The iconic English breakfast tea is among the most popular blended black tea the world has ever known of. Though it is called English breakfast tea, it is actually a blend of premium black teas sourced largely from the tea gardens of India. A large portion of the world’s premium teas may be from India, but that is not what an average Indian has ever craved for. It is the good old CTC black tea brewed with generous amounts of milk (doodhwali chai) that every Indian wants to wake up to. They love to indulge in the occasional ginger or masala chai, and roadside tea shops are even innovating concepts such as the tandoori chai, but all of them are variants of the doodhwali chai.
Having said that, the past few years has seen Indians embracing specialty teas in a big way. Not only is green tea a ubiquitous part of an average upper middle class consumer’s shopping basket, they are more than willing to sip into premium single estate origin teas, white tea and infusions such as tulsi, chamomile, ashwagandha (which don’t contain tea leaves and are yet categorized as tea). This has led to the emergence of new-age tea companies such as Teabox, Vahdam India, Tea Trunk and Tea Cups Full—which are spoiling tea connoisseurs with a plethora of options. When third-generation entrepreneur, Kausshal Dugarr (co-founder, Teabox), sold a 25gm pack of his most expensive white tea (priced at ₹2 lakh per kg) in Jodhpur, he realized that there was a market of specialty teas not just in the metros, but in smaller cities too. “In FY20, India contributed less than 10% to my overall sales, in FY21 India contributed as much as 25%, and I am expecting it to touch 35% by the end FY22.” Dugarr—who first launched his tea business internationally—claims that his business has grown by 300%-400% in the last couple of years as opposed to the industry growth rate of 25%-30%.
Bala Sarda, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of Vahdam India, hails from a family of tea traders. His grandfather’s century-old tea store in Darjeeling, Nathmulls of Darjeeling, is still around. While his grandfather and father have always been into tea trading, Sarda’s ambition is to be the Dilmah of India. “In the eighties Dilmah was a bulk exporter of tea, but today they are a proudly Sri Lankan brand. My belief is that if they could do it, why can’t we? If you browse the shelves of supermarkets abroad you will realise most of the popular global brands source their tea from Indian estates, but you will not find a single brand from India. I saw that as a huge opportunity.”
Like Dugarr, Sarda also first launched his brand in North America and parts of Europe, and has been selling in India only since last year. His ambition was to bring glamour into low margin, highly commoditised tea business and he felt he could do so only outside of India. Both Teabox and Vahdam are sourcing their teas from estates across the country, and to maintain quality standards they prefer sourcing directly from the estates rather than buy from the tea commodity market. “We have a range of 20 varieties of single estate teas under Darjeeling tea itself. We also have signature blends containing tulsi, ashwagandha and a variety of spice teas,” explains Sarda.
Teabox on the other hand, has merged its green tea brand, ONLYLEAF, with Teabox, as the belief was that customers want specialty as well as green tea, and it therefore made sense to merge the two entities under a single umbrella. The company has also entered the popular CTC segment with variants such as Bombay Cutting Masala Chai, Teabox Kadak Chai and Punjabi Masala Chai. A 250 gm pack of these teas are priced between ₹299 and ₹499, compared to a 500 gm pack of Brooke Bond Red Label tea which is priced at ₹285. “Indian consumers are willing to pay a premium for good tea,” avers Dugarr.
Subrata Dutta, Group MD, Organic India, says that the pandemic and the health concern have contributed hugely to the growth of specialty teas and infusions. Organic India, known for its tulsi tea, is among the early movers in the specialty tea space. “Consumers first adopted green tea almost 25 years ago for its therapeutic properties. It has become a way of life now. COVID has led to an increased adoption of infusions such as tulsi, ashwagandha and chamomile. The market for infusions has grown by 25% in the past year,” says Dutta.
While the CTC tea market is worth ₹25,000 crore, green tea is ₹4,500 crore market and specialty teas are a ₹750 crore market.
While Organic India retails out of Fabindia and select traditional stores, the likes of Teabox and Vahdam prefer retailing out of their own online platforms. While they do sell their products on Amazon and other marketplaces, they see more value in direct-to-consumer. “Marketplaces are more about convenience. For us story-telling matters, therefore we prefer our own platform,” explains Dugarr. If one were to go the Vahdam or the Teabox websites, and search for single estate origin Darjeeling teas, the website would not just throw up a host of options for Darjeeling tea, each variety of tea would have a detailed description about the estate the tea belongs to, the aroma, appearance and taste of the tea.
Since they source the teas directly from the estates, they are also able to have a higher margin play, unlike the legacy brands which operate on wafer thin margins. “Since we are into premium teas, we are not impacted by the price volatility that tea as a commodity has been going through. It has been difficult for bulk exporters as their margins are extremely low. We have the benefit of building a brand which reduces our risks,” says Sarda.
The concept of selling premium teas through D2C channels has also caught the imagination of legacy tea manufacturers such as Tata Consumer Products—which has recently started selling premium teas online under the brand 1868 By Tata Tea. “Since tea is a commodity, margins are always under pressure. If you get into value-added, differentiated products then you're slowly moving out of the commodity space. So, both from a predictability perspective of demand, as well as the predictability perspective of margins, it's always better to get into a higher value addition product,” explains Sunil D’Souza, MD and CEO, Tata Consumer Products.
So, are specialty teas and infusions growing at the expense of CTC tea? Dutta of Organic India sees a huge growth potential for the premium category, but he says it will never be at the expense of the mass CTC tea.