Mr. Nirmal Sethia is the founder of Newby Teas, an international tea label that has won some 85 awards from the North America Tea Championship, and the British Great Taste Awards, since its establishment in 2000. It has amongst its loyal customers the three Royal Castles in Stockholm, 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai and the offices for the President and Prime Minister in Poland. Mr Sethia is a passionate tea lover (he even has an extensive collection of tea antiques) and shares his tea love story with T Ching readers.
“I was born into prominent Indian business family in Britain. Because of restrictions imposed on my movements (for security reasons), I became quite the rebel. When I was 14, I decided not to go to school anymore and stand on my own two feet. My father was a very wise man. He allowed me to embark on this journey with his blessings and three commandments:
1. Do not steal, because God’s grace will be withdrawn.
2. Do not lie. If caught, no one will trust you.
3. Do not be pretentious otherwise you will never learn.
As luck would have it, an Indian friend helped me to get a job as an apprentice in a tea brokerage firm at Plantation House in London. My pay was 7 shillings a week, which was enough to pay my train fare to work, rent a single room near Sutton Station and get by with a limited budget.
My family had never been involved in the tea business before. Out of necessity, I began to understand the marvels of Mother Nature and her gift of tea to mankind. Initially, all tea leaves appeared the same, but then I was taught to judge and value things not based on their appearance but their inherent nature and character.
I was totally involved, disciplined and dedicated about learning about the tea industry. I also believe that God’s grace was with me. When I was 16 an Irish tea buyer approached me about setting up my own company in India and buying tea for his company. I returned to India to start this small operation of buying tea in the auctions in Calcutta. My business expanded and many other Irish importers, through word of mouth recommendations, gave me their buying orders.
I worked honestly and developed strong relationships with these business associates. I built up a small team for export business and bought a small tea plantation in Assam. I used to shuttle between the tea garden and my office in Calcutta. I lived in that tea garden for 11 months to learn about the planting and processing. I still own that garden. Meanwhile my tea production has increased tenfold in the last 50 years.”
I lost my father when I was 24. As a result I inherited part of his vast empire and had to manage some of these family business matters. I closed down my tea exporting company in Calcutta and hired professionals to manage my tea plantation. However, in 2000, I decided to form Newby Teas with the mission to reintroduce the dying art and culture of tea. In my opinion, the decline in tea began in 1908, when Mr Thomas Sullivan invented the teabag. Some tea packers began filling the teabags with low quality tea. Today, there are many poor quality tea products being pushed into the market with decorative packaging, fancy prices, and semi-false marketing.
It was my intention for Newby to create awareness about what good quality tea is all about. At first, I hired professionals to manage the show but, unfortunately, they messed up. This was discouraging, but my late wife, who was truly an epitome of knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and love, encouraged me to invest more time and effort in producing fine quality tea. She believed that I could create a positive legacy for the tea industry.
Fine tea is never judged by its appearance but by its character of the brew. As tea has admirers, it also has its enemies such as heat, humidity, and pollution. Bearing this in mind, I designed a unique packaging facility, which would preserve the freshness of the leaves.
What is the greatest challenge for you as founder of Newby Teas?
Getting people to understand what “real” tea is about. For one, I don’t believe that flavoured blends are “real” teas. More often than not, they are more like infusions because these different ingredients and fragrances are added to poor quality tea to make it drinkable.
I feel that we are the only international tea brand in the world that embraces the concept of “preservation of character.” While we are proud to be the most decorated international brand in the world for teas, I do not wish for this company to take too much credit for the flavoured blends we sell. Our working philosophy is based on honesty, dedication and a desire to share what we have learned and what we know.
Quite frankly, Newby Teas does not make much money but I have a very personal stake in the business because tea is inextricably connected with the beautiful relationship I had with my late wife whom I lost in 2010. Right now, a substantial shareholder of Newby Teas is N. Sethia Foundation, a British-registered charity that has donated millions of dollars towards education, medical research, and disaster relief. The other shareholder of Newby Teas is the N. Sethia Group Limited in London, a conglomerate involved in banking, security printing, sugar refining, tea plantation and real estate. To me, the fate of Newby Teas lies in God’s hands.
What is your favourite tea?
My favourite tea is Kan-Junga, a Himalayan black tea.
Could you tell us about your teaware collection?
In 2011, the N. Sethia Group decided to create a private collection of tea accessories called “The Chitra Collection”, which is named after my late wife. Today, it is the biggest single private tea accessories collection in the world and includes some of the rarest tea-related objects that date all the way back to 300 BC. The value of this collection is worth tens of millions of Euros. My favourites are the Silver-Gilt Monkey Teapot from Germany (circa 1600), and the Moon Teapot, which is a modern enamelled pot studded with diamonds and pearls that I designed and had made in Milan.
What fascinates you about tea’s history?
Tea has had a powerful, vast history, which started with its great glory and then its decline over time. History is a teacher for the present, and I believe the 21st Century will restore the true value of tea. I’m proud that Newby Teas is playing a role in reinstating tea back to its glory.