tea right. We had to choose the right plants, ensure the infrastructure to make the teas, bring in experts to teach us tea making… But accepting that I was in this for the long haul took away any impatience I had felt.
I am a cricket buff. One year, watching the Cricket world series, I saw the name Dilmah as sponsors of the Sri Lankan team. Someone pointed out that they were a tea company. And I was excited! The Indian team was sponsored by Reliance, the most prominent brand from India and here was a tea company on par with it. Forget the economics; I was just taken in by what Dilmah had achieved.
Dilmah’s story was another lesson in brand building. Back in 2005-06, as the Chairman of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association, I had invited Mr Fernando, Dilmah’s founder as the guest for our Annual General Meeting. He politely declined the invitation, but we kept up a regular correspondence. I visited Sri Lanka to see how Dilmah was run and met Mr Fernando and his family. It was in one of his conversations that he said that if I was going to build a brand, I should treat it like the extension of my family. That struck a chord with me. AIdeobarie, after all, is a family legacy, and anything I create here, had to embody that. In 2015, I registered Rujani, coined from the names of my two daughters, Ruhani and Urjani. Ruhani is ‘soulful’ in Persian, and Urjani means ‘energy’. Rujani is a bit of both in a cup of tea. I think of Rujani as my third child.
With the legend, Mr Merrill J Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea
Rujani was created to stand for the best teas we would make at Aideobarie. These would be whole leaf tea, crafted with care. I travelled extensively to meet customers, to understand how they perceived the idea of a whole-leaf Assam tea. Whole-leaf tea was associated with Darjeeling, with China. Assam has always been about CTC. And the Indian customer thinks of chai when you say tea. I’ve had my work cut out for me.
New tea brands were coming up in India, but as I watched, it seemed to me that their paths soon veered towards infusions, which are blended and flavoured teas. Infusions don’t need high-quality teas, and I wanted Rujani to stand for high-quality tea. It has meant that we have to carve our own path ahead.
Taking Rujani to the customers, in India and the world
At the Melbourne Tea Fest, an event that allowed us to see if all our hard work had been worth it.
We were making six different teas and taking it to customers within India and outside. I was still attending exhibitions in China, but there was a resistance to the idea of whole leaf Assam tea there. The response within India was also mixed but more encouraging. But it was in Australia that I met with immediate acceptance. Although famously coffee drinkers, I found Australians to be very willing and interested in trying our speciality teas. The big test came at the 2019 Melbourne Tea Festival, where we were amongst the first stalls, close to an entrance/exit. Everyone tasted our tea but walked on. I was growing increasingly dejected. And then, many of the visitors returned as they had finished their tour, complimenting me on our tea, calling it some of the best they had tasted. Many bought our teas. It validated the work of a decade.
Rujani’s home - Aideobarie
Aideobarie, where Rujani’s teas are grown and produced
Meanwhile, on Aideobarie, innovation has been ongoing, and is now almost a way of life. In 2018, Amarnath Jha, a planter from Darjeeling, joined us as a tea maker. Even that was considered a radical move as Assam and Darjeeling are thought to be like chalk and cheese. Amarnath has worked in Darjeeling for 24 years and brings excellent skills and fresh ideas to tea making in the Assam context. He has added, to the Rujani portfolio, the pearls, a Chinese specialty and a rarity in India. He has also managed to extract, from our Assam plants, the muscatel flavour that Darjeeling is famous for.
The results of the work we have put in is beginning to show. Our customers are happy. Our teas are being noticed at tea festivals and by tea experts. Our Tippy Reserve won the Gold at the 2019 Golden Leaf Awards in Australia, while the Golden Tea won the Bronze, in the single-origin black tea category. We have received several awards for our teas in China too. In 2019, we opened our second office in Australia.
Rujani’s journey has only just begun. There have been minimal attempts to change the narrative of Assam’s teas. At Rujani, we believe we can be this change.