Thursday, November 18, 2021

Tea producer meetup, representing five countries


I debated not writing about this last meetup since the most interesting parts of the discussion, the details about growing and producing tea, I won't be sharing, since most of that is confidential.  Some parts might not be proprietary and related to business differentiation enough that I could share them, but to get the cut-off right I'll only mention general range of what was discussed here, not details, which really were the best part.  Let's start with who joined and why that was even possible.  First, my deepest thanks to all who participated, for sharing information that was really interesting to me and probably directly helpful to others in many cases.

Who joined:  Jason McDonald of the Great Mississippi Tea Company, Rishi Gopaldhara of the Gopaldhara Darjeeling producer, Anna of Kinnari Tea of Laos (a vendor, but also a tea production consultant across broad scope), Nika Sioridze of Georgia--the country--and the Greengold producer, and Narendra Kumar Gurung of Nepal, a private tea grower and processor.  What an honor to meet with them all, really.  My other tea clique joined as well, Ralph, Suzana, and Huyen.  Huyen has experimented some with making tea but it didn't take that many leading questions to move through a range of interesting scope.

To be clear all these people make great tea (or Anna sells it, but she's also involved with processing consulting).  Nika is a bit closer to the starting point than the rest, and that shows up in styles he hasn't perfected yet, but in general his teas are much better than one would expect, already above the level of some much more developed forms.  Even the one oolong, still being worked out, has a great distinctive roasted bamboo flavor aspect that makes it very positive to experience as it is now.  It's also possible to see some degree of ongoing transitions in what Jason is producing, even for trying one set as just a snapshot, but their teas work well for exactly what they are right now too, and don't come across as a work in progress.  In both those cases very positive inputs define their teas as distinct and unique, so it's not just a matter of copying forms and versions elsewhere.  

Rishi and Narendra aren't finished with making adjustments to styles, probably, but both make good representative forms of Darjeeling and Nepal teas, which is a positive thing.  It's almost not fair for Gopaldhara to have such a developed starting point in relation to a lot of other producers and types, but that's how tea goes.  There's another level of Chinese or Japanese producers drawing on even longer term prior production and processing, but I suppose to some extent more developed cultural tea tradition enables a better starting point and established demand but also well-developed competition.

So how and why did we end up meeting in this form?  In talking to Nika about processing issues, about them making adjustments to styles, it occurred to me that we have talked to a lot of people with a lot of exposure to those issues.  Getting them all together to share very proprietary, hard to come by information seemed a stretch, so I initially approached asking them in terms of how they felt about such a thing.  Everyone was completely open and positive; which was really surprising.  To my understanding it's not that none of the others was a direct competitor, although that might have helped, but more than that it seemed like "giving back" related to others having helped them in different ways, which caused them to be more open to sharing knowledge.

It probably didn't hurt that Jason and Rishi had met.  The rest my friends and I have met, in the meetups I keep talking about, but I'd imagine their contact was quite limited.

I won't add details here but the scope of what we covered was interesting, and I can at least share categories, and one very interesting general theme that emerged.  They discussed growing tea quite a bit, challenges that come up in different places (and natural environments), along with issues with market demand, sales channel development, and labor support.  I suppose it's not going too far to say that Jason experiences as much problem with getting staffing for farm labor as anyone else, and what he contributed about research and use of automated harvesting was interesting.  That's not a new subject but the actual approach and equipment does keep evolving.  

Jason also mentioned how climate change is a huge potential challenge for them.  Again it's not a secret that the climate in the US is shifting quite fast, with unusual storms, temperature extremes, periods of high rainfall, and droughts.  They'll make the best of it in compensating for drought, and beyond that the plants will have to try to endure most of the rest, and some plant types just won't.  He didn't talk about hard freezing occurring that far south in the US yet but it's probably only a matter of time.

To skip ahead to a general conclusion, or theme that was interesting, it was fascinating how the different producers were sharing detailed knowledge based on a range of different kinds of experiences and sources.  Of course Rishi was drawing on the inherited knowledge of a very developed business and growing region, even though he's making changes and experimenting with pushing forward from that starting point, adjusting tea styles and processing.  Jason had access to great research derived information; some of what he shared was really interesting, even for being isolated ideas from different scopes (their whole story for tea growing and processing would take a long time to tell).  Anna has broad exposure to what a lot of Laos producers are doing, at a very detailed level, and to how their industry is developing to respond to a lot of internal and external changes.  Nika is newer to tea business but it's fascinating how they've made a fast start based on reclaiming and renewing an older Soviet era plantation, which was interesting to hear about.

Narendra had a conflicting family issue to deal with and was less involved for joining towards the end.  In a sense that's a shame, because Nepal doesn't necessarily stand below other countries in terms of produced tea quality and novel character, in spite of working within a less developed tradition.  The farming and production that Narendra carries on was started by his father, so it's not really new.  He has attempted to translate his own production into a co-op theme, which I've not heard much about in terms of results since we discussed that last a couple of years ago.  I suspect that it was significantly disrupted by the pandemic, as many things were.

a capture version with Narendra

It was nice not talking very much about pandemic disruption and concerns.  We mostly stuck with basic tea growing, harvesting, and processing themes, with just a little added on the distribution and sales side.  If you could talk with a close tea producer friend, and you knew a lot more about those issues than I do, it's the kind of discussion that you might have, but with multiple inputs instead.

One concern is always how it's going to work in terms of flow of conversation; we've never tried to get nine people to meet and converse.  I suppose we never had nine present this time, since a couple joined late and Huyen was called away.  It went really well though, with the odd zig and zag for theme, or missed comment, due to that many joining.  I think Anna might have been able to add more about processing but naturally slipped into a coordinating role, and it was probably as well to lose some input from one member to enable three others to share a lot.  The knowledge and experience everyone was drawing on wouldn't fit in an hour or two of discussion, but what did get covered was a great sample, with some points very relevant and actionable for others.

an early capture with Huyen included; it's hard to get 7 or 8 good images at the same time

The differences in their businesses were interesting, not just about climate and historical / cultural context, but scope and scale, and type.  Jason is ramping up very developed and advanced production for being a half dozen or so years into moving past a background and design review, and initial steps.  They push forward on lots of fronts, at the same time they are ramping it all up, across scope like environment design, equipment use, and sales channels.  

We didn't even touch on combining plain, high quality tea production and blend / flavored tea development, which I see as both a response to a market condition and also "the tail wagging the dog," them proactively changing their tea market as they expand into it.  Tea blends / flavored teas aren't new but their approach to them seems to be, to me.  Rishi is on the opposite extreme, also making a lot of the same changes for experimenting with new range, but drawing on tea tradition that goes way back. Their website mentions that they were founded in 1955, but that's the year his family took over the plantation, which was founded in 1881.

One really interesting difference came up in Jason's approach of drawing on modern research inputs that identify compounds in teas that transition in different ways during processing.  In the end best-case growing and processing practices that derived from that input seemed to map to traditional practices developed from received knowledge and personal experimentation.  

I suppose that theme of transitioning from a very old, grounded tea tradition to it being necessary to make a lot of radical changes just to make a business and "local" tea production theme work was common to everyone.  Laos was a completely isolated and undeveloped country 20 years ago; when I first visited there around 14 years ago they had just finished wiring the more populated half of the country with electricity access.  Nepal might have started on development a little earlier but must be in a roughly equivalent place.  Nika and Georgia's case is fascinating to me, related to their economy going through a reset after the 1990-91 end of the Soviet Union.  He invited all of us to visit there, and I would really love to get to that.  

Without climate change, a pandemic, general economic disruption, and large scale staffing issues a lot shift would be required for tea producers to keep up, but with those factored in ongoing success will require aiming at a moving target.  None of them seem to be getting caught flat-footed, trying to keep on with what tea production had been before; instead quite the opposite.

One part that helped make this possible, that I appreciate even more than the fantastic knowledge sharing, is how these are all people that I respect, admire, and can look up to as good examples of human beings.  None of them are taking short cuts, "doing what they have to do" in difficult circumstances; they're not that kind of people.  They are all paying dues in full, putting the work in, not trying to benefit from others' disadvantages, instead only seeking out successes that they've earned.  I only partly joked with one about how I would trust any of them with watching my kids, the one thing I value most in this world. 

All in all it seemed very successful to me.  I don't doubt that a much longer version wouldn't have ran out of discussion scope, so maybe we will be able to break past form and repeat that meeting version.

No comments:

Post a Comment