I realized they could not create a good product.
~ Tea Producer Rajen Baruah
“I always thought that because they had the right raw materials that the tea would be good,” said Rajen Baruah, the Founder and Managing Director of Assam Heritage Tea in India.
But after working for over 35 years on large tea estates, including Warren’s Tea and Unilever, which used to own Lipton Tea, he said, “I realized they could not make a healthy product for the society or compensate growers fairly.”
So, in 2011, Baruah bought his own farm and recruited a collective of small tea producers in the region to create all natural, "specialty teas" superior in quality to the large tea estates that primarily focused on commodity teas.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Specialty teas are those teas that focus on high-quality cultivation techniques, taste, and aroma, like a fine wine.
Commodity teas, meanwhile, are those teas that focus on quantity over quality in production to maximize output and keep prices down.
“Most of the tea sold in the United States is commodity tea,” writes Elyse Petersen, a former Global Tea Ambassador in Kyoto, Japan and founder of Tealet marketplace. “It is produced affordably in countries like Sri Lanka, India, and Kenya and is well suited for flavored and blended teabags and iced teas,” she wrote. “Its competitive price is ideal for brands which distribute to big box retailers who cater to the price conscious shopper.”
VISION FOR A BETTER TEA WORLD
Baruah currently selects tea from around 80 other small tea producers in Assam to make his specialty teas, and requires his partners to produce 100 percent natural, pesticide and herbicide free tea from rich, healthy soils.
“We show them the art of tea cultivation, the art of packing, from start to finish,” he said when explaining his company’s vision to empower farmers and provide a greater selection of all-natural, specialty teas to consumers worldwide.
Baruah sees his operation growing to incorporate another 100 small farm tea producers in the coming years as consumers become more conscious of the difference between high quality, specialty teas and commodity teas.
“There’s a lot of potential for a specialty product,” he said. “Even in India, buyers are demanding higher quality and they’re cognizant of how farmers are being compensated,” he added.
THE PERFECT PLUCK
For Baruah, quality is the defining aspect for tea production, and one of the most important aspects in terms of developing high-quality loose-leaf teas is the art of plucking leaves from the tree.
Different teas require different types of plucking methods, Baruah said.
“To get the best tea, you have to pluck the shoots small,” he explained while gesturing with his hands.
When making specialty tea, Baruah aims for one leaf and a bud. When he makes white tea, he targets the shoots only, he explained.
“We don’t break it, we allow it to be as intact and as natural as possible,” Baruah said. “That is the beauty of crafting specialty teas, they tend to be natural right from beginning.”
TAKING IT ONE STEP FURTHER
“Our emphasis has always been to maintain biodiversity,” Baruah told Sheer Tea.
His farm is 100 percent organic and biodiverse with native plants, wildlife, and microorganisms, which ensure new tea crops can thrive and help balance the overall ecosystem.
This is different than most tea plantations throughout the world, which are intensive monocultures and lack biodiversity making them vulnerable to pests and consequently dependent on pesticides and other poisons that can affect a tea’s quality.
A LOVE FOR THE SMALL TEA PRODUCER
Small tea producers in Assam have more potential than they sometimes know, explained Baruah, when discussing how he often ends up coaching his tea producer partners.
“We help them grow the tea, manufacture the tea, and pluck the tea,” he said while sipping on one of his own long-leaf black teas.
Small farms in Assam use the best soil and tea plants, and utilize superior plucking practices, but then take their tea to corporate factories like those he used to work with, which essentially downgrade them.
The factories mix their teas with inferior commodity teas, which have been produced with pesticides and machine farmed.
The leaves are then broken and crushed.
The farmers receive very little profit in return.
“Big companies, cut the leaves and dump them in the factories, and they pay a nominal price for the tea,” Baruah said.
In contrast, Baruah’s operation helps tea producers grow their teas in a natural way and pays them better.
“This helps people send their kids to school and get medical benefits,” he said.
Baruah loves his work and the farmers he’s partnered with.
“It’s so fun motivating them, and when you see their growth taking place,” he said.
“Also, when you know you’re coming up with a healthy, natural product from the heart, you feel really happy.”