The pandemic may have spoiled the party for luxury goods makers the world over, but there was one type of luxury that continued to thrive during this time. High-end teas, especially green, did considerable business even when the world was preoccupied with the coronavirus, claim companies selling them.That is perhaps why Rudra Chatterjee, the MD of Kolkata-based Luxmi Tea, always has tea on his mind — be it the finest black teas in the world from his company’s famed Makaibari estates or the finely powdered matcha tea from Japan. In fact, Chatterjee’s over 100-year-old tea business will soon start growing and selling matcha tea for the first time. A recent spurt in tea sales encouraged him to go ahead and consult master tasters from Kyoto for this green tea made from ground leaves.Chatterjee’s is not the only business that has blossomed in the tea space even as the global economy sagged after the pandemic began. Several companies across India that either grow or buy and resell high-end tea have been quick to innovate in the last year to tap into what they call a rising demand for tea varieties. But why is India suddenly seeing a spike in demand for teas?Luxmi TeaEstablished: 1912, Kolkata Managing director: Rudra Chatterjee Price range: On www.Luxmitea.in the range of Rs 500-700 for 250g or one month’s supply for a family (about 100 cups) Popular flavours/brands: Makaibari, Summer Solstice Muscatel, Springtime Bloom, Silver Green, Silver Tips ImperialThe lockdown dried up the international tea business for three months. Even after countries started lifting the lockdown, there was trade disruption and logistical issues. The US and Europe saw multiple waves of coronavirus infections. This made several contemporary gourmet tea companies that otherwise solely relied on business from these geographies to look at the Indian market.This rise in demand got the attention of some tea entrepreneurs who started thinking outside the box and favoured going to customers directly. Some started subscription models. They even experimented with new flavours to retain the upswing in business. These efforts seem to have paid off, say some of these tea sellers. They claim that consumers drank more hot beverages during the pandemic and many people became far more health conscious.No data is yet available for this rise in sales. However, the positive outlook and expansion plans of these tea sellers indicate they have tasted some success recently.81367939Widespread awareness about building immunity and avoiding fatty, oily and sugary food worked in favour of healthier foods and beverages, says Teamonk’s cofounder Ashok Mittal. The Bengaluru-based tea seller says its gross revenue this year is likely to clock nearly 3x more than the Rs 2.90 crore it did in 2017-18. Mittal expects the company to earn about Rs 10 crore in 2020-21. Teamonk has raised $3 million year-to-date.When he established Teamonk in 2016, Mittal realised there was nothing great they could offer in the milk-and-sugar tea category to consumers. Bigwigs like the Tatas and Brooke Bond were too well entrenched in the black tea segment to get adventurous. Tea wasn’t considered a fashionable drink like coffee, which saw a boom around two decades ago as the cafe culture caught up in India. Brands like Cafe Coffee Day and Barista blazed a trail with their products and ambience. “Until some years ago, tea, especially, green tea, was just not fashionable in the Indian market. Younger people often discarded it as warm dishwater,” says Mittal.So the startup focused on the small yet growing segment of green tea drinkers. This category is growing at about 30% a year for Teamonk now. Mittal pegs that 60% of the global market is made up of speciality teas and it is about 17% in India. Contemporary gourmet tea brands like Vahdam Teas, renewed its focus on blends that used local favourite ingredients such as turmeric, ashwagandha and ginger during the pandemic. Vahdam’s founder Bala Sarda says the company is expecting to close at Rs 150 crore net revenue in 2020-21. Last year, it earned Rs 75 crore.81367904TeamonkEstablished: 2017, BengaluruFounders: Ashok Mittal, Amit Dutta, and Nalin Sood Price range: Speciality tea cost Rs 400-600 per 100 g Popular flavours/brands: Oolong Darjeeling, White Darjeeling, Jasmine Green, Cinnamon Green, Chamomile Green, Kashmiri Kahwa Green, Turmeric Green“We are not a tea brand. business and that is why our story fits in well during this time,” says Sarda.The business sources its teas from Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiris, Sikkim and a fraction from Nepal. For now, India makes up 20-25% of their total merchandise value sold. He sees it rising to nearly 50% in the coming years. The company has raised about $16 million to date.Vahdam intends to continue shipping its products around the world, largely selling directly to customers and mostly keeping away from brick-andmortar stores, except at airports. The company shot to fame when TV personalities Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres recommended and gifted the teas, says founder Sarda.Vahdam TeasEstablished: 2015, New Delhi Founder: Bala Sarda Price range: Starts at Rs 199 for tea bags (15 individually sealed pyramid tea bags), Rs 199 for loose leaf (per 100 g) and upwards Popular flavours/brands: Organic Turmeric, Green Tea81367919 Kolkata-based Luxmi hadn’t tried direct sales until the pandemic started. It has now gone online and is strategising to up its virtual game. The tea seller already has 200 subscribers. It also gets an average daily order from about 100 customers through ecommerce websites. Luxmi also gets orders from around the globe. The tea company that produces close to 25 million kg a year is renewing its focus on India.Chatterjee adds that the stock of good quality gourmet teas is running thin in India right now, which wasn’t the case earlier. Normal supply channels were broken. People were no longer going to the usual stores and were okay to buy from a tea estate directly. “People were drinking more tea and better tea during the pandemic. A lot of customers reached out directly to us. We are babies in terms of selling tea online, though. We have grown tea for a century but never went to the customer directly until now,” he adds.Even Siliguri-based Teabox started looking at widening its reach as soon as Covid hit. “We strictly focused on selling online. We didn’t anticipate that it would happen but our businesses grew both in India and the international market. The tailwinds were certainly in our favour,” says Kausshal Dugarr, founder and chief experience officer.TeaBox Established: 2012, Siliguri Founder: Kausshal Dugarr Price range: Rs 10,000-2 lakh a kg, depending on the variety Popular flavours/brands: Hibiscus Lemongrass Tisane, Margaret’s Hope Exotic Spring White, Castleton Exotic Summer Muscatel Black, Kolkata Street Masala Chai81367927 The company became cash flow positive and grew at 3.5x or 200% in 2020-21. Dugarr refused to disclose any figures. The company has raised $10.5 million year-to-date.Does Dugarr too think the pandemic fuelled the growth? Green tea was a default go-to drink around this time, he replies. “Many people were home the whole day so they possibly drank more tea and coffee. We didn’t think there was such a big market here. This category of high-end teas was always sold internationally. The overall tea packaging industry is roughly Rs 30,000 crore in India. This category is growing and there is enough space for everyone to grow,” he adds.Some other brands too decided to infuse spices and local flavours into their teas. Fernweh Agro, for example, pivoted towards making a variety of ayurveda healing teas. Another relatively new brand based in Kolkata also employed the strategy of using local ingredients while going online. Atulit Chokhani, who cofounded The Tea Shelf, says, “After the pandemic hit, we did what the community was looking for and made tea blends using immunity boosting ingredients. It ran decently well. We have had higher sales online than offline since then. We saw a decline in our corporate gifting segment by about 60% which can be attributed to budget constraints. But we have also seen an increase in personal gifting by 110%.” The Tea Shelf records a turnover of under Rs 1 crore a year. Chokhani, who started the company in 2016, says they tried to focus on single estate and gourmet teas but noticed that there was a far larger requirement for “healthier, more nutritional teas”.Even Mital from Teamonk is banking on a rising preference for healthier options like green tea, particularly among younger professionals who don’t mind spending a little extra. “Customer behaviour and attitude has shown a distinct change after Covid, in India and across the world. A spurt in demand for green and other speciality teas is a clear example of a shift happening in consumer preference.”Enough to make other beverage makers green with envy.