The Story Behind Hookhmol Tea, Which Broke Records at Auction in India

The story behind the failure of the first semiconductor chip making company in the world in its digital camera venture in the United States has scripted the success story of a tea grower in India.

Such has been the impact of this failure story of the CMOS sensor division of Micron Technology that it inspired Hookhmol tea in India's tea-rich Assam to set a new world record for prices of black tea, for which Assam is famous for.

Hookhmol CTC tea not only set this new record of Rs 1506 per kg at the Kolkata tea auction centre about a fortnight back, but also improved this record the following week at the same auction centre to Rs1552 per kg. Hookhmol tea also sold at Rs 723 per kg and Rs 751 per kg in the subsequent week at the Guwahati tea auction centre (GTA), which was the highest prices ever at GTAC.

The driving force behind Hookhmol tea, Bhaskar Hazarika, used to work as a product engineer for the CMOS sensor division of Micron Technology in Boise, Idaho about two decades back.

The company used to produce and supply CMOS image sensors (digital cameras) for all the mobile phone manufacturers in the world – be it to the high-end Apple or any other mobile company. Micron was the pioneer of CMOS image sensor technology and had the highest market share in the world.

However, its competitor Sony focused totally on producing low-volume, high-quality expensive cameras, while Samsung focused on producing only low-quality, high-volume cheap cameras.

bhaskar hazarika
The driving force behind Hookhmol tea, Bhaskar Hazarika.

Initially, these competitors were far behind in technology and could not compete with Micron, but within a few years, they caught up. Samsung could supply the cheapest cameras, so they stole the low end market while Sony could supply the highest quality phones and snatched away the high-end market.

This resulted in customers asking for Sony quality at Samsung price from Micron Technology, which was impossible. Micron started losing money, and the management decided to spin off the CMOS image sensor division.

Though Bhaskar, alumni of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, left Micron to join Eastman Kodak in Sunnyvale, California and worked there for a few more years, the lesson he learned at Micron – quality and quantity doesn’t go together – remained with him.

Bhaskar returned to Assam in 2009 at his father's request to concentrate on his family’s tea business. Hookhmol hitherto was just a small tea garden producing about 12 lakh kgs of tea leaves. The tea estate had not even installed its own factory.

“I was at sea; I saw no business with just 12 lakh kgs of green leaves,” said Bhaskar.

Since there was no other option left for him but to concentrate on the tea business, Bhaskar installed a tea factory and concentrated on producing tea on his own instead of selling green leaves to nearby tea gardens with factories. 

With 12 lakh kgs of green leaves not enough to feed his factory, Bhaskar still had to depend on small tea growers in the area for green tea leaves. But he realized that it was impossible to find “two leaves and a bud,” the basic requirement to make quality tea when depending on small tea growers.

With quality as the philosophy and with the aim to produce only high-end tea, Bhaskar purchased a sick, loss-making tea garden at Jorhat, about 100 km away from his factory. Soon after, he purchased another garden in the nearby area to feed his factory. “With my experience at Micron, I decided to go for making high-end tea,” Bhaskar said.

For the next ten years, Bhaskar concentrated on just two things: Reviving those sick gardens by planting more than 4 lakh new tea plants every year, and developing the culture of plucking the finest quality green leaf possible.

“It was not easy to motivate the workers to go for high plucking rounds. We pluck the same tea bush within six or seven days despite rain, wind, sun, heat, or mud throughout the year,” he said

Hookhmol today makes about 470,000 kgs of CTC tea and holds the number one slot at Kolkata and Guwahati tea auction centers, both among the busiest tea trading centers in the world.

Genesis of Hookhmol

Bhaskar’s father was the first person in Assam to start a tea nursery business. Until then, tea gardens had their own nurseries. Soon after, he started a tea plantation as a small tea grower, which Bhaskar developed after returning from the U.S.

Bhaskar said that his great-grandfather, Hookhmol Bokolial, a very hardworking, self-made man, was an inspiration for his father. “So we named our tea Hookhmol tea,” he explained.

Hookhmol today is a combination of three plantations: New Kailashpur Tea Estate at Tengakhat, Dibrugarh and Nagajanka Tea Estate at Mariani, and Jorhat and plantations done by Bhaskar's father in and around the Rajgarh area of the Dibrugarh district.

Although Bhaskar's father laid the foundation for Hookhmol tea, Bhaskar had his own bit of struggle in reaching the present position.

“It took me several years of struggle to procure the license for my factory. I almost gave up when I finally got it in 2013,” he said.

The Road Ahead

hookhmol tea packet
A packet of Hookhmol tea.

Bhaskar said that for fourteen years, Hookhmol tea has concentrated on developing skills to produce the finest tea. “We never tried to scale up, but now we will scale up a little bit, but still our focus will be on quality,” he said.

Hookhmol tea is planning to install another factory at Nagajanka tea estate within two years because it is getting very expensive to carry green leaf for four hours every day with the increasing cost of fuel and rising temperatures due to climate change. ”But to feed the present factory we are looking forward to acquiring a tea garden nearby soon,” he said.

According to Bhaskar, producing quality tea is the only survival mantra for the Indian tea industry as a whole, and Assam tea in particular. He said that more than 60 percent of the cost of production was labor cost. There was not much scope left to check the cost of production without compromising quality, and Assam tea had no option but to raise quality and get out of the commodity tag.

“Our intention is to change the image of Assam tea from a cheap commodity to the finest tea in the world, We have to draw such a picture for Assam tea that it becomes a craze for the tea drinking world to have a sip of this rich, full-bodied magic brew,“ he said.


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