Innovation, experimentation and a re-kindling of artisanal pride are all key objectives for micro-factory Tea Studio in India. The unique business – which also focuses on being socially responsible with a low environmental impact – is based in the hill station of Coonoor, nestled in the Nilgiri Mountain range of South India’s Western Ghats in the State of Tamil Nadu. The studio is surrounded by smallholder tea fields, whose workers all contribute to the success of the operation.
"The traditional hierarchical model of the plantation system has had its day,” says Kevin Gascoyne one of the founders and creators of Tea Studio, who’s also the owner of Camellia Sinensis Tea Houses and Tea Schools of Montréal and Québec City. “Amazing work has been done and products developed that may never have otherwise seen the light of day. But these models are no longer working economically. The product and, much more importantly, the people are suffering in these archaic systems. We need to re-evaluate the way we do things and to look towards innovations that incorporate our value systems and those of the people we work with. Tea Studio is far from perfect, but it is a fresh and fully functional, private business model that we feel is moving in the right direction.”
Forging a New Concept
Tea Studio is the creation of a team of tea experts – including Gascoyne and his Camellia Sinensis colleagues, Indi Khanna, Muskan Khanna, Jibin Samuel, Shankar Rao and Ravi Matthews – all of whom banded together to painstakingly construct a new concept in tea manufacturing. Their overall goal is to cater to the growing global market for boutique-style and bespoke teas.
Tea Studio offers a wide range of teas, “…some more evolved than others,” notes Gascoyne. The studio’s teas include white, green, wulong and black, and the studio is experimenting on others, and even trying some large-leaf mao cha with help from friends in the Yunnan.
“Our entire valley is divided into a patchwork of ‘small-farmer’ tea fields,” explains Gascoyne. “Typically, they sell very low-grade leaf to the CTC factories and they’re paid by the kilogram. So, they usually spend the day stuffing sacks with ‘anything green.’ We buy from the same farmers, but we pay up to 10 times the price for very carefully plucked leaf of one leaf and a bud.”
Gascoyne shares that it was quite a challenge at first to get the leaf his team needed, and it took around six months of turning leaf away before the farmers began bringing them the right quality. “Now, at the end of each day, the farmers arrive at the door of the studio with their day’s plucking,” he says. “This new situation of respect and financial reward for good leaf has resulted in a budding pride in their work that I hadn’t anticipated. They open the sack, proud to show off the beautiful quality of their leaf.”
A Visually Arresting Building
At the heart of Tea Studio is a modern, architecturally-interesting main building that sets the factory apart. The structure came together from years of accumulated ideas, advice from various colleagues, experts and research institutes from around the world, according to Gascoyne. “We drafted up criteria and specifics for the floor plan and overall space,” he explains. “Then an Indian architect friend of ours drew up the plans for the building around these technical specifications and gave the Tea Studio its signature design and red roof.”
Once the initial plans for the building were drawn up, the Tea Studio team consulted with tea producers and experts from Taiwan, China, Japan, and Darjeeling before finalizing the design. “A beautiful location high-up in a suspended valley at 1850m in the Nilgiri Hills was secured and the building began,” says Gascoyne. “The specialized machines were all shipped in from China and, in time, the daydream gradually became a reality.”
Tea Studio construction and installation officially finished in late spring 2017, and the rest of that year was devoted to the initial development of their teas and management logistics. The studio counts 2018 as it first year of real operations.
Connecting Process to Results
Since it launch, Tea Studio has focused on experimentation with varied levels of oxidation, and it’s always looking to innovate with tea making. The factory has a selection of Chinese machines that are used to produce classic whole-leaf teas like Long Jing, Mao Feng and Anji Bai Cha. “We can do five basic leaf shapes,” says Gascoyne. “Add to that the variations of oxidation and it gives us many possibilities.”
Gascoyne adds, “A couple of Chinese producer friends spent some time here and helped us to refine and calibrate our green teas with some great results. Our leaf is mostly assamica, so our techniques have had to be adjusted for that too.”
The all-woman production team at Tea Studio is led by Muskan Khanna, and they’re all “extremely focused and diligent,” shares Gascoyne, who believes that the team’s continual tasting and touch-assessment of the leaf are essential to the development of their artisanal teas – a focus on connecting process to results.
“The scale is small and the system we have put onto place requires the focus of a ‘tea-maker,’” says Gascoyne. “Though the machines can be very finely calibrated to the more tangible variables of the environmental conditions etc., the final touch and refinement that makes the big difference in the end is that human, craft decision.”
For Gascoyne, the biggest success of Tea Studio is the glowing pride he sees when his team presents the teas that they know came out particularly well. “I think, for me, this re-kindling of artisanal pride in the tough environment of rustic poverty in the area has been more rewarding than any increasing sales or glowing reviews.”
Looking ahead, Tea Studio plans on more experimentation with manufacturing to improve existing teas and develop new ones. They also plan on more collaborative projects with producers from other regions, the planting of a few small fields of varied cultivars from other terroirs, improvement of their educational activities and an expansion of their social programs for the villages in the valley. “Those are just the first that come to mind – we are not short of projects!” says Gacoyne.
On micro-factories like Tea Studio, or artisan teas as a trend, FaithAnn Bailes, content manager for Questex’s World Tea Virtual Summit and the World Tea Conference + Expo, notes, “It’s remarkably interesting to watch new business ideas, like Tea Studio, popping up around the world – from India to China and even Africa. I’m getting the sense that tea is finally putting its best foot forward and starting to manipulate the leaf into a fine tea with new rich flavors and tastes. And what is even more exciting is that women are stepping forward and developing these ideas. Overall, I’m very optimistic about the future of high-end specialty tea, I really believe that it has finally came into its own with a passionate group of entrepreneurs behind it.”
To learn more about purchasing tea from Tea Studio – either a small amount for personal use or a larger, wholesale quantity direct from the factory – contact Kevin Gascoyne by visiting Camellia-Sinensis.com.
To learn more about Tea Studio, visit TeaStudio.info or watch their video here.