Fourth-generation tea entrepreneur Bala Sarda parted ways with his family business to set up VAHDAM Teas at the age of 23. He spills the tea on the global reach of his homegrown brand, making it to Oprah’s favourite things, and a new travel range. By Rashima Nagpal
Were you always keen on carrying forward your family legacy?
While tea has been an integral part of my life, I didn’t think of carrying forward my family legacy in the tea business. I have always been very entrepreneurial. Even in the early days, I wanted to create value and do something of my own. In college, I founded two student start-ups. Soon after I graduated, I started looking for my ‘big idea’. While I was brainstorming, incidentally, I ended up going to my family’s holiday home in Darjeeling—the land where the world’s finest teas grow. I visited the tea estates and got a chance to interact with various stakeholders in the industry, including veterans, tea growers, and even the customers. It was then that I realised there was something amiss. I saw an opportunity to add value. To gain a better understanding of the tea industry and its supply chain, I decided to join my family business for a couple of years, and finally, in 2015, I launched VAHDAM (vahdamteas.in).
What was the thought process behind VAHDAM Teas?
India grows some of the finest teas in the world. In fact, it makes up 25-30 per cent of the world’s overall production. Unfortunately, there has been no home-grown brand to come out of India. Also, most Indian teas pass through multiple middlemen and are exported as a commodity to foreign brands and companies, who then add value and ultimately sell it to consumers globally. Additionally, tea is also the second-largest employer of organised labour in India. Due to the absence of a home-grown brand and value addition, this massive industry is plagued with issues like low wages. This is why I decided to create VAHDAM Teas.
What is your first memory of a tea estate?
Most of my earliest holiday memories are, in fact, travelling to tea estates in Darjeeling and staying at the manager’s bungalow. I still remember waking up to mist and the fresh aroma of tea leaves in the air. I would start my day with the freshest cup of tea, walk through the garden, and watch the art of plucking tea.
Which countries do you consistently supply tea to?
VAHDAM supplies to over 100 countries—majorly to USA, UK, Australia, Germany, and India.
Are there any traditional processes or practices that you adhere to?
Manual sorting of teas. We still do it the old way of using human skill and dexterity. Even though there are machines available for the same, mechanised sorting can never replicate or match human sorting—only the human eye can differentiate between the golden tip and the brown stalk/leaf.
What are the sustainability practices you follow?
We’re a certified carbon-neutral brand. We measure our carbon footprint from the farms in India to our customers’ doorsteps, globally. We then make carbon offsets via our investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in India. We’ve been certified by Climate Neutral (climateneutral.org), a not-for-profit based in the USA. We’re also a certified plastic-neutral brand. We recycle an amount of plastic equivalent to our packaging. Also, we take regular initiatives to reduce our plastic consumption without compromising on product quality. We’re certified by rePurpose Global (repurpose.global), an independent body based in the USA. Under our TEAch Me® Social Initiative, one per cent of our revenue is directed towards the education of our farmers’ children.
Tell us about the tea estates you work with, and the varieties you produce.
We source teas from almost 100 tea estates in the tea growing regions of Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, and Kangra. We offer over 100 blends spread across 150-175 SKUs, including green, black, white, oolong, chai, and turmeric teas. They are a combination of single-estate teas and signature blends crafted by master blenders.
What is your favourite cup of tea?
A cup of pure, unblended Darjeeling second flush tea, also known as the Darjeeling Summer Tea. A total delight.
What sets the teas of India apart?
There’s absolutely no doubt that Darjeeling is the world’s finest tea-growing region, and it is the first to get a GI indication. Darjeeling teas are popularly known as the ‘champagne of teas’. Assam is known to grow some of the finest, full-bodied, malty teas. It gives the world their ‘chai teas’.
Your brand featured in Oprah’s Favourite Things two years in a row. How did that happen?
Oprah is an inspiration for millions around the globe, and she is a tea connoisseur. She had once said, “The first time I had real chai was in India.” No Indian brand had made it to the list of Oprah’s Favourite Things, and we couldn’t see why it wasn’t possible. Even though it seemed far-fetched then, we were very confident and had full faith in our product. Being a tea company from India, we were thrilled and honoured to know that she had found her favourite chai in the VAHDAM Teas collection.
Tell us about your travel range of teas.
After putting in a lot of thought and effort, we designed a collection of travel-based tea gifts inspired by five cities of the world. The boxes showcase the landmarks of the cities, and the teas inside have been inspired by the respective tea cultures. As the brand travels around the world, it collects stories and shares them with consumers. These stories adorn the box.
Is there a country you’d like to explore but haven’t gotten around to yet?
One of the Scandinavian countries to watch the Northern Lights.