Ever wondered how that spoonful of tea winds its way from pristine plantations into your morning cuppa? Well, it’s a long-drawn-out journey, often spanning months, from tea estates to auctions and, finally, to markets across the world. All the while, it changes hands from plantation owners to a bunch of middlemen before it reaches the consumer.
But what if you could get your tea garden-fresh, right from the estate to your teapot, in a matter of days? It’s with this idea that Kaushal Dugar, a Singapore-trained financial analyst, started Teabox in 2012. It was the first of its kind online retailer for high-end, single-source tea.
The concept recently attracted the attention of Texan billionaire Robert Bass, who decided to invest in it after trying the Teabox experience. “The company is trying to bring tea distribution from literally the 19th century to the 21st,” said Bass in an interview to Bloomberg. The report also stated that he put in money after Teabox raised $6 million from investors such as Jafco Asia, Accel Partners and Dragoneer Investment Group Llc.
This is how it works: you need to take a quick five-question quiz online about your tea-drinking habits, taste, the kind of chocolate you prefer and the smells you like. Based on the answers, an algorithm looks for patterns to identify a selection of tea that goes with your signature profile. “We have consistently been hitting 99 per cent accuracy with our predictions. Once the customers sample the tea, they definitely request for that selection again,” says Khilan Haria, vice-president (product management) of the Siliguri-based company.
Not everyone, however, is a tea connoisseur when it comes to ordering a selection. “The description of tea, like wine, can be subjective. We understand this, and that’s why our prediction engine has been developed to break down subjective words like ‘floral,’ ‘sweet’ and ‘astringent’ into over 75 quantifiable attributes,” says Dugar. The subscription service costs between $9.99 and $39.99 a month.
I decide to test the accuracy of the efficacy of this algorithm. A day after taking the online quiz, a white box is delivered at my doorstep. The box contains a selection of three types of tea weighing 10 gm each, a measuring spoon, and a set of instructions along with pouches to store the tea. I start with the special spring white tea from Nepal, the Mai-ilam, which has hints of thyme, parsley and stone fruits. The tea caters to my palate for spices and herbs; it becomes my instant new favourite. The other two tea varieties are Darjeeling Oolong — autumn and spring. While I find the spring Oolong too mild, the autumn one is just perfect, with its earthy overtones. If I had to put a number, I would rate the box 2.5 out of 3.
The subscription service has also earned applause from plantation owners. “Innovation was the need of the hour in this 180-year-old tea industry,” says Bidyananda Barkakoty, owner of Mahalaxmi Tea Estates in Golaghat, Assam. He lists two advantages of Teabox’s online service: one, customers get the tea garden-fresh. “Normally, there are eight to nine middlemen in the process. In places like Guwahati and Kolkata, it takes a month from the date of manufacturing to the date of selling. The speeding up of the process is a huge advantage,” explains Barkakoty.
And two, the delivery is excellent. In the United States, the tea reaches within four days, and in some parts of Russia, it reaches within six days.
If you want to sample single-source varieties of tea before you buy them, head to Anandini Himalaya Tea Boutique in Shahpur Jat, Delhi. It was founded in 2013 by tea sommelier Anamika Singh, who grew up on a tea estate in Darjeeling where her father was posted. She immersed herself further in the world of tea when her family started its own plantation, Manjhee Valley Tea Estate, near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh nearly 15 years ago. Today, Singh not only retails single-estate tea under her brand, Anandini, but also runs a tea room where you can taste classics, handmade tea and those infused with herbs, spices and flowers.
“Nearly five years ago, people only knew of mint, jasmine and Earl Grey tea. Today, palates are a lot more evolved. People are asking the right kind of questions — which flowers to use for infusions, which Chinese tea to have, other than jasmine. A friend’s father just bought a 25-year-old Puerh tea from us, which we sourced from Whole World Tea Estate, located in Yiwu mountains of Yunnan,” says Singh.
She feels that instead of running to tea boutiques in England or Paris, tea enthusiasts should turn inwards since there are great single-source tea varieties in India. “Boutiques in Paris too are selling teas from our estates,” she says.
Singh believes a good tea experience is also about brewing it right. “When a restaurant buys tea from us, we train them on how to brew it right. We hold informal chats with customers in our tea room about the ratio of teaspoons to water, the ideal water temperature, PH balance,” says Singh, who has started sourcing teas such as Gyokuro, Matcha, Sencha, Kabusecha and Genmaicha from estates and small growers in Japan.