Tea Studio is revolutionary, unique, and unlike conventional tea factories in many ways.
The factory is located on the outskirts of the village of Manihatty in Tamil Nadu. It sits at an altitude of 6,070 feet (1,850 meters) amongst 60 acres of tea bushes cultivated by smallholders who farm plots of a quarter to half an acre. The surrounding gardens are certified organic, but growers never use any chemicals on their bushes simply because they cannot afford to buy them, so the teas are naturally organic and are therefore EU/ US compliant.
The architecture is ground-breaking, modern, and visually stunning, and the unit is constructed using materials not found in other factories. The floor is polished granite, the walls are granite blocks, the roof is corrugated iron, and the large, toughened plate glass windows, positioned in several of the walls and parts of the roof, flood the space with more daylight than is usual in tea factories. The red of the outer structure was inspired by the rusty-red leaves of the local wild olive trees and matches the color of the region’s rich red earth. Tea Studio is the only factory in India that runs on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). There is no need for firewood or coal to provide power, and zero pollution. An elevated walkway inside the factory is accessed from outside and leads through the processing unit to the tasting area and office on the first floor without disturbing the work of the tea makers and without causing health and safety concerns. A container that sits in the yard, alongside the outer wall of the factory building provides storage for the made teas.
The Tea Studio’s partnership brings together individuals with very different skills, knowledge, and experience to the management team. Indi Khanna, an innovative force in the Nilgiri Hills, has hands-on experience in plant management, manufacturing, blending, and trading tea, and has extended his processing skill by spending time with tea masters in China. His daughter Muskan, having been trained by Indi, is head of operations and oversees a team of four women from nearby villages whom she has in turn trained to manufacture Tea Studio’s 11 teas. The partnership also includes tea retailer and wholesaler Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, Canada; Jibin Samuel, a local entrepreneur; Shankar Rao, experienced in domestic business and investment; Ravi Matthews, a retired tea and cardamom planter; and Richard Darlington, owner of The Darlington Tea Company, London.
Tea Studio’s business model is as unusual as the project itself and operates to ensure that the teas reach a broad global market. Instead of selling the teas direct from the unit in the open market, the partners sell them through their companies – Khanna through his company Tea ‘n’ Teas; Camellia Sinensis through its stores in Canada and its website; Darlington through The Darlington Tea Company. And Tea Studio India, a marketing company set up by the four Indian partners, promotes the teas in the domestic market, with Muskan Khanna taking responsibility for domestic sales.
In India, Tea Studio’s teas will soon be available, packaged in canisters of loose leaf and in pyramid teabags, through the company’s India-centric website. Packaging is designed using images of animals and birds that are endemic to the Nilgiris and include the Nilgiri Thar, The Nilgiri Marten, The Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, and the Nilgiri Neeli. There are also plans to support a local NGO-run school for children with special needs. That work will also be featured on retail packaging.
Whereas most Nilgiri factories churn out black CTC and some orthodox black teas, Tea Studio teas are all specialty, handcrafted teas. But, unlike what happens in China, where one village or district makes one particular type of tea, Tea Studio makes 11 unusual whole-leaf teas, several of which are similar in style and character to some of China’s classic teas. On any one working day at Tea Studio, a particular tea is made in small batches, depending on the leaf that has been brought in and on what is required to fulfill orders. The machines at Tea Studio are all from China and have been developed in recent years to replicate the complex hand movements involved in making hand-rolled, hand-shaped teas but to facilitate their production on a larger scale.
As Gascoyne explains, “The traditional, large-scale equipment used in most tea factories is geared to large economies of scale. This project flips the quantity/quality ratio with small ‘nimble’ machines that produce small batches of tea with artisanal sensitivity. The growing importance of the specialty tea market in the West is undeniable. Tea producers have to change gear to cater to these new needs.”
Tea Studio’s machines allow the processing of five different leaf styles and include panning machines; mobile cooling platforms; carding machines with eight or eleven slots which are used to shape the needle-style teas; pressing machines for shaping the Nilgiri long jing; ‘double cauldron’ shaping and drying woks with paddles that curl and roll the leaf to make dew drop green and oolong; woks that are used for drying, hand-shaping, and roasting the teas; a polishing and roasting machine that contains a hexagonal cylinder instead of a round one and is used to dry some of the teas; an aroma cupboard inside which several of the teas are slowly dried to capture and concentrate their wonderful aromas and flavors; and a conventional small tray dryer.
The small all-female workforce that operates the machines and produces the teas includes chief tea maker, Vaideghi Kannan, a high school graduate who works two small tea holdings nearby and supplies leaf to Tea Studio; Kalpana, who has a B.A. and, with her family owns a small tea holding in the neighboring village; Pavitra has recently finished her teacher training course and, with her parents, has a small tea holding in nearby village; and Chitra, whose family has small tea holdings nearby and whose husband works as the night watchman for Tea Studio.Their commitment to the project is helping to spread the word to the local community.
The significance of this ground-breaking new unit is summed up by Gascoyne:
“The growing importance of the specialty tea market in the West is undeniable. Tea producers must change gear to cater to these new needs. The Tea Studio Project is a cutting-edge facility with both the equipment and the experience to produce many styles of premium leaf for the boutique market,” he said.