As Americans, we tend to be divorced from the source of our consumables. It is easy for us to go to an Ubermarket to get our food and find it all there in abundance. If we can’t find what we want in Uberstores, we can just jump on the internet and before you know it, it shows up in our mailboxes. Most of us don’t even give a second thought to where that product comes from and what or whom is involved in getting it to us. It is no different with our consumption of tea.
As tea continues to grow at double digits each year, more and more people are enjoying its simple pleasures as well as its complex health benefits. Today I am going to begin to share with you just a little bit about some of the people that are behind the tea we consume, in this case from India. Let’s start putting faces and places to our tea.
After recently visiting a number of tea plantations in India, I came away from that experience more impressed and knowledgeable than I thought I would be. Each time I visit a tea garden or plantation, whether in China, India or anywhere else in the tea producing world, I walk away in awe of the individuals who act as stewards of these plants and composers of this marvelous beverage.
One such person is Sanjay R. Sharma, General Manager (GM) of Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling. He is a handsome, some may say dashing, young man with a charming smile, a British educated accent and engaging personality. As GM of this magnificent estate of approximately 750 acres, Sanjay is responsible for all aspects of tea production, from planting and harvesting to final processing. After having the pleasure of meeting and talking with Sanjay, I developed an even greater understanding and deeper respect for the extensive knowledge and experience required to create high quality teas. Just a partial list of the range of knowledge and skills that Sanjay possesses: biology; genetics; climatology; chemistry; agriculture; mathematics; mechanics; physics; thermodynamics; intuition; business; people skills (he has to manage and keep happy close to 1,000 workers) and so on. The amount of information he shared with me made my head spin (and created a great deal of humorous fodder for my new friends, Vincent Moreau from France and Alex von Niebelschutz and Lisa Rossi from Canada, as they made fun of my note taking throughout the trip – my good friends Sanyog [standing next to Sanjay in picture above] and Aliza Tamang from Darjeeling were gracious enough not to laugh at me).
On top of his dedication to creating the best cup of tea possible, Sanjay is also committed to improving the conditions for the plantation workers and their families. Sanjay is in the process of aligning his plantation with a new standard called the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP). ETP is a global organization dedicated to creating transparency for Social Responsibility through ongoing monitoring of all practices of tea production and the welfare of workers. He already has a program of bringing in volunteers from around the world to help with the education of the children of the plantation workers.
We ran into two young women, volunteer teachers from England, while walking around the plantation. When I queried them about what they were teaching the kids they said, “at the moment… Bee Gee dancing”. “Bee Gee dancing?”, I retorted. “Yes, you know… Saturday Night Fever” (as one of them proceeded to demonstrate the dance step made famous by John Travolta). We all broke up laughing, each one of us fully enjoying the images in our heads of a large crowd of Indian children all doing “Bee Gee dancing” together. We also found out later from Sanjay that one of these young women was Jewish and happened to make a comment to him one day that there were a lot of people in the world who are Kosher and love tea but have a hard time finding quality Kosher tea. Sanjay was intrigued by the comment. He made inquiries and found a Kosher certifying Rabbi who came and guided him through the process of certifying Glenburn teas as Kosher.
With people like Sanjay Sharma, teas from India are truly being transformed from the historic perception of low quality CTC teas to very high quality, organic, specialty whole leaf teas. Sanjay continues to experiment with producing more green, white and oolong organic teas, using some traditional Chinese methods of production. In addition, he is also helping to transform the perception of poor working conditions and mistreatment of workers on tea plantations in order to ensure good quality of life for his workers and their families and allowing us, the end consumer, to feel confident that we are receiving not only high quality tea, but tea that is produced in the most environmentally and ethically sound manner. Don’t misunderstand me, the majority of tea from India and its surrounds is still produced for the tea bag and many of the workers still suffer poor working conditions. There are, however, a growing number of dedicated people like Sanjay who are taking up the cause and working diligently to provide us with new, high quality tea experiences from India. Thank you, Sanjay.