Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Talking with Rajiv Lochan


Rajiv Lochan is a well known and respected member of the international tea community, and it was an honor to meet online and talk with him.  Where I live, in Thailand, really doesn't have people in roles involving changing tea production, sourcing, or awareness (not so actively, anyway), which limits how far options changes and common awareness progresses.  The US does have people playing a variety of different roles, the transition just takes time.

Per usual I'll talk about what we discussed, keeping details limited to a summary of what is interesting.  As is typical we made a start on interesting sub-themes more than we delved deep into them, because an hour or so of discussion only goes so far.  This talk meandered less than most do; it was nice that Rajiv helped steer it back to different participants contributing their own input, and addressing some basic tea themes, where tea culture, types development, economics, and awareness stands in India.  In other informal meetups tangents veered a bit further in random directions, which can be nice for social purposes, but Indian tea culture and types development are such broad subjects it was best to stick with that range.

These topics aren't covered in any particular order, maybe just related to what makes the most sense first, what sets context for the other range.

Doke tea, and Rajiv's background

Rajiv is a veteran of the tea industry.  He and his family has founded a tea estate, Doke, and also developed an online tea outlet, Tea Swan.  He described that early background more than I'll cover in detail here, about taking up tea trading at a relatively early age, after spending substantial time working in the industry.  Later forms covered more consultancy work range, then finally onto developing local production, related to Doke.  This is intended more to set context than as a detailed biography, and for most people familiar with tea industry themes some of that context might already be clear.

I've heard about Doke for quite some time, and reviewed teas from there in the past.  I reviewed their signature "Black Fusion" main product last in 2017, and I think I reviewed some of the earlier white tea they produced back in 2013.  Rajiv explained that black tea is their main product at this point, with green tea and a lesser-volume production white as primary others, and them moving away from production of a Rolling Thunder oolong, but not ceasing making that.  He explained that their Black Fusion tea progresses in quality and character as they make adjustments to processing and irrigation (even though it's been good for years, per trying it).  He said that it's well received, in appropriately high demand for the volume they can make, so it works well for them to focus on that.  Green tea is popular and in demand for the well-known reasons; some people prefer that range, and some associate it with health benefits.

Those are the basics, with irrigation development, history in developing that production, and plant-type inputs filling in more interesting range.  Related to irrigation obtaining adequate water sources and setting up the infrastructure is a significant feat, but they've went one step further in converting form to a misting system, to both offset high growing temperatures and to drop stress on plants in relation to foliar watering.  Ok, he really didn't go into that last detail, but plants can absorb water and even nutrients through leaves, so it's obvious enough how this could work really well related to plants' capability to use water.

The history was just a summary, so I'll leave most of that out.  A bit of discussion of tea cultivars was interesting, about how India developed a standard set of plant types over time, in a similar form that's more familiar to me in relation to the numbered series of Taiwanese cultivars.  It just doesn't work to bridge into all the range that's really interesting based on that starting point:  what tea types went into what cultivars, and what properties relate to many of them (productivity related, disease or pest resistance, environmental tolerances, water demand, related to processed tea characteristics, and so on).  We would need another talk to go further with all that, probably with a plant breeding export joining to help reduce it all to summary form.  

Rajiv did mention that one cultivar shares some characteristics with the now-popular purple tea theme, related to atypical coloration and unique compound inclusion, which affects flavor character, and probably even health benefit properties (which tea producers and enthusiasts do well to keep framed as an undeveloped subject).  Rajiv mentioned that his personal favorite, among related tea plant types and final forms, are Yunnan purple tea varieties.  Lots of people feel that way; it's a general range-- and one specific product form--that comes up as often as any other in a Yunnan Sourcing Fans Facebook group, and I've tried at least one interesting and pleasant version from Farmerleaf before.

Huyen's nephew caught part of it

Indian tea awareness, preference, and culture change over time

This subject comes up in talking to people everywhere, including India, but it takes very consistent forms in discussion with tea producers and vendors from India.  India's history relates to producing high volume, automated process produced, low to moderate quality tea.  To some extent Darjeeling versions serve as an exception in relation to this paradigm, and to some extent they are also an example of it.  In talking to Rishi of Gopaldhara the main focus was on discussing how they've put a lot time and effort into adjusting harvesting and processing processes, to produce more whole-leaf and higher quality tea forms, which included changing over some processing equipment to forms used in China.

Rajiv expressed the same ideas, but from the experienced perspective of a long time tea trader and direct vendor.  According to him for a long time the main focus of competition in the Indian tea industry was on who could produce and sell the cheapest products.  We didn't get into related sub-themes, but he said that this broad trend didn't fare well for increasing tea quality over time, or supporting high standard of living for tea production staff.  As everyone else we've talked to in India stated gradually this perspective is changing, and people are realizing that better forms of tea offer somewhat different experiences. But that awareness curve is occurring faster in Western nations, and to a limited extent doesn't apply in the same way in other Asian countries.

Of course I've just spent years discussing the same themes in relation to South East Asia, so it's not as cut and dried as a summary that many Asians already know about better tea.  Even in China most people drink very moderate quality tea.  Even in Japan, per my understanding, although I'm less clear on that status and the details.  At any rate Rajiv discussed how their Doke teas do have a foothold following in many countries, with that awareness and uptake not as far along in India as it might be for Indians universally preferring tea as a beverage.  The potential is huge for that to develop further.

Doke tea brewing variations

In trying what was surely even a less developed earlier form of their Black Fusion four years ago I can see why it would be well received in other countries.  I found the tea to be very approachable, unique, pleasant, and complex, without the limitation of a high level of astringency found in many black tea versions.  Rajiv asked an associate join us from Japan, (Chitose Sashida), who described how they experimented with alternate brewing forms there and had great success with  a cold-brewed, iced, and shaken version.  For me it's a little odd to take a tea that turns out that well and try to change results, but I still sort of get it.  Even though there had been limited astringency to "brew around" in that version that I tried the final effect could be completely different using different preparation methods.

She and Rajiv described the results as not even tasting exactly like tea, taking on a high degree of fruitiness, and even an alcohol-like quality, relating to part of the depth.  I'm not philosophically opposed to drinking tea cold, cold-brewed, or even slightly adjusted with citrus or whatever else, I'm just on the plain brewed page myself.  All the same I can see where this subject and the issue of introducing the tea to an audience not sharing my main preferences could overlap.  

Thailand has picked up a love of ready to drink tea from Japanese influences; it's everywhere.  Even high-end "boutique" versions of RTD teas are now produced here.  I tend to not even try them, but they must be well-received, for continuing to increase in type and number.

one variation, being sold in the Central World mall in early 2020, before the world changed

a high end local Ceylon version, photo credit their FB page

I'm not trying to say that Doke should move into RTD tea just yet; they can sort out what product forms they think would work best for them.  To me it's hard to even relate to cold brewing, and that much harder to consider buying a bottle of any pre-brewed tea.  Tea awareness and demand needs to connect with existing preference, but tied to my own preference a likely and promising end point is soaking leaves in hot water yourself, without adding any flavor before drinking the result.  Of course that's a biased perspective; this is a tea blog.

Wild tea plants, adopting foreign styles

Very near the end we started into some really interesting scope that connects with a lot of other range I've explored through teas from lots of different places.  Both of these topics, that of wild tea plants, and the adoption of foreign styles of processing and presenting teas, are very controversial.  Since a lot of what I wrote in an initial draft about that subject is more my perspective than what we discussed I've split it off to a separate post instead.


It was all very interesting, discussing these issues, and drawing on the wealth of knowledge and perspective Rajiv possesses.  I appreciate and value tea enthusiast perspectives too, but that other context adds range of what can be covered.

It would be nice to talk again and get further with some specifics.  The most interesting discussions we've participated in have all been like that, pointing towards more we might discuss later.  Which we're not really getting to just yet, repeating meetup guest attendance, but when we do it would be nice if we could talk with Rajiv again.

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