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Women lead change in the Nilgiris: a conversation with Muskan Khanna

Clair Thé’s Nilgiri Coonoor is one of my favorite black teas and it comes from the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains, a beautiful area of high rolling hills in southern India, the second largest tea producing region of India after Assam.

It is crafted by the Tea Studio, an innovative tea factory created by a team of tea experts from three different continents. Their experience, the region’s traditions, and the terroir as well as their strong vision for sustainable green practices and women’s empowerment result in fine artisan teas.

The management and entire workforce are local women from families that have been growing tea leaves for generations. By giving them the power of decision, it has redefined the role women play in tea making.

The Head of Operations is Muskan Khanna, and I was thrilled to meet her recently at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas and chat with her about her unique tea journey.

Muskan Khanna and Claire Schlumberger at World Tea Expo, March 2023

Claire Schlumberger: I am so glad to meet you in person! I have been following the Tea Studio since its early beginnings and remember the excitement when the first teas were produced. I love to meet women tea entrepreneurs and hear their perspective because I know it is not typical for women to work in the tea business. Your father, Indi Khanna is well known in the tea industry- is he from a long line of teamakers?

Muskan Khanna: He is the first generation, but it is because of him that I got into tea!

CS: I heard you were in advertising before?

MK: Yes! I had no tea background, no tea education, or qualifications.

CS: It is interesting because I was in the Bordeaux wine region last summer and met with a few women winemakers and they all had an education in agriculture. But you learned on the job?

MK: I think that could be useful if you want to do research. A course could also help with different tea notes and terms if you organize tea tastings but for what we do, I really think it is best to learn on the job. You see, every experience is different, and knowledge learned from a standardized course could work for you but not necessarily for me, depending on what kind of tea we manufacture and the conditions of manufacturing.

CS: So, when did you get started?

MK: Once the factory was built, I just asked if I could run it. I had no prior experience and I learned everything on the job. I had no idea what tea makers do, who manufactures the tea. It was total experimenting. We started with 5 teas and now we have 16!

CS: I remember you saying it was not a conscious decision to only hire women, but it happened naturally?

MK: It was because I needed some people who spoke the local language. That’s how I started to build my team. And then we hired a female accountant who applied from a village nearby. And the three of us had so much fun together. So then when the production increased, we hired more girls, because it was so much fun with women. Let’s just keep it all women!

CS: So now you have decided to keep it that way?

MK: Yes, It’s also a big plus point in the industry. I don’t know about the rest of the world but in India you don’t have any other tea factory entirely run by women. So, it is a big selling point.

CS: Can you think of any specific qualities women have compared to men?

MK: Well, I am not patient, but I find that in general women are more patient and for the tea making process, you need a lot of patience, and you need that delicate touch, that attention to detail that men don’t always have.

CS: Do you find that ego also sometimes get in the way?

MK: Yes, definitely! Women can work in harmony more than men can. They are all on the same level, they understand each other and don’t try to compete for who is better, who achieved more work. We don’t have that at all!

CS: Let’s talk now about the tea leaves. I know that you work with small tea farmers from the area who supply you with tea leaves. Do you have any problems with consistency or how does it work?

MK: Not at all! I mean in the beginning, like I said before, it took us about three to four months to get the leaf that we needed but now we have a constant flow of five to seven suppliers, and they know exactly what we want. Even if they have an area as small as ½ acre, they dedicate a small portion just for us and they tend to it in a very particular way. This way we don’t have any fluctuation.

CS: The leaves are all Camelia Sinensis var. Assamica?

MK: Yes, it is all Assamica. There used to be quite some China plants but then the Nilgiris area turned into about 90% CTC (1) factories. The yield of Assamica for CTC is much better, which is why they uprooted all the bushes and replanted in Assamica.

CS: Every time I drink a black tea from the Nilgiris, it is so strong bodied but yours is so floral and almost fruity, so delicate.

MK: This is because our leaf is very different from the beginning. It is the same clone, but you probably had CTC (1) teas whereas ours are orthodox (2).

CS: Yes, full leaves make a difference.

MK: And we vacuum pack our tea to preserve the flavor.

CS: Yes, when I open a fresh bag, the flavor is quite incredible, and the first cup is phenomenal!

By the way, of all your black teas, which one is the one I carry?

MK: It is actually our Nilgiri Tress. We name the teas based on their appearance. The tress looks like a stand of hair, the pearl looks like the shape of a pearl and the Nilgiri bamboo looks like bamboo stems.

CS: Anything else that you would like to add, that sets you apart from others?

MK: I just think that we are game changers in the industry. Anything that you do, if you do it with passion, it makes a huge difference. If you ask them, there is not a single girl in that factory that would rather do something else, and I think that makes all the difference.

CS: In terms of sustainability, do you have any projects?

MK: Definitely, I mean it’s not like we work with any certification body, but we pay our workers a premium compared to what regular factories pay. For instance, we try to support girls in their education. Unfortunately, in these regions they tend to give preference to boys, so when children need educational aid, but most specifically in the case of girls, we help them. When the lockdowns happened, we provided assistance like transportation, anything they needed, any assistance we could give.

CS: And I think I read you are almost certified organic?

MK: Well, we are what you call naturally organic. Because we buy from small holdings, they cannot afford pesticides. At the same time, they cannot afford to get certified organic either, so our teas are considered naturally organic. Our long-term plan is to have the tea fields and part of our teas certified organic.

CS: Thank you so much Muskan for taking the time to chat with me!

(1) CTC is a black tea processing method which stands for “crush, tear, curl”. It is an industrial method that speeds up the oxidation, produces higher volumes of a strong bodied tea with uniform flavors.

(2) Orthodox is a black tea processing method consisting of five steps: withering, rolling, oxidation, drying and sorting. It is a more artisanal method than CTC and produces more nuances and multilayered flavors.


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