I’m excited to share an interview with Amy Dubin-Nath (tea curator, experience designer, and owner of Janam Tea). She is one of the foremost experts on single-source Indian tea in North America. She has been named one of the 100 Most Influential Professionals in the Food and Beverage industry by the Global Summit On All-Things Food. Her former location in New Jersey was pivotal in my own tea journey.
Q: I know, it’s an impossible question, but I have to ask everyone. Do you have a favorite tea? Or if there’s one that you find yourself drinking the most often?
It is really tough. So my answer is, I definitely have a thing for oolongs. If I had a menu in front of me that that’s probably my go-to, just because I love experiencing the different styles, colors, and flavors. So I’d have to say, I like to go for oolong. So it doesn’t even matter where it’s from. It’s probably my go-to.
Q: I know you’ve been working with Indian tea for a really long time. What made you connect with them so deeply?
When I started exploring tea in India, it was a decision that I had made after visiting India for about six weeks. A couple of years after that, I decided to spend six months. At that time, I was by myself, completely independent study. I generally had an idea of the tea-growing seasons. As I made my way through India, down and sideways, I was amazed by the colors, different areas, people, food, jungle, and mountains. For me, I would say the sum total really captivated me.
I came to tea by way of wine and whiskey tasting and exploring. I can’t work in those industries because the models are too heavy. If you’re a wine rep in New York, you’re carrying around with five bottles of wine up and down the subway. I knew that I physically couldn’t do that. So I wanted to work in beverage, but in something more lightweight. And so that’s why I went to India for six months to learn about tea. I felt that it’s such a vast subject requiring immense skill and expertise in the course of my travels.
If you’ve never been to China, trying to establish yourself as a leading Chinese tea supplier is a little difficult if you don’t speak Chinese, you don’t know the areas, and you’ve never seen them. People do, but I felt like the story really needed to be told exactly how this tea was being produced because it’s so special and difficult to make.
That’s why I decided to focus on Indian tea. I’ve traveled all over the world and had tea in a lot of places. But in terms of actually getting to the nitty-gritty of selling a product, I think it’s important to know a lot about that subject. So that’s how it happened!
Q: Is there one thing that you would you think would surprise most people about Indian teas?
I think the real surprise is that Indian tea is so much more than Masala Chai. That’s probably one of them. People have this idea that every Indian drinks Masala Chai, and that’s categorically not true. Indians do drink a lot of tea, but it’s not all the same.
There’s also such a huge range. India does produce green tea, white tea, oolong, and puerh. There are a couple of gardens experimenting with making matcha. So there’s a lot of adventure and experimentation. It’s not just black tea. That’s another surprise to people. They usually say, Oh, I thought it was just black tea.
The third major thing is that English tea, people think, Oh, I love English tea. Well, predominantly, that is Indian tea. Tea is not grown commercially in England historically. There are some experimental gardens now, but English Breakfast tea is actually Indian tea. People have been drinking it their whole lives without even realizing it.
Q: A big focus of my blog and writing is on sustainability. And I do get many questions from people concerned about the socio-economic issues that affect the tea gardens in India. I know you’ve traveled there extensively. What do you see as the way forward to tackle those issues?
It’s a huge topic and something for a lifetime of study and work. But the thing to do, if it’s something that concerns you, is to put on glasses with the perspective of life in India. Tea gardens are not a poor man’s game. Tea is costly to make. It is extremely expensive to maintain tea gardens. It’s costly to convert to organic and get certifications. It’s insanely expensive to house and take care of the volume of workers in tea gardens versus other industries like rice or rubber.
Tea gardens are fairly well established with schools, healthcare, and things like that. It is an agricultural job. It is a job requiring people to be in the field picking tea, in the factory processing tea. It’s a human’s job, made for humans by humans. Some of it can be mechanized, but to go 100% mechanical, you won’t have tea at all. So there are some social issues. Do I think the Indian tea industry is faring better than other industries? Yeah, I do. Is there room for improvement? Always.
Over time, you realize how much of a handcrafted product tea is. I am in favor of more education in agriculture. I think the schools in the tea gardens go to eighth grade. And there are scholarships for notable students to continue their studies, etc. Education is definitely a thing, and it’s sort of like, well, what kind? What does that mean? Education for what? Education in what way?
Socially speaking, the only other thing is that they are tribal in some of these areas. They are people coming from different places, different states, and sometimes different countries, so there is some cultural disconnect at times. Overall, I think things are much better than they were 20 years ago when I went. It’s much more like close and productive. But it’s tough to set to say post-COVID what the situation is. India is still on lockdown. People are still not able to go out. Certain social situations that perhaps could have been commented on five years ago have changed.
But overall, I have to say the Indian tea industry does a pretty good job of taking care of their permanent workers, finding work for their transient workers, making sure people have a vegetable garden, a cow, and safe shelter. The garden managers very much care about their workers.
This time, I was in a tea garden where there was a nasty storm, almost like a hurricane. We woke up in the morning, and all the glass in the house blew out. There was just devastation everywhere. There was a lot of debris everywhere. People’s houses had fallen over, and the managers were scrambling to get things better for them, get them taken care of, and making sure they have food and water. The western lens of, Oh, everybody in India is mistreated because they work on a tea garden; if that’s somebody’s perspective, it’s just not accurate. That’s my two cents, getting better, doing better, trying.
Q: What do you think is the future for Indian tea? Do you think specialty tea will become more dominant than commodity tea?
I don’t know about being more dominant. You may hear about it more in the press. Whether or not the sales match the hype, we’ll see. I do think specialty teas are definitely going to be a growing segment. Yet, we need to take action now to define specialty teas. What does that even mean?
Right now, regulation-wise, there’s nothing stopping anybody from saying something is specialty. There’s nothing that can stop anyone from doing that. So we don’t really have the standards in place, especially from the FDA, specifying that not only is something tea, like actually Camillia Sinensis, not a different substance like peppermint but that it’s a tea that falls under a category of specialty. That’s going to be a huge uphill climb. I do think you’ll see more about it in the news.
But still, the US gets such a tiny amount of truly specialty tea. It’s not a mass-market product. It can’t be a mass-market product. Tea is seasonal. The US is also competing with England, Germany, Japan, and some other countries for these teas and, to a growing degree, the Indian domestic market.
I think that we will start to see higher tea prices. It’s actually my hope that we all pay more for tea, that we have greater clarity around what tea is. And that if something is a specialty tea, that it really deserves that label. We’re not there yet. We’re still in the nascent stages of growing tea in the United States in general. So. So do I think that specialty tea will be more dominant than commodity teas? I don’t. From a PR standpoint, I do.
Q: Garfunkle’s in NYC had to close due to COVID, but you’re in the process of setting up in Columbus. What attracted you to Columbus as your next tea destination?
That’s a good question! In thinking about what I wanted for my life and how I like to do business, so far, I’ve had a tea shop or retail tea shop where you could have a cup of tea, take a cup of tea to go and buy loose leaf tea. I’ve had the tea room like you just mentioned in New York City. That was more of a sit-down dining experience. Everything was reservation only.
Columbus is attractive to me because there’s not really competition. You’ve got a couple of places making Chinese tea. There are a few bubble tea shops around Ohio State. But largely speaking, there’s not really much in the way of competition. The second thing is, Columbus is the capital of the state. You’ve got people coming in for political reasons. There are constantly people coming. You’ve got Ohio State, one of the biggest schools in the entire country. And then you’ve got a lot of big businesses here. There are global headquarters of some huge companies in and around Columbus, Ohio. Plus, my whole family’s here. They grew up here and spent their whole lives here.
The city itself is about a million people. And around 42 million people visit Columbus every year because of those three things I just mentioned. That, the family, and now we have the internet. You can get your Uber Eats, that that wasn’t there when I left it 25 years ago. I feel that all around, it was a really great choice. I’m also able to find a little more space and get value for my money to create what I’m doing now. It is actually a combination of the shop and the tea room, but I’m creating a tasting room that is an epicenter for tea education East of the Mississippi.
I already have a 20-week course for people who want a career in the beverage industry. This is for hospitality staff training, cafe owners, restaurant owners, hoteliers all over the Midwest, including Chicago, Cleveland, all that sort of thing. I will also have a gift salon because I love making gift baskets and arrangements with fine teas. So that’s mostly for corporate gifts, weddings, and things like that.
It’s something that is not going to be open to the public. Again, it’ll be a reservation only. But instead of a sit-down dining experience, it’ll be a tasting experience alongside pairings, hospitality training, and gifts. So it’s a new concept. It’s not B to C. It’s been mostly B2B, some B2C. I’ll keep my consumer classes and teas available online as well. And, of course, leading tours to India.
Another advantage in Columbus is that people don’t realize that India has the most golf courses in Southeast Asia, and Columbus, Ohio is golf central. Jack Nicklaus is from here. There are probably 40 golf courses in the Columbus, Ohio region. Golf is big, big, big. It’s almost as big as Ohio State football. Everybody plays golf. So the idea is to actually kind of pair tea and golf and address the needs of curious travelers and taste adventures. To me, it makes sense. Is it new? Is it different? Is it moving in new esoteric spaces? Yeah, I might be a little ahead of my time. But I think it’s a great way to introduce new people to tea.
Who would have thought to pair tea and golf? I can’t wait to see what her new tasting room will look like. Thank you to Amy Dubin-Nath for taking the time to answer my questions! You can find out more about her and her passion for Indian teas at JanamTea.com.