Friday, August 13, 2021

Meeting Susmit and Maddhurjya, Ketlee vendor and Assam tea farmer


Back to India for a meetup series, a sort of exercise in networking and idea sharing.  This was interesting for combining a vendor and producer perspective.  A vendor who sells tea directly is both (Maddhurjya does, but he mostly sells wholesale to other outlets), but they are really different things.  Per usual I'll go through what we covered that stood out to me, but not really summarize everything.  A short bio introduces both people who joined first (with Ralph, Suzana, and Huyen also hosting as usual).

Susmit:  founder of Ketlee tea, an online vendor based in India, selling unique Indian teas.  These include an Indian version of sheng, which is particularly unique, and also smoked teas, Indian oolongs, and other range.

Maddhurjya:  Assam tea farmer and producer.  I've met Maddhurjya visiting here in Bangkok, so I've already written about him (in an interview post about development issues, beyond the reviews).  He is trying out new processing methods and equipment, based on traveling and training in China and Taiwan, and importing tea processing equipment.  The main sub-themes seem standard enough now but they are still quite timely and important, developing a small producer based alternative to larger scale tea production, and moving towards organic, whole-leaf, higher quality tea production. 

Maddhurjya is beside me in blue, beside Kittichai, the Jip Eu shop owner

capture with cats

Susmit and Indian sheng development

Before most others joined Ralph, Susmit, and I talked for a half hour about Ketlee's sheng, about how it is, and how development of a type new to India worked out.  As far as he knew sheng--not "pu'er," according to most, but the same type, just without the name that's reserved for Chinese versions--was never produced in India, and I'm not aware of it existing elsewhere either.  We discussed how Singpo falap might be similar, ending on agreeing that it's not the same at all.  I've tried only one version and it was good though, and not so different than a bamboo sheng version from Yunnan (not that everyone would use that type description there), and really not so far off sheng style, even though processing isn't the same.

what it looks like, photo credit the Ketlee site

To summarize, the version Susmit sells is from wild, old-plant sources, plants for which he couldn't identify a clear history.  And he sells other wild origin Manipur material teas, and Indian region versions that aren't so common, from Sikkim and elsewhere.  Good accounts and records go back 250 years or so but the plants were almost certainly there before that.  With better dating attempts some of the living plants there might be older than that; kind of an odd way to revise a limited historical account.

As to that tea version character he said that it's not bitter like Yunnan sheng (maybe just a little?), different in aspect character.  That comes up for wild teas even in Yunnan, and also for variations in South East Asia (a recurring theme in this blog; I've written about that at least a dozen times).  Beyond that we didn't get far for a review flavor list description, or speculation about aging potential, the kinds of issues people would experience by trying the tea.  He did mention how processing development worked out, that making "dragonballs" had been breaking up leaf material so they switched to small cakes.  And producers needed to iron out other processing details along the way, like processing the tea leaves fast enough to limit natural oxidation.

It really makes you wonder how it will age, doesn't it?

A venture in producing and selling local versions of specialty teaware is interesting, especially for including gaiwans.  These are porous clay versions, raising a conditioning issue (some people would use only one tea type per device related to that form), but it's a smoothed finish porous version, so I don't know how that interrelates.  Helping develop a new teaware tradition is a good match with exploring new tea types.

Indian and foreign demand for higher quality--and more expensive--teas

This was a really interesting theme, how ramping up awareness goes.  It's bit by bit, according to Susmit (and Maddhurjya, to some extent, but his less direct consumer exposure narrows experience down to one producer's sales case).  Within India it's developing; that's something I have relatively little feel for, even though I hear a little about how that goes about every other week.  From the sound of it his business being viable at this early stage also depends on foreign sales and demand, since few Indians are open to changing tea types and consumption habits.  But the process has started.

2019 versions of Maddhurjya's tea, or maybe that was 2018

We discussed how to develop that, drawing on examples of other cultures where it either moved faster or was also slow to take.  Susmit's impression is that physical shop infrastructure in countries like Russia--the Moychay case I keep writing about--enables them to support customer tasting, or events, and facilitates learning about brewing and gear.  Selling tea online he can just post descriptions or images, or discuss themes in groups, which only goes so far.  That make perfect sense, and matches my experience, that discussion and posted content can only have a limited reach or impact compared to helping people prepare and try tea.  I've tried to support the same function in holding local tasting events, even setting up a Bangkok based Facebook group for that, but it was inactive even before the 2020 pandemic shut down social gatherings.

Ralph shared how in Germany there are layers to tea interest, vending source scope, and types demand, which is how that would more or less go everywhere, just mapped out differently.  Here in Thailand there are specialty tea enthusiasts, but so few that businesses based around catering to demand are slow to develop.  Outside of Chinatown I'm familiar with two higher end specialty tea vending businesses, with two other exceptions, Peace Oriental (a chain now relying on pre-made blends sales) and Monsoon (a long story; a Thai tea producer making something novel, mostly blends and also wild-origin tea, so it overlaps).  

There are other mall shops, or booths, so maybe we're not running so far behind other places outside China, Taiwan, and Japan.  That one level of German small vendors selling familiar high quality teas (Wuyi Yancha, sheng pu'er, Taiwanese oolongs, etc.) is probably much smaller in scale than the first levels of more mainstream outlets, just perhaps more developed there than here.

Assam tea production issues

I won't do justice to conveying everything Maddhurjya shared, but I'll mention some highlights.  He makes high quality whole-leaf tea, versions of which I've reviewed here, but it's been a couple of years since I've tried them.  He says that he's still adjusting technique and improving them, which I don't doubt, but they were already pretty good then.  That approach is a somewhat small movement in Assam but other producers and vendors have also been headed in that direction.  The awareness and demand side trails that direction, it seems, so that producers also need to develop foreign sales channels to make the business viable (so the same issue for producer level and direct retail sale level).

Related to production, needing to use the same types of equipment foreign tea producers do has been a limitation in the past, rolling or drying machines and such.  To some extent more hand made tea is potentially better, but it's not practical to make tea completely by hand at significant scale (even low volume compared to main plantations), and for some steps results are better from machine processing.  This Farmerleaf reference on processing Taiwanese style oolong adds detail to that.  Maddhurjya encountered significant personal expense in traveling to places like China and Taiwan to study production methods, and to import equipment, and per his account he's not quite to the point to where established volume of production and sales covers that earlier expense.

This is a good place to clarify a broader point: developing a brand new range of tea products is cost intensive.  Kenneth of Monsoon Tea has discussed this with me in the past (the Thai wild tea producer that I mentioned).  Years of exploration and work can precede profitable product development.  It seems this must skew the early supply and demand factors relating to cost of those new-form teas.  Market rates are going to limit what they can be sold for, unless teas are so novel that there is no established market rates, and even then demand patterns have to match up for sales to occur.  

I'm not necessarily saying that Ketlee sheng and Maddhurjya's teas are more expensive now than they will be once ramped-up production covers initial investment and overhead better; demand will shift and increase along with supply-side cost issues leveling out.  I'm just pointing out that if a tea seems a bit pricey that doesn't necessarily mean that a producer or vendor is making a significant profit on it, at least initially.  Or maybe any profit at all, depending on those early expenses.  

To tie all this back to basic economics, as any given producer or vendor gets initial expenses sorted out pressure from market entry from other sources should moderate market rates and set prices for the related goods.  Other factors can disrupt that.  A spike in demand, for any reason, could support keeping prices high, and entry of a large supply of products identified as comparable could drop market rates, potentially making sustainable business difficult.  In an odd twist specialty tea sold as high cost versions can sometimes imply the product quality is high, shifting demand pattern positively just by raising pricing.  I guess that part is marketing, not economics.

We also discussed organic production issues.  It's problematic that certifications can really mean less in places like India and Thailand; testing steps can be avoided, replaced by personal payments.  Maddhurjya knows that he isn't putting chemicals on his teas (pesticides, at least; we didn't discuss fertilization), but for having large plantations located around his farm that doesn't necessarily mean he could pass the most strict forms of testing, due to incidental contact with sprayed compounds applied nearby.  For real forest grown tea the issue more or less drops out; it wouldn't be practical to apply pesticides to plants already growing in a stable and natural local ecosystem.  Per discussing testing with Jan in the Netherlands awhile back completely naturally grown tea may not be completely clear of any tested compounds risk, since some natural compounds can be identified as posing a health risk, and levels of those may vary still based in natural growing conditions.

Maddhurjya cleared up some points in later discussion, about how they stopped using any chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers since 2002 on their farm.  It originated with a practical concern, his family putting any available funds toward his father's medical care when he had cancer, and education expenses.  Then later that negative turned into a positive, since they learned exactly what the trade-off would be in terms of production impact, and moved on to supporting organic and limited input growth related to potential health impact concerns instead.

Maddhurjya also mentioned that he is developing limited direct sales, just not on the scale or form of setting up a webpage, or exploring in-person channels, opening a shop or attending markets.  At first demand for higher priced tea versions had been a significant limitation, he said, but the relation to other forms of food expenses and potential for a different form of tea experience has opened some people up to the experience of orthodox specialty tea, even at significantly higher costs than for CTC tea versions.

Next steps, future direction

Maddhurjya is helping other local farmers develop their processing capabilities, both in relation to processing steps and equipment use.  At least some; we didn't discuss details, but seemingly in the sense of limited knowledge sharing versus co-op development.  He's focusing on making narrower plant-type input tea versions related to his own production, tying to previous mention that the plant types his farm had already been growing were mixed.  He mentioned potential for new areas of wild tea development; it's not limited to where it is already known and in limited use.

Susmit is really at the cutting edge of sourcing unusual types and new source area products (new to some markets; local teas have been around in India), so his business model is already about new directions.  To the extent possible, increased Indian awareness of other tea range and demand will support further developments.  The sheng is already somewhat well received, but per his account demand in places like the US and Singapore leads demand from other places, with that balance related to India not so clearly narrowed down in this discussion, to be clear.

In discussing these things, and pricing issues, and comparing that to my own preferences and buying habits, it makes me consider to what extent specialty tea is a luxury good, and what that means.  I've posted in an online group about specialty tea types recently and met with comment about how the cost is really high in comparison with tea-bag tea.  For the average person, maybe even in the US, this could be a factor.  

A tea bag can sell for significantly less than 5 cents, and moderate quality loose tea might cost 20 cents a gram, with someone often brewing 3-5 grams per session (with 5 grams producing several cups worth of tea).  $1 for two large mugs of high quality tea (or a dozen tiny cups) seems pretty good to me, but it's not as if this is a limit. 50 cents to $1 per gram really represents the higher end cost of higher quality teas, and it keeps going from there.

Where am I going with this?  None of those numbers is quite to the level of a $20 bottle of wine, or even $10, but it's worth keeping an eye on to what extent people may not have access to this form of interest.  It seems possible that perception is as much a concern as the actual cost.  

Susmit mentioned that with higher end coffee appreciation the equipment costs can really add up, specialized grinders or espresso machines, or even the more basic pour over devices.  In some online tea groups there is a natural acceptance that to really have the full experience you need to buy a tea tray, several $100 or more clay pots, a number of cool looking cups, and so on from there, onto using charcoal to heat a cast iron pot.  You really don't need all that (no offense intended, to people on that page), only a way to boil water and a $10 porcelain gaiwan, which I buy for less that that in the local Chinatown.  But a shared group acceptance that you should own it all is potentially enough to set it as an implied requirement to play a normal role in that specific subculture.  You might need some handmade natural fabric clothes too, later on.

I doubt that cost is main concern.  A lot of people might need a more direct motivation to explore a beverage range, and accept the costs, beyond "it tastes better."  It has to be a relevant part of a culture, or at least regarded as a somewhat mainstream option.  Once it enters personal experience scope, once someone sits down and tries better quality tea, that could become less relevant.  Then specific starting points for types become important, and introductory gear issues, brewing approach, and so on.

No comments:

Post a Comment