The TeaGRAM Podcast • Feb 14 • Ep. #1 - Raj Barooah, founder of Rujani Tea
Boroon. Why did you start Rujani?
Raj: It all started in the year 2006 when the Indian tea industry in general had plateaued to an economic downturn. We were in a recession for close to seven years, that started in the year 1999. By 2006, major players like Tata Tea, Hindustan Lever, that’s the Lever group internationally, Williamson Magor and their whole group ( they are the biggest tea planter in the world), everyone was selling their tea plantations and moving out of the tea economy. It was that bad. And we as small single estate groups were faced with even more anxiety. And 2006 was probably 14-15 years of my journey in tea - I joined my father in 1992 after graduating from college in Mumbai. By the time this recession ended in 2007, I had decided that we should engage ourselves differently as tea plantation owners, that we cannot continue a model of making teas just for the wholesale market. By then the problem was that there was enough and more tea in the market for the wholesale market to tip prices. The essence of commodity is demand over supply. Slowly but surely, I realised that it was nothing but the price point that mattered for the big packeteer and we were little puppets in their hands. Every time there was an oversupply or supply that increased because of a good harvest or other reasons - and not only in India; you must remember that the big supplier or big packeteer can blend his tea from any source - India being a big exporter, your exports would come down when your price went up. The whole equilibrium was so well designed that ultimately we, as tea farmers didn’t have money to make. We were left with looking after so many families that lived on the tea estate. All these families relied on the economic condition of the tea business. By the time I got to 2006, I’d had enough of it. I said I must try and find a new source or a new way of doing the tea business. That's why I started Rujani.
Boroon. In essence, the commoditisation of the industry in Assam drove you to think differently and think of starting a brand such as Rujani to bring real value to the work you and your team are doing at the tea farm. What drove the Assam tea business or the Assam tea industry to become commoditised?
Raj: I will take you back in history. If you go back to the time of the English, and the British tea industry, they realised that tea was getting popular all over the world around 1700s. Tea was drunk for 5000 years or more in China. The Chinese monks made it very popular in the Orient thereafter. Europe, especially the Dutch were importing tea from around the 1600s.
You had the Boston Tea Party protests because of tax laws that were discriminatory against the local populace there and that was the genesis of the American war of independence, that was in 1773.
But all this was Chinese tea. The East India Company was dying to find tea of their own. They sent spies. Robert Fortune took away plants from China. But in 1823, they found their own plant in one of their own colonies and that was in Assam. The British connection to tea was in Assam, the genesis or the start of their connect to tea.
They popularised it, they marketed it and the word is, in today’s terminology, is disruption. They disrupted the tea industry.
Chinese teas were made in two seasons, the British started making through the year. They got the production to such an extent that they overtook the Chinese production within a 100 years. And all of that was being done in Assam. And that was how they commoditised tea from the Chinese model of 5000 years. And we’ve not been able to change that. In Assam, or even in the other non-China states or countries, that’s the same model. Because we were getting teas from different origins and putting them into a single packet and selling them without any uniqueness to the product. So we had a very homogenous product throughout this world of tea. This continued from 1823 right down to today. If you want to change that, you have to want to do something very different and that is the essence of Rujani. That’s the story of Rujani. We want to change the tea farming techniques or the tea manufacturing protocols to give you a tea of its own origin.
Boroon. I remember you mentioning that once you visited a blender in Mumbai who was buying tea from Aideobarie. I think that makes for a good note on how commoditised the industry was.
Raj: From 2005-06, when we had the economic downturn, I became a tea explorer. I started visiting the major markets in India, and they were in the west and north, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. I was visiting a big blender. He was showing me around. We saw the different teas and how they were blending and he proudly showed me one tea he had purchased from Aideobarie. I was aghast that packet of tea was being mixed with 48 or 50 teas. He had created a blend in a blend sheet. AIdeobarie was being blended as a 2% mixture into that big blend and all our efforts on the estate were being squashed because there was no recognition from the time our tea was mixed with the other 50 different teas. So I asked if I could just be removed from that blend. He laughed and said, ‘Yes, you can be.’ Later on I realised the word is fungible. Like a commodity like oil. You don't need a special oil for your car. You can go to any gasoline station and it’s okay to use oil from station A, B, or C. A similar thing was happening to Aideobarie. This big blender could use Aideobarie or B, C, D, E and just replace me if I was going over his blend sheet cost. I realised that this was not the way. How can my efforts, how can my product not have a reason to go into that blend every time. There was no real reason but that price. All of that didn’t make sense to me.
It makes sense for that to go into a tea bag but not for the discerning tea drinker who wants to know where the tea is coming from.
Boroon. What does Assam whole leaf stand for? Why Assam whole leaf?
Raj: If you go around the markets in India and look for Indian or Assam tea, the connect is with chai. And chai is really a beverage; you have milk, you have spices and then you have tea. I remember attending a talk show by (the head of )a prominent new chai brand. He said he didn't know which tea he was buying. He was a big chai maker, It did not concern him which brand of tea he needed to use for his chai. We asked him what would be of concern. He said, milk because milk makes chai. I realised that with chai, that was drunk all over India, people were not concerned with the quality of tea and that was what was happening with the packeteer. And chai is CTC. CTC is basically a single line manufacture of tea where you have the tea pickings for the whole day put into one line machine and out comes the tea from the dryer. That’s the essence of chai.
My explorations to different parts of the world also took me to China around 2010. In China, I went to an exhibition to see what the Chinese tea industry was all about. I was there to taste tea, trying to look for cheap tea. In India, we had this notion that everything that came out of China was cheap so I thought tea would also be cheap and we would buy some tea that was cheaper in value, mix it with Indian tea and sell it in the market. At the exhibition I saw that there were cheap teas, no doubt, but these were very expensive, as expensive as - at that time, 1000 USD to 1 kg. The idea of buying tea disappeared very quickly and I was looking at a quality tea. I saw that they had many different varieties of tea, including green, white, black, yellow and what have you, even pu-erh teas which are fermented teas. I made visits to the tea farms thereafter. I must have gone two dozen times to China, to try to learn of their different types of tea. I discovered that tea had a special place where it needn't be just one type of tea like CTC that we do in Assam or India.
To answer your question on whole leaf tea vis a vis what the Chinese were doing, I have to take you back to what the American tea traders or professionals started doing when China opened up in 1980. When they opened up, you had many American professionals who would take back these teas to America and sell them as single origin, single type, single varietal tea. They started calling it speciality tea. Till the 1980s Chinese teas were not readily available in Europe and America. And you had a whole lot of tea that was now going out to America that the American tea drinkers were drinking for the first time, and it was special. So the American Specialty tea economy started to boom from thereon right through up to today. It’s a big market. I was introduced to that specialty tea market and initially Rujani was called a specialty tea brand. But as I got to understand that people were deriving the word speciality from a special tea. Yes it was special but what it was special for is that it was not CTC like the Indian customers or the Indian tea drinkers are used to. These were whole leaf teas. Therefore, we would not like to have a sweeping term like specialty benchmarking Rujani but just call it whole leaf tea.
Boroon. What does Rujani offer the tea drinker, and equally, what does Rujani offer Assam tea as a brand?
Raj: At Rujani, we want to evolve every day, in the basic fundamentals of tea. In the nuances which start from finding the right cultivar for each tea then going to the picking or plucking standard, which most commodity brands like to compromise on because the finer you pluck, the lesser your quantity harvested is. At Rujani, we don't like that compromise. We try to engage with different tea markets, tea making processes, trying to understand with researchers. I live in Jorhat, so Tocklai is just a stone’s throw from here. There were some very smart scientists looking for their ideas or innovations reaching the market. When we started talking about what we wanted to do with Rujani, there were so many hands that were put up, right from Tocklai. I was surprised that even in China, people were wanting to help us, share their knowledge. Taiwanese tea makers have come to our factory at Aideobarie and worked along with us trying to show us, introduce us and also learn about CTC from us. We are learning everyday.
To our customers, I want to say, you will get a product that is evolving every season, every year, or every day. We want to give you something that is unique, that stands out for itself.
I don't want to make sweeping statements like it is an art form. But tea making is and art. We have engaged with Amarnath Jha who served 25 years in Darjeeling plantation. He never made any CTC till he joined us. Over time we have learned each other’s ways of making tea. The team at Aideobarie has picked up white tea making, green tea making, oolong tea, from different sources, different people, researchers. That’s how you should attempt to engage with Rujani.
We invite the Rujani tea drinker to engage with us and be a part of this journey, and make the tea very much their own story. We would like to engage with them socially, and that’s how I would expect the brand Rujani to be different from what you get in a packet of tea.
I hope our tea drinkers appreciate the efforts, the farm stories from Rujani and Jorhat. And hope you keep enjoying your cup of Rujani!