4 Indian tea brands that are disrupting a multimillion-dollar industry
Tea has become India’s national identity of sorts. From high quality first flush harvests steeped only for a set number of minutes, to homemade tea quickly brewed for friends and family, the country’s beloved ‘chai’ has seen all sorts of empires, processing methods, catastrophes, regulations, and other beverages, come and go. The beverage has managed to remain a constant even as the rest of the country was metamorphosing.
A multimillion billion industry, the tea manufacturing industry in India has not just helped employ hundreds of thousands of workers, but also put the country on the map for quality tea exports.
With the industry here to stay for good, we look at four enterprises that are furthering the legacy of tea-drinking in India.
Masjid Bunder’s ‘chai galli’ in Mumbai was one of the biggest marketplaces for tea-leaf wholesalers in Maharashtra. The narrow lanes have given India some of its most recognised tea brands, including Society Tea.
One of India’s largest premium brands, Society Tea started with Hiralal Shah, who used to trade on Masjid Bunder’s famous tea lanes, back in the mid-1920s.
Hiralal’s grandson, Karan Shah, who now holds the reins of the company as its managing director, says his grandfather’s main aim of setting up the company was to cater to the discerning consumer.
“My grandfather used to source tea from various parts of India to sell it in bulk on wholesale. Apart from being a large supplier for local customers, he also traded with Middle Eastern countries on a very large scale,” says Karan, Managing Director.
In 1933, Hiralal started Hasmukhrai & Co. to retail tea in Mumbai. His first shop was located in Kalbadevi, Mumbai.
By the late 1980s, Hasmukhrai & Co. had become one of the market leaders in the tea industry in Mumbai. Sensing that the customer prefers the convenience of packaged tea, the company launched tea in packet form in 1991, which was available across retailers in Mumbai and, later, Maharashtra by the name of Society Tea.
Society Tea now records an annual turnover of over Rs 490 crore, (according to MCA) with a wide presence across India, including Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Delhi. It commands an impressive 40 percent of the tea market share in Maharashtra.
The company sources tea leaves from across India, including Assam, Darjeeling, and Munnar. It has two manufacturing units in Sanjan and Umbergaon in Gujarat.
In our tea-loving nation, the beverage also has a historic and nostalgic aura that a Kolkata-based tea company has brandished with care for decades. With a huge market potential that many players are disrupting, MK Jokai’s legacy stands tall with its premium quality teas that were exported to Russia, Poland, and other countries as early as the 1950s.
In the 1950s when India gained Independence, MK Shah was finding his feet in the tea market. With trade booming, he started a small tea broking firm in a 200 sqft shop, trading orthodox (full-leaf) teas taken directly from local manufacturers to markets abroad.
“My grandfather had a very modest background. He earlier worked in a tea broking firm in Kolkata and slowly started his own. With utmost dedication and perseverance, fighting against all odds in times when communication was a big problem, he exported tea into the Russian market,” Parimal Shah (33), who is a third-generation tea entrepreneur and president of MK Jokai, said.
Kolkata-based MK Jokai Agri Plantations Pvt Ltd is steeped in tea history. At a time when barter trading was prominent and India exported goods in exchange for resources, MK Shah explored the B2B segment of Russia (then USSR) and Poland.
The company used to supply orthodox teas to principle government agents in the USSR (a country that didn’t grow its own tea), and the Russian people loved the taste of the Indian tea leaf. In the 1970s, KM Shah joined his father as a 17-year-old to expand the business.
“At that time, the USSR was undergoing great political change which led to the formation of Russia. It was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to miss. My father was the first person in our entire family who stepped out of India to diversify the business. The company launched its maiden tea brand, MK Supreme in 1984 through a tender for the Polish government, and soon spread its wings into Russia,” Parimal says.
The brand became an instant hit and in the 1990s, the company set up a subsidiary at St. Petersburg in Russia. Since then, Indian tea leaves have been spreading their aromatic tenets across Russian households.
“As orthodox tea farmers (whole leaf teas), the tea we manufacture is sipped black, without milk and straight. It is a premium variety, and it distinguishes us from the mass-market players who manufacture and deal in CTC (crush, tear and curl) teas, which is the most popular tea Indians prefer,” Parimal says.
Today, MK Jokai Agri Plantations Pvt Ltd owns about 12,000 acres of land producing 6,500 metric tonnes of tea annually developing around 147 variants of teas for different geographical regions.
After completing a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from RV College, Bengaluru, Atulit Chokhani started his career as an intern in Deloitte.
“You know when you pursue engineering, you are placed in an IT company. And, it wasn’t late enough I realised that IT is not my cup of tea. Hence, after completing my internship, I made my way back to my hometown in Assam to spend some time to figure out what I wanted to do,” Atulit told SMBStory.
In 2012, he moved to Kolkata and started working with JM Wheels. However, Atulit still wasn’t satisfied with his work. The following year, he even entered the mining sector to excavate granite. But, due to changes in government policies, he had to call it quits.
Born into a family that has been in the tea business for many generations, the next step seemed like a no-brainer. However, a light bulb went off in his mind – “What can you possibly add to a 150-year-old business?”
It all changed after a trip to South African vineyards, and Atulit, a sixth-generation tea planter, couldn’t think of a better opportunity than taking his legacy forward in a different way.
Thus, The Tea Shelf was born in January 2015.
The company's basic goal is to make premium loose-leaf Indian teas available to all tea drinkers, worldwide, to create an awareness of the taste and quality of tea, to uplift tea from a regular beverage to a coveted drink, and to witness a shift from cooking tea to brewing it.
The brand has valuable experience derived from its family legacy in all areas concerning tea, with five tea estates in Upper Assam, a tea engineering unit to manufacture tea machinery, a state-of-the-art blending and packaging unit in Kolkata, and bulk tea wholesale and retail division, for the domestic and export market.
In the critically acclaimed Hindi film, English Vinglish, late actor Sridevi’s character Shashi is a homemaker well known among her friends and family for her laddoo-making prowess. Adverse life events prompt her to consider turning her passion into a business.
Not quite Shashi, but the life of Delhi-based Prerna Kumar (45) has many parallels. Proud owner of the tea brand ChaiVeda, Prerna’s entrepreneurial journey started in 2017 after she broke her leg in a freak accident and was bedridden for some time. Talk about a double whammy, she also lost her job around the same time, becoming jobless for the first time in her life. In those difficult times, her friends and family encouraged her to spring back to her feet (literally) by constantly reminding her that they are waiting to have her tea once again.
Prerna says that she has no idea when it all begun but she was always known for her tea making abilities for as long as she remembers.
“Even when I was working for various companies, I would make tea and take it to the office where everyone appreciated it,” she says.
Once she got married, it became even more apparent that chai could be her ticket to fame.
“I’ve never paid much attention to what made my tea so popular until the idea ChaiVeda sprouted in my mind,” she says.
Hailing from a Haryanvi family deeply-rooted in Ayurvedic tradition, blending the traditional knowledge of Ayurveda in the spice mixture of the masala tea came naturally to her.
My grandmother, Thakri Bai, who passed away at 86, was a famous Ayurveda practitioner who had a home remedy for every ailment.
“I grew up not going to a doctor even once as a child, turning, instead, to Ayurveda to live healthy.”
So, it was a no-brainer that when she started her entrepreneurial venture, it was to share the knowledge of Ayurveda and tie it up with a daily habit of drinking chai to get maximum benefits from nature, responsibly and sustainably.
An undying love for tea has also helped ChaiVeda become a preferred gifting choice for many, says Prerna and adds that “the ethnic, handcrafted packaging ensures that it becomes a part of luxury gifting as well”.
Edited by Aparajita Saxena
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