Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Interview: Shalini Agarwal of Glenburn Tea Estate

Photo Courtesy of Shalini Agarwal

This week I am pleased to present my interview with Shalini Agarwal, who leads the wholesale operations for the Glenburn Tea Estate as the president of Glenburn Tea Direct. Learn about what it's like to grow up surrounded by tea, the challenges of selling Indian tea in the US, and find out about the seminars she's participating in for next week's upcoming World Tea Expo, below.

Glenburn Tea Estate-Photo Courtesy of Shalini Agarwal

You were raised in a tea growing family, surrounded by tea. How has this shaped your relationship with tea?
Tea was the livelihood and underlying topic of conversation in our home and many relatives and people we knew had a tea connection. As a child, I would play in the tea factory with my siblings and friends, touch the withering tea leaves and inhale the wonderful fragrance of tea being processed…but took all this as for granted. Didn’t realize living in a tea farm with the lifestyle of planters in Assam and Darjeeling was something very unique. For me, tea has always been a way of life, permeating all aspects.

What are some of the challenges of bringing Glenburn and Khongea teas to the US?
Speciality teas from India are still relatively new for US tea consumers, they are much more familiar with teas from places like China and Japan. To familiarize and persuade tea shop owners to taste teas from Darjeeling and Assam has been challenging, and they in turn have to educate their customers. They are often surprised to learn that we have Oolong and Green teas from Darjeeling and that the flavor profiles are quite different from other places. With time people are tasting and appreciating teas from India.

Working in the tea business, what does a typical day look like for you?
When working from my home office in California, most of the time will be spent in the logistics of business such as followup emails and calls to customers, invoicing, organizing orders and sourcing and packaging the teas. I also travel to the tea farms in India 2-3 times in the year and immerse myself in tea production and manufacture. We participate in various Tea Festivals and trade shows which take up a lot of preparation and travel. Leading groups from US for Tea Tours in Northeast India is my latest endeavor and challenge. What I like about the business is…there is no typical day!

Photo Courtesy of Shalini Agarwal

You’ve recently presented and conducted tea tastings at World Tea Expo and other various tea festivals. What do you hope to teach interested tea drinkers?
I find that many people who come to the Expo or for Tea Festivals are unfamiliar with teas from India. Some may have heard of Darjeeling or Assam but never tasted teas from these famous tea growing areas, often I have to point out the regions on a map. I’m hoping to teach people to appreciate and learn about the many flavors and speciality teas from India.

One of your discussion topics is how the different growing seasons impact the flavor and quality of tea. Do you have a particular seasonal tea that you prefer, and can you explain why or why not?
For example tea from Darjeeling has four distinct seasonal flavors: First Flush or spring tea, Second Flush or summer, Monsoon (rainy season) and the Autumn Flush. Each is unique because of the seasonal temperatures, rainfall, sunshine and of course the quality of the tea leaf which changes throughout the year. I don’t have a favorite but tend to like the lighter, floral First Flush as a morning wake-up tea and a stronger Second or Autumn in the afternoon. Tea is like wine, there are hundreds of types and one can spend a lifetime learning about these beverages and never know enough, it’s a fascinating world.

On the Glenburn website I read about the Glenburn Workers’ Welfare trust, set up to improve educational and medical services on the estate and in the local community. Can you tell us a little bit more about this important program?
We currently have 64 children on our private scholarship program, and continue to help the local government run primary schools with infrastructure, extra teachers, and last year we installed electricity in one of the schools.

More details on the website:
The Glenburn Workers’ Welfare Trust was set up to improve educational and medical services on the estate as well as to promote cultural activities amongst the local community.

Our Education Programme primarily funds a team teaching volunteers who help out in local primary schools in the morning, and run Reading Libraries in the villages in the afternoon. Our focus is to improve the standard of the three government-run schools on the Estate, and contributions from our hotel guests have already given one of the schools a new roof with skylights, windows, fans, electricity, and a Nursery and Kindergarten section, which is not part of the normal government-school curriculum. We have also built a brand new primary school at the Shikaridura village.

The student strength of the Bhalukop Primary School has tripled since we started supporting it, and the parents now provide crisp green and white uniforms for the children, while we supplement the reading and writing materials. We help where we can, but also wish to empower the families of these children with a sense of responsibility for their own education.
Photo Courtesy of Shalini Agarwal

Can you share one of your favorite tea memories?
I love waking up early morning in Glenburn, Darjeeling to see the sunrise on the Kanchenjunga Mountain range and enjoy a fresh cup of recently manufactured tea on the verandah.

Do you have any personal tea rituals?
First thing I like to do in the morning is yoga and breathing exercises followed by making my first cup of tea which is usually a Darjeeling First Flush. I like the floral lighter flavors to gently start the day.

If you are attending World Tea Expo, Meet Shalini in Las Vegas and learn about the 12 day Tea Tour in India this September. More than just tea, the tour covers the history of Kolkata, North Indian culture, and the fantastic wildlife of Assam and the Himalayas. Attendees to the Origins Tasting Tour (June 11, 2019) at the World Tea Expo will have a chance to win a free trip for two. Also, during the Expo, Shalini will be hosting the India Tea Planter's Perspective panel. This seminar will give an inside look at the realities of growing and processing tea in India.Thank you Shalini for taking the time for this interview! I look forward to meeting you at World Tea Expo next week!

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