How did you get involved in the tea business?
A chance meeting with Rajah Banerjee – the visionary tea planter and owner of the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling – inspired me to tell everyone about his version of agriculture and the share the tea bounty he made.
I ran into Rajah in 1989. I had just moved to the UK and met a lady [who turned out to be Tenzing’s granddaughter]. She worked at the Tea Board of India and invited me there. So I turned up and there was Rajah, so articulate and passionate about his tea garden. He explained why he used no chemicals – the word organic hadn’t really evolved at that time – and I said why don’t you tell people about it? He took about 50 samples out of his briefcase and said: “Here you go. If you feel so strongly about it, you do it!”
That must have been a steep learning curve, how did you manage?
Yes, I had two toddlers and was working part-time with a strategic consultancy company, so the world of tea growing was a huge change. I didn’t know anything about tea. I started by going through the Yellow Pages determined to find somebody who would buy Rajah’s tea.
I used to spend my weekends driving from place to place to visit contacts of mine and approach potential business leads. I knew a postman who had a Saturday stall at Camden Market and he became a regular customer, purchasing four packs of tea at a time. My family thought I was mad, but I was determined to get out there and share my passion.
I then managed to get hold of Horst Michaelsen, the tea buyer/taster for Ostfriesische Tee Gessellschaft (OTG) in Germany who flew out to Darjeeling, walked round the tea garden and – I kid you not – immediately said he wanted to buy the whole crop. So for the next two years the samples would come, we’d do the tasting, I’d post them to him in Germany, he’d taste them, and a contract would come through by fax.
"I used to spend my weekends driving from place to place to visit contacts of mine and approach potential business leads. I knew a postman who had a Saturday stall at Camden Market and he became a regular customer, purchasing four packs of tea at a time. My family thought I was mad, but I was determined to get out there and share my passion."
For me it was like a hobby to start with; it was only when Horst said he wanted to buy all this tea from us that it became serious and I realized I had to set up a company – I had no idea where to start. It was a real challenge. Everyone kept telling me what a huge commitment it was, but actually I didn’t think of it as a commitment, it was just amazing to see how people were so interested in the tea.
Looking after two little boys plus (an incredibly supportive) husband was sometimes challenging as I had to juggle work/life priorities and – as it was pre-Internet – travel regularly to ensure things happened quickly and to maximize opportunities.
I have, however, been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic industry experts such as Rajah Banerjee and the late Keith Louden Shand from Wilson Smithett, the tea brokers, who have been instrumental in sharing advice and guidance along the way.
What do you see as the vision behind the brand?
High quality, premium tea is a big part of the Indian culture and, having grown up in India, was influential in my upbringing, so for us really the vision was to share this amazing product we had found.
When we started 14 years ago you couldn’t really find organic tea products in the UK market, and I was increasingly concerned about pesticide residues in drinks. I met many people who shared my concerns and was determined to offer a solution and address the gap in the market.
Our vision was to provide the best tea leaves to consumers and to be the tea brand of choice for discerning, health-conscious individuals. By providing unique and great tasting teas produced from the world’s finest sources, we aimed to preserve the purity of the range and provide ultimate reassurance and peace-of-mind for consumers.
How important do you think the various certifications are to the brand?
Getting the Makaibari tea estate certified organic and then biodynamic took time and energy, but this was a huge achievement and something I am incredibly proud about. We worked closely in partnership with the estate and it achieved biodynamic status in 1995.
For an estate or product to legally refer to itself as biodynamic, it must be certified by the industry and according to the Demeter International Standards. Makaibari was the first Demeter biodynamic tea garden in the world so it was quite pioneering and a very big step.
"Getting the Makaibari tea estate certified organic and then biodynamic took time and energy, but this was a huge achievement and something I am incredibly proud about."
Biodynamic farming simply ensures that you put more in than you take out, and that animals, plants, people and soil all work together to create a forever living environment. It is something that totally resonates with my personal values.
I have spent years trying to make sure I communicated our ethical and sustainable values as easily as possible and today I truly believe that we have achieved the right balance of Fairtrade and Biodynamic accreditation. Although finding tea and ingredients that are both Fairtrade and Biodynamic is not always easy in the quantities and qualities we require.
Do you believe that more people are becoming aware of and concerned about the welfare of workers on tea estates and the problems they face?
Yes, definitely. The issue was raised in a recent documentary on Radio 4’s File on Four and the BBC News, exposing the poor conditions faced by tea workers from Assam, north east India, and the correlation with the price that is paid for a cup of tea here in the UK.
I believe that tea companies must realize that they are responsible not just for the land they source their tea from but the wider ecosystem as a whole, which includes the livelihoods for all those calling the estate home. By growing teas according to Demeter standards, the sustainable and biodynamic approach of maintaining total harmony with nature, progress can be made with more impetus.
I think people realize that ultimately their food supply is the most important thing they have and if they are going to rely on other people thousands of miles away to produce it for them they need to know what’s going on to make sure the food supply isn’t tainted. Consumers understand that more and more.
I have always remained focused on the end game and thought about how we can benefit the consumer as well as staying true to our sustainable and ethical credentials.
Is there a big problem in the tea sector with brands making ethical claims which are in fact false?
Yes, this is an issue not just in the tea sector, but amongst the wider food and drink industry. However consumers are increasingly aware of the products that make false claims and are becoming more ethically aware.
The key is to continue to set high standards and educate consumers so they can seek out brands that adhere to these standards. Consumers also have to do their own research and should seek out official stamps and accreditations on pack as well as visiting brand’s websites to be reassured of their ethical standards.
We understand that consumers are sceptical. All of our products come with the official Demeter and organic stamp and we regularly quality control our production process to ensure we are adhering to these high standards and setting the benchmark for the industry.
How important is Hampstead Tea’s relationship with the Makaibari estate?
The Makaibari estate is key to the success of Hampstead Tea. We have a close partnership with the estate and work in unison with it to benefit the workers and work in harmony with nature. Makaibari is still run as a family concern and the workers are unbelievably well looked after. We firmly believe in our ‘great taste with peace of mind’ motto.
66% of the Makaibari Tea Estate is undisturbed rainforest where tea grows in harmony with the area’s natural ecological system. By utilizing natural and vegetative waste as fertilizers, as well as herbal preparations as natural insect deterrents, Rajah and his team have created a community which successfully sustains and nourishes itself, eliminating the need for artificial growth stimulants and harmful pesticides.
In caring for the environment in which he plants and picks his tea, Rajah and his workers care for the health of those who nurture the tea and drink it too.
"The Makaibari estate is key to the success of Hampstead Tea. We have a close partnership with the estate and work in unison with it to benefit the workers and work in harmony with nature. Makaibari is still run as a family concern and the workers are unbelievably well looked after. We firmly believe in our ‘great taste with peace of mind’ motto."
We also source our tea from a number of estates as Makaibari can no longer fulfil all of our growing needs – but they are all as passionate and committed to caring for the land as we are. We find the best estates we can to work with – they’re always organic, but they can’t always be biodynamic.
There is also another Darjeeling estate going biodynamic and we’re helping with that process. It is already organic and is now taking the next step. Hopefully in the near future there will be an Assam estate that is biodynamic too.
Who would you say has inspired you in the business and why?
I’m sure I should be saying someone like Steve Jobs or Mahatma Gandhi, but I’ve never been a good follower! So many people inspire me every day. To be honest, all our team inspire me – from our team in the UK to the guys on the tea estate. Their passion and drive inspires me each day.
In the early days, my family were my big inspiration and they gave me the energy to make things happen.
Could you tell me a bit about your factory in Milton Keynes and what difference it’s made having your own facility?
I’ve never thought of myself as a factory manager to be honest, but it’s exciting – we can control the quality from the time the tea arrives direct from the estate which is wonderful. It is not easy to be a small manufacturing business in this country with all the regulations and associated costs.
We have a great team and we do all of our packaging there which helps us. For example we’re doing some work with our consumers at the moment and it’s nice to have your own factory because you can be flexible with sending out little gifts and samples – we can quickly respond to needs.
We moved into the location back in 2012 and have increased our capacity and production facilities since then in line with the growth of the business.
What changes in consumer behaviour are you seeing in the tea sector and how are you responding to these?
We constantly review our range and innovate our flavours in response to consumer demand, feedback and trends. In recent years there has been an increased interest in green tea and high quality tea with health and wellbeing benefits. Stronger, bolder tea has also appealed to consumers looking for more robust flavours. Loose tea is also performing well too and growing in popularity.
Overall, consumers are definitely becoming a lot more discerning and seeking out premium brands with a point of difference. We’re noticing a new generation of tea drinkers who realize the importance of food supply, and value wellbeing and organic over Fairtrade as a second consideration.
Hampstead Tea has been well placed to address this wellbeing lifestyle trend, while also appealing to more adventurous consumers looking for quirky and unique variants.
What do you believe distinguishes you from other brands in the tea market?
We’re a bit more of a discovery brand. We have never really been loud and brash, rather quietly confident about what we do. From our point of view, how we are different from other brands of tea which are a bit more shouty is that we are a tea company with fantastically high quality tea products.
The Makaibari tea estate was the first to go biodynamic and before our collaboration with them no tea estate had ever thought about going biodynamic before. We are unique in this and believe we offer consumers a new type of tea company, supplying high quality, organic tea, all hand-picked, while not compromising on taste or flavour.
Also lot of tea companies use dust grades in the tea whereas ours is a fragmented big leaf in a tea bag. When we do a tasting the first thing our customers notice is that the tea is so clear. In the manufacturer of tea, leaves have all the flavour and the stems less and less, and so in the processing the leaves get sifted also with the drier stems. These sifted stems can form part of the dust grades used by some companies. At Makaibari the dust isn’t sold or used for tea, it is used as compost.
For us, being both high quality and biodynamic at the same time is really key – it’s so important. Through the experience we’ve had in the last 15 or 16 years with biodynamics we have seen how beneficial it has been for the plants; they are much more resistant to climate and pests.
We think there’s a great story to tell to the consumer about everything biodynamic. It’s just an incredible way of living and way of growing.
What’s very interesting about Makaibari is that its autumnal teas are very well known as having an almost rosy flavour, whereas most tea gardens lose their flavour completely in the autumn, and I’m sure this is to do with the biodynamics.
What does the future hold for Hampstead Tea?
The future is bright for Hampstead Tea and we are excited about 2016 and what the next 12 months has in store.
We are committed to growing our brand, while remaining true to our vision and philosophy and offering UK consumers real quality tea with added lifestyle and wellbeing benefits.
For 2016, we have an active NPD programme in store and will continue to constantly review our core range to ensure it meets consumer demand