Tales from a trunk

Tea sommelier Snigdha Manchanda, who was in Chennai recently, talks to Deepa Alexander on the need to celebrate the brews of India

Updated - May 12, 2016 11:02 am IST

Published - May 11, 2016 03:46 pm IST - Chennai

Snigdha at the workshop at The Brew Room. Photo: R. Ravindran

Snigdha at the workshop at The Brew Room. Photo: R. Ravindran

It’s the story of a father’s vintage trunk and a daughter’s unusual treasure. Snigdha Manchanda’s love affair with the fascinating world of tea began in her teens. Her father, who worked with an oil exploration company in Assam, sent her a pack of green tea, setting her off on a rare pastime. Unlike other girls her age who collected stamps and coins for a hobby, Snigdha collected tea. Friends and family who crisscrossed the globe gifted her unusual blends from as far afield as China and Kenya, England and Russia.

“For years, I refilled that trunk with gourmet tea blends. Every sip led me on a journey to distant tea gardens from where these flavours came, and, unknowingly, I had found my passion,” says Snigdha, 32, who is Mumbai-born and raised.

For nearly eight years, she worked as a brand strategist, before she exchanged the closeted boardrooms of companies for the serried rows of tea bushes.

“Wanting to become a sommelier wasn’t a sudden discovery. Tea was so much a part of me, that on a sabbatical from work, I decided to indulge my passion. It had nothing to do with the fact that the industry was booming. I had always loved teas, collected them with fervour, but knew little about them. Suddenly, seeking that knowledge became important,” says Snigdha, who soon found herself at a professional tea school in Sri Lanka, under the keen eye of Japanese tea master Nao Kumekawa. “India is one of the foremost tea producers in the world, but there is little opportunity to study to be a sommelier here. That is primarily because, in India, we market tea as a commodity, not as a lifestyle product or an experience.”

So, for six months at the school, Snigdha rose early and went down to the tea gardens to pick leaves and buds, process them, brew a cup, and sip, swill and spit into a spittoon. “It was nearly a hundred cups a day and writing a flavour profile on each of them. The tea tasting was a spiritual experience — there is a certain calm that descends when you take a sip,” she says, of the days when she learnt to tell if a cup tasted too musty or if the leaves were too fired.

Snigdha followed the Lankan experience with a stint at The Speciality Tea Institute, New York, where she studied the art of blending.

When she returned to India, Snigdha spent time in tea gardens, cloaked in mist, working on a product that would define her kind of tea. A year after she moved to Goa in 2012, she launched Tea Trunk, primarily an online store, the name, a tribute to where her love for tea began. While the company focuses on signature blends, Snigdha spends her days telling stories and hosting tea workshops across the country; which is where she was last weekend.

At The Brew Room, Savera Hotel, with its sanguine rush of coffee and tea flavours, tiny glass cups filled with amber liquid are being served in rounds to an earnest group of participants.

Held as part of the restaurant’s second anniversary, the workshop, Snigdha’s first for The Brew Room, also introduced the range of products from Tea Trunk that would now be stocked here. While she chose five blends for the summer — some as exotic as marigold and lemongrass, others as celebrated as the Darjeeling “the champagne of teas” — Snigdha sunk a spoonful of fragrant leaves specked with dried petals, steeped and brewed the tea that appeared in a range of colours with every blend. Amber, brown, moss green, black and shades of blush flowed out of the spout and tangoed with the rays of the late afternoon sun. “Good quality tea has a natural sweetness to it, and though chai is refreshing, tea is best without sugar or milk,” says Snigdha, as she drew a fascinating portrait of tea seeds smuggled out of China by the British during the Opium Wars, its place in the mythical traditions of the Himalayan foothills, the remarkable growth of the industry during the Raj and the ecology and terroir of India that produces some of the finest teas in the world. “An interest in artisanal foods has seen a spike in gourmet teas. In my first workshop, there were people who were unaware that all tea comes from the same bush — Camellia sinensis. It is the difference in processing that gives us white, green and black tea. Since 2011, almost 2,000 people have attended my workshops, where the focus is not to sell our brand, but address the curiosity around Indian teas,” says Snigdha, who sources ingredients for Tea Trunk from farmer cooperatives in Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiris, Uttarakhand and Kashmir. “Understanding whole-leaf tea has been our journey,” says Snigdha, an INK Fellow, who also founded Story Ninja that works with entrepreneurs, keen to set up a global learning hub for tea in India.

By the end of the workshop, I’m so ‘tea drunk’ that I can taste it in my memory. The afternoon has been what celebrated Japanese scholar, Kakuzo Okakura calls in his The Book of Tea , “the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence”.

Tea tricks

Never use boiling water for white and green tea.

Pour water on the leaves and never the other way. Allow the leaves to breathe.

The basic rule of tea blending is to pick herbs and spices that release oils.

Use 2 gm of whole-leaf tea per person for brewing the perfect cuppa.

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