By Sumohan Basu
The tea you drink everyday has a little bit of Apeejay in it as we are amongst India’s oldest and 3rd largest tea producer as well as amongst India’s largest bulk seller in the domestic auction sale system. I am the Deputy General Manager – Marketing and my job is to ensure that when the consumer tastes our tea, he or she says, “Waah Chai!” Tea is our national beverage and Assam Tea is the daily cup of tea for a majority of Indians. The way I take our teas to their cup is by working backwards which starts with understanding the buyer’s requirement and then trying to create the desired quality by going back to the beginning of the production stage when the leaf is plucked and reaches the factory. I first do an assessment of quality of the leaf and process of manufacturing the teas. Then I benchmark them, i.e. I numerically address the quality of tea infusion and the cup and finally I evaluate our teas and identify their placement in the right market for maximum price discovery.
Creating tailor-made teas and right quality can only begin at the garden level according to me. I ensure that the right taste & quality reaches the buyers and eventually the consumer’s cup by working with the garden managers and helping them enhance their garden’s USP so that it not only delights the customer but also fetches a premium in the market. The main part of my job is to analyze the raw material (leaf), its impact on the product as well as the price. So if you look at it, I can do my job well only if the garden manager does his. It is no surprise then that I often feel like a tea planter in disguise even though my first visit to a tea garden was five years after I joined the tea industry.
I joined Apeejay Tea in 2013 with a little over 22 years of experience working with the some of the best tea brands in India. It took me 6 months to understand the USP of the teas of our 17 gardens. Within one year, I started tasting the teas of individual Lines of the gardens and communicated improvements that were required to place their product in our target segments. Tea from each of our gardens has an individual character and flavor and thus has its own demand among buyers. While volumes are important, we are a quality conscious company and lay stress on it much more than before. I focus on ensuring that our products have their own quality and standard through consistent monitoring.
At Apeejay, I bring in my skills of a producer, buyer and broker together. I get a lot of freedom at work in my quest for creating the best taste & quality. At Apeejay, I have tried to change the dynamics of tea production in some gardens in order to take the teas to a very high standard by implementing a regrouping strategy where we use the best teas of one garden and use the best resource of another garden to create a superior quality product. In this way, focusing on each garden’s strength and clubbing them together, we go to the market with a better Apeejay product. No matter how closely I work with the planters, I am not a planter. So, there is often a clash of thoughts. But I weather all of that because while my job does start the moment a plucker has plucked a leaf, it is the buyer (and the customer) who is king for me. Thus the moment I do tea tasting with any buyer and understand his requirement, I try to give 120% value to the buyer and to do that I have to bring all my knowledge to the table.
The credit of how deeply embedded my knowledge about tea is, goes to my father on whose advice I began my career under an expert mentor – tea veteran Mr Vijay Dudeja, an advisor of Apeejay Tea who was attached to prominent tea brokerage firm – Paramount Tea. As a young graduate, I would listen to him when he did tasting in the tea tasting room, take notes of what he said and after he left, I would go back to the tea tasting room alone to understand his ‘tea tasting’ comments better. I remember once he tasted a tea and said, “Rose, rose, rose.” And when I went back to taste myself, I found the leaf smelt like rose, infused leaf smelt like rose and the infusion smelt like rose!
In terms of product Apeejay Tea produces 50% Orthodox teas and are looking to expand Orthodox production and become the largest producer of Orthodox in India. Today my knowledge of Assam Orthodox is extensive as I first starting learning about it and was engaged in Orthodox Blending at Goodricke. By the the time I started tasting Darjeeling teas, I could even recognize the gardens from the blend that I tasted. I was exposed to the art of blending, specifically the art of blending Orthodox tea, packaging and export at ITC and a visit to Iran educated me on the buyer’s point of view and requirement. In fact the first five years of my career was spent in a tea tasting room and it was only during the first of two stints with the Assam Company that I went to the Tea Factory. I began learning how to analyse how the manufacturing process could add value to the tea and where the fault lies during making of tea which brings down its best possible natural taste and quality. I learnt the art of liquid tea blending in Ahmedabad with Wagh Bakri, who used to get teas from Assam, Dooars, South India, etc. to make their famous packaged tea. Liquid Tea blending is the kind of blending where the taste of tea and what the customer likes in a cup truly dominates the leaf. Mr Piyush Desai who I worked with there is well known as the father of blending.
At Apeejay, we are blessed to have an owner like our Chairman, Mr Karan Paul, who is so passionate about tea –this is very important because the tea industry is going throw a low phase and steadfast confidence in tea is what will pull the industry through. We struggle with the impact of climate change the best way we can like all agricultural businesses do and sometimes we make unintentional mistakes but we are known for our quality and our passion about our teas. Between all of us working in Apeejay Tea today – in marketing, operations, tea tasting, garden operations, we have tens of thousands of years of experience in tea and we have good soil, good plant material, factories and good gardens.
Making tea is a lot like cooking. Just like a chef understands which spice is required for cooking a particular dish. Similarly for making good tea, I believe that a marketing person has to first understand the nature of the land where tea is grown and understand where the taste is coming from. When I stand at the tea tasting counter, the teas speak to me. It is as if I am having a conversation with the teas. There are three fundamental points one has to keep in mind while creating good tea – 1) The tea should be fresh for a very long period, 2) people should enjoy the flavor of tea and 3) people add milk as it adds taste to the tea!
Working in tea is all about team work but it’s not the easiest to come to pass considering that everyone works so far apart. We are much better off nowadays with fax and mobile phones so that there can be an exchange of ideas but in my early days I had to book a trunk-call to speak to the garden managers. Often the best solution was to buy a ticket and go to the gardens and see where the problem affecting the quality of tea actually lay. For example, did you know that while manufacturing tea, there is a process called gapping where firing is done slowly to the tea leaves to mature character. As a result of this, as the days go by, the tea absorbs moisture, matures in taste as it ages and retains its quality over a longer period of time. So overseeing that, according to me, is also part of a marketing’s job. At least I take it as mine! This is why I can never shake off the feeling that I am a Tea Planter in disguise…and neither can my Planter colleagues!
Sumohan Basu is Deputy General Manager – Marketing, Apeejay Tea Limited