Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Disruptors Pour In To India's Tea Market

Change has finally arrived in an industry that has altered little in India for almost 200 years, since the British brought Chinese tea plants to the country to gain influence over global trade. The sweet and milky tea concoction called chai is getting an image makeover at home as disruptors seek to tap the huge potential of the export market.

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    When winter comes to New Delhi, the smog settles down on the city and the morning is a grim ritual of honking cars and hacking coughs, there truly is nothing like stopping for a hot cup of masala chai.

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    An ancient-looking mortar and pestle — or just a mallet — is used to crush cardamom, black pepper, cloves and, depending on the joint, star anise or cinnamon. That goes into a pot with boiling water, milk, sugar and, the key to it all, tea.

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    All day long, it's served at open air stands, roadside stalls and restaurants, and delivered on countless bicycles or metal trays held aloft into offices across the city and nation.

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    These days tea, popularized by the colonial British East India Company and its plantations in the 19th century, is moving upmarket.  

    Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

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    Euromonitor International data show per capita spending on tea in India was $1.7 a year in 2014, versus $18 in the U.K. Investors see plenty of opportunity for selling a more expensive cuppa, both at home and abroad.  

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Swaraj Kumar 'Rajah' Banerjee, chairman of Makaibari Tea Estate, samples tea in his office in Kurseong, West Bengal. The 155-year-old estate last year sold its Darjeeling tea, named Silver Tips Imperial, for $1,850 a kilo to buyers from the U.K., the U.S. and Japan, making it the most expensive Indian tea ever sold. 

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    From a seat at a chai wallah's shop in India, that seems like an awful lot of cash. But as with much else in the country, things are changing.

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    Workers hand-pick tea leaves on the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong. The estate, in the cool, fertile foothills of the Indian Himalayas where some of the world's most prized tea grows, is the oldest estate in Darjeeling and the world's first tea factory, according to the company's website.

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Tea cannot be marketed as Darjeeling unless it is grown in the region, much as Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of France, according to the website of the Tea Board of India.

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Operations at the High Field Tea factory in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. Tea, whether green, black, or oolong, comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The major variations occur during processing.

    Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

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    A worker loads tea leaves into a green leaf sifter machine, right, as his colleague collects tea leaves in a basket at the Makaibari factory. Green tea is quickly heated, which preserves its color, while black tea is bashed and bruised to oxidize and blacken the leaves. 

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Various types of tea are displayed at a wholesale and retail store in Siliguri, West Bengal. Traditionally it takes three to six months for Indian teas to reach consumers in other parts of the world.

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    A plucker hand-picks tea leaves at the Simulbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling district. The estate is one of 150 plantations in Darjeeling, Assam and Nepal that supply start-up Teabox. The company is three years into its plan to disrupt India's premium tea market.

     

     

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Kausal Dugar, founder and CEO of Teabox, examines the quality of a sample of tea at the company's facility in Siliguri, West Bengal. The 32-year-old Indian entrepeneur is bringing modern practices like online sales to centuries-old plantations.

     

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Employees sort tea leaves. Teas go to Teabox's cold storage within 48 hours of production where they are vacuum packed and shipped to customers around the world, according to Dugar.

     

     

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Packed and labeled pouches of different varieties of tea sit ready for dispatch. In the past three years Teabox has sold 60,000 kilograms of tea in 91 countries.

    Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

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    Workers load bags of tea onto a truck at a warehouse near Cochin Port, Kerala. Dugar's challenge is to grab a bigger share of India's $4.8 billion premium tea market, equivalent to 80 million kilograms of premium tea that can be exported out of the country. 

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    Rising incomes and demand for a refined experience transcending chai are spawning posh tea lounges in the nation's bigger cities. 

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    The chain Tea Trails started in December 2013 with eight operational stores, two of them franchises. Uday Mathur, a co-founder and director of Zone8 Tea World Pvt., the company that runs Tea Trails, says he has plans to scale that up to 500 stores in about four years. “We will still be only scratching the surface at that point of time,” said Mathur.

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

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    The stores offer about 80 varieties of tea, including the Indian chai sold in an earthen pot, known as a kulhar, for about 70 rupees - more than seven times the price of its street equivalent. 

    Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg