black&white #46: Indi Khanna, a life in tea
7 minute steep
Many of you who work in the tea industry might know who Indi Khanna is. But for those of you who don’t, Indi is one of the industry’s most celebrated veterans. He’s also recent winner of the lifetime achievement award at ‘The Leafies’ – the International Tea Academy Awards launched by the UK Tea Academy in partnership with Fortnum and Mason – for his immense contributions to the world of tea.
Indi in the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats in South India
His journey in tea started over 48 years ago as a Junior Tea planter, at a company called Malayalam Plantations in South India. Since then, he’s lived in Dubai, Assam and parts of Sri Lanka, and travelled to some of the remotest corners of the world to learn more about the art of tea manufacture and production. But it was his move to the Nilgiri Hills in 2005, a mountain range located in the Western Ghats in South India, that perhaps secured his status as a true pioneer and innovator. We spoke to Indi about his journey, achievements and what the future holds.
The Nilgiri Hills, renowned for their natural beauty and rare species of flora and fauna, were once considered the “Darjeeling” of South India. The terroir in the region is unique. But in the 80s and 90s, Indi tells us, “standards took a big hit – and as a result, people lost respect for the product.” Indi wanted to revive quality with sustainable and artisan tea production in the area, so he gathered some of the industry’s brightest and best from around the world, and set up shop in the hill station of Coonoor, some 1850m above sea level. Their beautiful, architecturally designed micro-factory is the result, the Tea Studio – and it produces our extraordinary limited edition tea, Nilgiri Frost.
The beautiful, architecturally-designed Tea Studio in the Nilgiri Hills
While the Tea Studio was originally set up and run by Indi, a few years later he passed on the management to his daughter Muskan. After studying a Media degree at the University of Birmingham, she now heads up an all-female team at the Tea Studio, which is still highly unusual in the Indian tea industry.
“She took to it like a fish to water. After she came on board, she was the one who decided she wanted it to be an all-women operation – and now she runs it completely independently. If I try to go to the factory to see what happens, she kicks me out and says I’m wasting her time.” Muskan is already making a name for herself. Indi tells us that the “Tea Studio is, to my knowledge, the only tea factory with a 100% female management team in the country. It was difficult and awkward in the beginning as there is still a lot of chauvinism in the Indian tea industry, but now Muskan is known as one of the best tea makers in the region.” An extraordinary achievement.
Indi and his daughter Muskan, who now runs Tea Studio as Head of Operations.
Has the Tea Studio made a difference to quality in the area? Indi says “The Nilgiri Hills is a huge district, producing vast quantities of tea – and Tea Studio is just a drop in the ocean. But yes, I think we’ve made a difference. I’ve had lots of buyers overseas come to me and say, we didn’t know tea from the Nilgiris could be this good.”
As well as promoting gender equality, the Tea Studio also provides huge social value to the area through employment – paying their tea growers two and a half times what other factories pay. “We’ve got a group of smallholders that we’ve now trained. And even before we bought from them, they farmed without fertilisers, pesticides or chemicals because they couldn’t afford them.”
Indi’s teas are grown using completely organic farming techniques, but he’s struggling to get certified organic: “We tested their leaf and it was 100% squeaky clean – it easily met EU and US FDA standards. But because the smallholdings are so small and spread out, we can’t get certification. It’s very frustrating.” It’s a story we hear time and time again in tea – and it’s why we choose small-scale farmers and producers, who farm using organic methods but aren’t certified, over larger operations that can jump through hoops to get the organic stamp by their name (read our blog on that here).
Indi and Tea Studio workers processing high grade leaves
Indi still spends a lot of time travelling the globe to share his unrivalled expertise with other tea growers and producers.
He has, he tells us, “been everywhere. I’ve 48 years of experience in the tea industry and counting. And I’ve travelled the world to both learn about different types of tea manufacture and offer consultancy work, from tea-growing projects in Malawi to Dartmoor in England.”
For Indi, it’s all an opportunity to learn, share and meet other like-minded individuals. “Because of my experience, I’m able to guide people who want to improve their processes. So they reach out and I’m always happy to help. It’s not just about keeping pace with new trends and developments. I want to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to tea manufacture.”
Sorting leaves from local growers at the Tea Studio
So, what’s next for this giant of tea making? When it comes to the Tea Studio, he wants to expand, growing more high grade artisan tea for tea lovers around the world. “Long-term, we want to buy some land and start experimenting with different cultivars. But we still haven’t reached full capacity at the factory – so that's our first priority.”
You can buy Nilgiri Frost here and we’ll let you know when to look out for other limited edition teas from the Tea Studio.