Founder of Jokai Fearless Tea, Aditya Shah, tells The Locavore how over the last century and a half, the company has seen wars, famines, floods, and droughts, and still survived and thrived.
Jokai Fearless Tea, a sister company of the 141-year-old Jokai Tea, hopes to change the way consumers in India think of the beverage: to make its nuanced notes as apparent to the discerning drinker as coffee connoisseurs view their cuppa.
Led by Aditya Shah of the founding family of the enterprise that has its roots in colonial India, Fearless Tea also looks to spotlight its growers—mostly women in Assam—and their nimble fingers that make tea plucking an art that’s passed down generations from mother to daughter.
A tea aficionado himself, Aditya recalls his earliest memories of tea that are refreshingly atypical: “I sat in a back-room in an office in Russia, watching distributors (and their bodyguards) come in with bags of cash for my father as his small team loaded a variety of teas into their trucks. At that time, my father—the current Chairman of MK Jokai Agri Plantations—was setting up a tea business in Moscow, Russia, and had moved there with the family.”
Even as he got a front-row seat to his father making tea his business, the company’s warehouses became one of Aditya’s playgrounds. “I remember climbing on top of large crates of tea, and jumping off of them. Tea was all around us, quite literally.”
The Locavore catches up with Aditya Shah on what tea means to him, and how the business became ‘fearless’. Excerpts from an email interview:
Jokai has its roots in Calcutta, and London. Tell us a little bit about the origin of this company.
Jokai actually has a very interesting history. It was established in 1872 by the British East India Company, and registered in London in 1882. The company gets its name, Jokai, from a small area near Dibrugarh, Assam. Over the last century and a half, the company has seen wars, famines, floods, and droughts, and still survived and thrived. In fact, the Panitola Tea Estate of Jokai has hosted several dignitaries, including Lord Mountbatten, General Slim and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Why Fearless? How did you arrive at the name, and what does it stand for?
Fearless is the spirit of resilience and innovation of this company, and a moniker to describe the enterprising workforce—60 per cent of whom are women. They work day in and day out, in any weather, to pluck the best leaves and produce the highest quality teas.
You describe yourself, on your website, as a socially-conscious entity. What does this mean to you?
To us, this means that our tea garden workforce is at the forefront of our strategy. Going above and beyond to elevate their standard of living, especially the women, is a core principle for us. Menstrual awareness as well as accessibility to pads is a huge area of concern in the tea garden community, and we endeavour to make these accessible, initially for our own tea garden workers and soon, hopefully, for all tea estates in Assam.
Yes, we love that you’re invested in menstrual hygiene, and necessities. Could you tell us where this concern springs from?
It springs from the fact that our workforce, much like most tea estates in Assam, consists of a majority of women. They work almost as many hours as any man, along with taking on the bulk of family responsibilities. This leaves them with little time to focus on their own health and well-being.
One of those areas, clearly, is lack of awareness of menstrual hygiene—most workers still use cloth. This results in reproductive as well as urinary tract infections. These are not diagnosed early and can lead to more serious health issues. Based on internal research among our workforce, we realised that this is a common concern across the workforce. So we started by installing a machine that manufactures biodegradable sanitary pads, which we distribute to our women workers along with their salaries.
What does a day at the plantations look like?
The day begins with tea plucking, which happens in three batches, or belas. After each batch of plucking, the leaves are weighed and carefully transferred to the garden’s factory.
In the factory, the tea is then processed according to the type to be manufactured each day. If it’s black tea, the tea is kept on withering troughs to naturally reduce moisture over several hours. Then it is rolled, oxidised, and dried. If it’s green tea, it is immediately ‘fixed’ using heat to stop oxidation, and then sent for rolling and drying.
This is a mere glimpse into the day of a tea plantation worker. Their daily plan varies based on weather, and can consist of one or more of over 200 specialised tasks.
In India, tea is largely known to be a crop that’s detrimental to soil health. Tell us about the topologies of your tea plantations, and how cultivation affects the soil in each of those sites.
Tea is a long-term crop, and with it comes the challenge of maintaining or improving soil quality without uprooting the bush, unlike many other crops. Our six gardens in Assam are on the south bank of the Brahmaputra river. Here, the soil is clayey. Our other tea garden, Nangdala, sits in the Dooars Region of Bengal, and largely has sandy loam.
Growing tea successfully year after year requires a concerted soil-management effort which starts with regular soil analysis. We do this once a year, and supplement the soil with whichever nutrients or organic matter is lacking. For example, the soil can become acidic over years of long-term cropping, so it’s important to increase the pH using dolomite—calcium magnesium carbonate—when required. We also keep a check on organic matter, and use vermicompost, which we make using earthworms, as needed.
Your gardens cover a range of topologies. How does flooding, like in Dibrugarh, affect your tea?
The tea crop ideally requires well-drained soil. Flooding has a profound impact on lower-lying tea garden areas around Diburgarh and Tinsukia, which have clayey loam and tend to retain water. With the rapid urbanisation and infrastructure around the tea growing areas, river water doesn’t always have a natural path to drain, and water stagnates in tea gardens. This is detrimental to tea bush health because stagnant water can lead to increased risk of disease in the root, and pests.
Rains and floods generally affect our gardens in our area around July or August, and it’s important to follow quick and efficient bush health and hygiene practices during this weather.
Now, let’s move on to the mainstay of your business. What are your most innovative or unusual offerings for India? What sparked them?
Our Hibiscus Cinnamon Green Tea is a pretty unique offering. The idea for Hibiscus Cinnamon came from a desire for a fruity green tea which could satisfy a bit of the sweet-tart palate that works in our country—hibiscus flowers give it a pleasant tartness and cinnamon balances it out well with a lingering sweetness. This enhances the base we use—Sliver Tipped Green Tea from our Hattialli Tea Estate.
What’s your hottest seller (excuse the pun)? What does this say about the Indian consumer market for chai?
Our hottest sellers are different in the online and offline space.
In the offline or retail space, our most popular product is the Gold Blend 1872 Kadak Assam Tea. This is a staple at home, and my wife’s go-to daily chai. In the online space, it’s a toss-up between our loose leaf Original Green Tea, and the Hibiscus Cinnamon Green Tea.
I guess this highlights the difference in the consumer profiles that tend to shop online (discovery oriented) and offline (staple oriented).
So Kadak Assam Tea is your wife’s favourite. What’s yours?
My favourite tea is a second-flush, Assam Orthodox Black Tea, preferably from our Hattialli Tea Estate, brewed for five minutes at 90 degrees. I enjoy it with just a dash of fresh milk.
What is your vision for Fearless Tea? And what sets you apart in a foodscape that’s full of tea producers and consumers?
I visualise a future where tea moves up the ladder from being a commoditised, low-quality staple into a beverage that consumers are passionate and particular about. The health benefits of tea are myriad, and just the surface has been scratched in terms of what all tea can do for you—if consumed in the right way regularly. We need only look at our neighbours in China and Japan to see the benefits that daily tea drinking rituals can have, so long as it’s not steeped in unhealthy sweeteners.
During our earlier conversations you’ve said that there’s a lot more awareness of the different kinds of coffees, and how they are processed, thanks to startups and other businesses in the space. What do you think is needed for that to happen in the tea space?
I think tea growers need to market their farm-fresh produce aggressively, and make it available in their homes so that consumers can taste the difference. Along with that, the benefits of consuming freshly produced tea, the different kinds of teas produced in our country, and the best way to brew each to enjoy them at their optimum need to be communicated in a fresh manner.
We receive a lot of questions from consumers about where our tea gardens are, how we grow our tea and process it, and what makes it taste different or healthier. This tells us that there is increasing interest among consumers to dive deeper into the tea space which, until now, has been highly commoditised.
To read more about Jokai Fearless Tea and their practices and efforts, check out our producer page here. We strive to keep the practices of a producer transparent and honest across all forms of partnerships.