halfway between the towns of Siliguri and Darjeeling, sits a small, century-old tea garden called Soureni Estate. This steep, mist-shrouded plot with barely 60 acres of original China bush is where Sunil Joshi was born 44 years ago. As a boy visiting from Bombay in the summers, he watched his grandfather hitch a horse each morning near the family bungalow and ride down to the valley to inspect bushes and oversee pluckers. Joshi would hike down those same steep terraces to the banks of a small river, where he shared lunch with his grandfather and uncles - all veterans of the tea trade. As he grew older, he learned firsthand from these mentors about the art of tea tasting. “Tea,” Joshi says, “flows in my veins.”
Fast forward four decades. Now an American citizen living in Pennington, New Jersey, Joshi is director of global marketing for the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. He lives not in a closed and familial culture, but in a fast-paced, individualistic nation. But Joshi still has tea in his veins. With his Indian-born wife, Dr. Madhulika Pareek-Joshi, he has launched an innovative and ambitious tea importing company in the U.S. The tea is packed in India and the couple expect to pack in New jersey sometime in the near future.
Jaya Teas - named after the couple’s young daughter (the word means “victory” in Sanskrit) - has won devotees since its launch in July 2004. The company specializes in small-estate offerings, mostly from Darjeeling (including Soureni Estate) where family roots run deep, as well as from Assam, Dooars, and the Nilgiri Hills. While most American tea importers boast about products from marquee estates - Castleton, Puttabong, Makaibari, Goomtee, etc. - Jaya has adopted a riskier strategy: carrying several choice selections from famous gardens, but using these brand names to lure customers to top-quality but lesser-known offerings. Jaya’s teas are chosen by Sunil Joshi’s cousin Sandeep Tiwari, and by his aunt Mridul Tiwari, a pioneer in India’s tea trade, reputed to be the first woman to serve as an auctioneer, buyer, taster, blender, and manufacturing advisor.
The Joshis prize obscure, idiosyncratic gems over familiar and dependable allotments. Their reasons are partly aesthetic. Larger Darjeeling estates have increasingly shifted to high-yield clonal plants, which produce uniformly large leaves, greenish infusions, and reliably aromatic liquors. By contrast, Jaya’s small estates manufacture teas from vintage but less-prolific China bushes, whose smaller leaves result in teas with coppery infusions, and stronger but unpredictably nuanced liquors.
Jaya’s quixotic marketing strategy hasn’t been easy. “We carry big estate names, because we want customers to come to Jaya Teas,” Joshi says. “But I totally underestimated the level of loyalty that customers in the U.S. exhibit to the brand they know. It’s quite a challenge getting people to try teas that they have not heard of.” To plant the seeds of experimentation, Madhulika encloses little tins of Jaya’s unsung, small-estate teas when customers buy the usual Castletons or Makaibaris. Next time they order, these clients often pick the off-the-radar choices.
Besides educating customers in new tastes, Jaya has nurtured mutually beneficial connections between the company and Darjeeling’s small estate managers, who lack the financial muscle to popularize their wares abroad. “When we approach them, they give us good quality tea,” explains Madhulika. “When our customers appreciate these teas, we let the managers know, and they’re very happy with that. More and more small estates are contacting us.”
One of the Joshis’ favorite teas from 2005 is an FBOP (Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe) from the Manjhee Valley Estate, a tiny garden in the Kangra Valley, part of the remote Himachal Pradesh region, in the shadow of the Himalayas. This light-liquor tea has a clean taste marked by green, grassy notes. Jaya’s first flush from the Okayti Estate, a small garden sitting on the Darjeeling-Nepal border, has a sweet, fennel-like aftertaste. Another favorite, the Thurbo Estate first flush, has a muscatel aroma but an uncharacteristically light astringency that the Joshis believe is well-suited to the American palate. Most of Thurbo’s far most astringent selections are sold in Japan and Germany, where mouth-puckering teas are the rule.
Jaya’s two showcase offerings are manufactured exclusively for the company by Sandeep Tiwari. A former Darjeeling estate manager now working as a high-end tea trader in Calcutta, Tiwari has set up a small factory in the West Bengal village of Kalimpong, where he fashions unique wares based on specifications that have been handed down for generations. He learned the art of tea making in part from his father, a 30-year veteran in the industry.
One of Tiwari’s singular creations is Jaya’s handmade Mirik Leaf second flush. “When I was growing up in Soureni,” says Joshi, “I would often walk in the hills to have my breakfast. I would see the ladies who picked the leaves for us: they had a 16-gallon drum filled with water that they would boil, and they would stuff green leaves in it. That hot liquor is what they would drink all day long.” Because Darjeeling bushes produce for only seven or eight months per year, the women took extra measures to lay in a stockpile for the winter. First, they would pluck large, intact late-season leaves and buds. They would wash the leaves in the small rivulets that run year-round in the Darjeeling hills. They then withered the leaves in the shade, periodically rolling them by hand to release the oils. Finally, they would dry the leaves for six or seven days on bamboo mats suspended in orange groves.
Mirik Leaf is the wondrous result, a tea with a pale liquor but a deep and almost indescribably complex taste profile, marked by leather and tobacco notes. “When you drink this tea, your tongue becomes very soft,” says Joshi. “The process gives the tea an incredible leathery finish and a very smooth palate, almost like you’re drinking butter. It has an earthy aroma - the aroma of something that has been fermented for a while.”
It is this uncelebrated, household tea that Sandeep Tiwari has adapted for custom manufacture. He hires pluckers from surrounding estates to pick late second flush leaves at dawn, specifying what size he wants and from which areas of each estate. Five-to-ten kg batches are immediately vacuum-packed and shipped to Jaya. “It’s an expensive process,” says Joshi. “I don’t think we’ll ever make good money on this. It’s a labor of love.”
Tiwari’s other custom creation is Jaya’s second flush Reserve Oolong - dark gold in color, made from leaf that is 60-70% oxidized. “When I first tried it, I didn’t like it,” Joshi admits. “That was very strange, because my cousin was praising this to the seventh heaven - he said it was one of the best teas he’s produced. I started experimenting with steeping time. I realized that it takes about two-and-a-half minutes for this tea to really open up. When you hit that point, the aroma rushes out of the cup, in a way I had not experienced before. It’s a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers.”
Jaya’s innovations don’t end with its tea list. The company’s website, for example, is not merely an online store but an interactive marketplace of information and ideas. The site includes descriptions of the estates; facts on the manufacture and health benefits of tea; customer reviews; message boards; a list of relevant blogs and links; and a newsletter titled Chaiwalah, which includes business updates on the tea industry, press reports on news, such as the Pakistan earthquake, even updates on controversial stories, such as the strike this past summer among West Bengal tea workers. As the company’s website puts it: “At Jaya Tea, our objective is not just to sell teas, but to try and build a community of like-minded individuals who believe in enjoying good tea, but also want to participate in a dialog.”
Jaya’s cylindrical caddies hold another novelty: a silica gel sachet in the lid, to keep the contents dry. Joshi, who designed the tins, got the idea from a chemist friend who is also a tea fanatic. Pure white, decorated with a single green leaf, the caddies are manufactured in India and shipped empty to the U.S. “I first shared this design with my family in India,” Joshi says. They were unanimously aghast. “My father called me in the middle of the night and said: ‘What are you doing? This is such a bland design!’”
But as Joshi sees it, their distaste actually reflected a culture clash - between the crowded, color-saturated visual traditions of India, and the minimalist, East Asian-inflected sensibility of American tea connoisseurs. It is this cultural gulf - between old and new, traditional Darjeeling tea culture and nascent American tea sensibility - that the Joshis are trying to bridge.
“Darjeeling growers don’t understand what their customers want,” says Joshi. “Darjeeling is actually losing ground to Chinese teas. China offers a huge variety - oolongs, handmade teas, needles - and the American customer goes for all of that. Darjeeling growers are focused on making teas the way the British taught them, and they are unable to capitalize on trends in the American market.”
One result of this commercial myopia, adds Joshi, is “a huge gulf between what the American buyer looks for in a tea tasting report, and what the Indian grower writes. The Indian grower is not interested in a beautiful aroma and how to poetically describe it - which is what a wine taster does. What he’s interested in is the size of the leaf and the strength of the liquor, whether the infusion is coppery or greenish or reddish, whether the liquor is clear or cloudy. The Indian tea industry is selling a product, a commodity - tea could be anything. What they need to be focused on is selling a dream, an idea, a hope.”
To acquaint Americans with the uncharted world of small-estate teas, Madhulika Pareek-Joshi is selling Jaya merchandise at food and wine shows, and holding tea tastings in upscale food stores. The company moved about 500 kilograms of tea in 2005 - its first full year of operation. At the current rate of growth, sales are expected to increase exponentially by 2010
To reach that goal, Sunil Joshi will have to draw on the same marketing know-how that has lifted him to the top of the pharmaceutical industry. “In a way, this company is the biggest marketing challenge I have ever undertaken,” he says. “Originally, Madhu’s approach was that she was going to sell tea. I convinced her that we were not trying to sell tea, but trying to meet a customer’s needs. Selling tea means you’re going for volume - whereas here, the customer appreciates receiving a luxury product: a product that feels good, looks good, makes you feel that it is connected to you through your own value system. We’re not interested in building palaces off this business. We want to propagate the values of drinking good tea.”
About the Author: Madeline Drexler is a Boston-based journalist and author, specializing in medicine, travel, and the tea trade. Her articles on tea have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and other national publications.
Jaya Teas, P.O. Box 6428, Lawrenceville, New Jersey 08648. Tel: (1) 877-529-2832, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.