The Himalayan Tea Producers’ Co-operative discovered John Taylor, a man with first-hand knowledge of the tea industry and has never looked back.
There may be many who’ve never heard of John Taylor. But those in the tea industry know what this man has been quietly achieving, without bringing the spotlight on himself. There are times when a job requires a person with first-hand knowledge as well as the integrity to take the organization to a higher level. Rarely does an organization find the ideal person to lead, but Himalayan Tea Producers’ Co-operative (HIMCOOP) hit the Jackpot.
John has a decade long experience working in a tea plantation in Darjeeling which is world renowned as a tea growing area since the 1800s. Following that stint, he opened a shop selling tea in a tourist area in Kathmandu, gaining knowledge of how much demand there is for tea and the high prices it can fetch. Add to that his grasp of the English language and he was just the man HIMCOOP needed to deal with buyers in the west.
John is the Marketing Manager but runs a quiet organization single-handedly with just one assistant and outsourcing the rest of the work load. “The tea industry was once a government undertaking and no progress had been made since its inception. Ilam Tea Estate was established way back in 1863. When private investors stepped in, to their dismay they discovered there was no real market for Nepali tea outside the country. No effort had been made to explore the international market where most of the tea is sold,” John explains. The practice had been to sell mostly within the country and to a few buyers in India who then mixed it with Darjeeling tea which has a huge market in Europe and the US. For a long time, Nepali tea lived in the shadow of Darjeeling tea as the Darjeeling brand was the biggest in the world with even Buckingham Palace as a regular buyer. Nepal’s tea was denied a place in the auction houses of India where buyers from abroad bid for the best teas. The market for tea is massive, stretching from Russia right across Europe to America. “But Nepal’s tea didn’t have a brand and it was difficult to enter the international market without a brand,” says John. However, they took up the challenge.
John’s grand-father Jeffrey Taylor had a major share in Gopaldhura Tea Estate and served as Manager. His son George Taylor (John’s father) started as a tea planter in Gopaldhura
(tea plantation managers were known as planters during the British Raj in India) and moved to many plantations and was known to everyone as Taylor Saab. John grew up in the plantation, thus gaining a thorough understanding of the tea industry. After getting a college degree from St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he joined Balasun Tea Estate in Darjeeling (Kurseong District) as an Assistant Manager. After ten long years on the job, his knowledge of tea is invaluable.
Like many of his contemporaries, Taylor then decided to pack his bags and head for Kathmandu. With a background in tea, it was natural for John to start something where his knowledge would give him an advantage. In 1992, he invested in a small shop next to the steps leading into the Sanchaikosh Building in Thamel. Named ‘Ilam Tea House’, he not only sold the best teas here, but could also advise his customers on the various kinds of tea they could buy. Some of his biggest buyers then were Japanese tourists who took back packets of high quality tea as gifts for friends and family back home in Japan. He spent 15 years at Ilam Tea House.
“Nepal now has about 156 factories producing tea, out of which 32 are big ones. When the owners of the tea estates realized there was no real market where they could sell their tea, they formed HIMCOOP in 2003. It was initially aided by GIZ which opened the doors to the German market, the biggest buyers. This was followed by USAID which came up with the project NEAT (Nepal Economic Agriculture & Trade). Later the Danish government helped us with the UNNATI program. Since then the International Trade Centre (ITC) has been helping us and we’re still working closely with them,” informs John who joined HIMCOOP in 2009.
With contacts building up in the west, HIMCOOP started selling Nepali tea directly to foreign dealers who sell in numerous countries all over the world. “The old problem of Nepali tea not being able to approach the foreign market has been solved and Nepal has got recognition as tea origin,” says Taylor. With direct assistance from foreign governments, the doors opened up for Nepal’s long neglected tea industry. “We are now selling to buyers in Germany, France, Russia, Czech Republic, China, Taiwan and the U.S.,” reveals John.
HIMCOOP has now become the central figure for Nepal’s tea export. John personally makes a deal after consulting the tea producers and the buyers separately, and an order is placed usually in metric tons for the big buyers. Once the consignment arrives in Kathmandu from the tea factories, HIMCOOP’s forwarding agent takes care of sending the shipment forward either by air or by sea. There are large transactions being made, yet, if one visits John’s office, there are no signs of big deals being made and large movement of goods. Sitting in a simple office surrounded by small samples of tea from various tea companies, the appearance is deceiving, like there’s not much happening. The consignments from the factories go directly to the forwarding agent.
John explains: “Here’s how it works. We have regular buyers in the west to whom I send samples of the kind of tea they want. They brew the tea and taste it. When they’ve decided which tea they want, they either say how much they are willing to pay for it or ask for a quotation. Working as a middle-man between buyer and seller, I broker a deal and the amount is settled. Then an order is placed, which is forwarded to the person responsible for sending the tea. Once the shipment arrives, our forwarding agent does the rest.”
HIMCOOP also gets dealers visiting the office and actually doing the tea tasting in the office here in Kathmandu. These buyers often want to see for themselves what they are dealing with. Some visit the tea estates where they are buying their tea from. John has also reciprocated by visiting dealers in their home countries. “I’ve met buyers in Paris, Hamburg and even went up to the Czech Republic. They are all big buyers. I also attended a forum organized by ITC in Geneva, Switzerland,” says Taylor.
Germany is still the hub for dealers in the west according to John: “That’s where people from all over come to buy from the biggest dealers. These big business houses buy tea from around the world including Africa and South America and sell to the smaller dealers who have specific requirements. That’s how the international market works. One German buyer took 18 metric tons of Nepali tea but on an average they buy around 4 metric tons. We only sell orthodox and green tea. There’s a smaller demand for green tea. White tea which is made from a leaf and a bud sells for a minimum 30 Euros/kg., but it can fetch up to 45 Euros.”
The selling starts in April and goes on till the end of November. “We send samples out every week via skynet to at least twelve buyers,” he adds. Samples are sent out on a Friday and reach their destinations by Monday/Tuesday. The deal and the order are made in the following week. 50% of the all cargoes go by air and the rest is shipped via Kolkata. Himcoop has been selling tea from 14 tea plantations which they think maintain quality which is imperative for the international market. John has also been arranging trips for buyers to visit the plantations where they want to buy tea from. Incidentally, Julien Monnet has just arrived from Paris and is planning to visit many tea gardens.
Along with John, Julien tastes many samples from various tea estates laid out by the office assistant who has been with HIMCOOP for eighteen years. Taking time over each sample; he first smells the leaves, then moves on to taste the beautifully colored teas which vary from dark, brownish orange to lighter tones to pale yellow. Each has a different color and taste. After years of experience in tasting tea, John makes rough, slurping sounds while tasting which for tea tasters is the norm. Tea tasting is a specialized job for which tea tasters in India get paid a ton of money. “Which sample they like depends on personal preference,” informs John and Julien tells him which ones he likes. There are even a few experimental teas which a Nepali company is trying out but they don’t impress the Frenchman. His comments vary:
“I don’t understand this one; I don’t know what they are trying to do,” he says about a dark brown variety. He doesn’t like the experimental one either. “It’s not good,” he tells John as it’s a Chinese variety of tea which the producers have brought from China and the leaves are still green. He’s seen them in China but the Nepali producer hasn’t got the hang of it, according to him. But he likes others, and he’s still undecided which he wants to buy.
Tea tasting is done in small porcelain cups taking spoonfuls from a bigger cup set on the table. There are eight samples but John says the normal practice is to have about twenty at one go. “Our big table didn’t fit through the door of this new office when we moved,” says John with a smile.
They go through two rounds of tasting the various kinds of organic orthodox teas, which includes white tea (made from one leaf and a bud; the normal tea is from two leaves and a bud.) There are varieties of tea that have been fermented longer than others and look darker brown. There are some less fermented which are light greenish yellow. There is green tea as well and the lightest in color is the white tea which is least fermented. Each little cup holds 2 grams of tea. The tea has come from various plantations like Pathivara which is popular, Barbate, Himalayan Shangri-la which is famous, Guranse (famous in France and Germany), Arya Tara, La-Mandala, Mai-Tea, Green Hill, Panitar, Sakhejung and Koocu.
Julien is of the opinion that Taiwan makes the finest teas. “But they are very expensive. Their technology is far more advanced than the other tea producing countries,” informs Julien. John agrees, “They are way above the others in quality,” adds John. Among the buyers, the Germans are still the biggest, buying many metric tons of tea each year. “They are tough customers. They like to sample the same tea twice for consistency and may even put them through a lab test. They have strict rules on how packaging and labeling should be done and how they are shipped. They make a contract for each step and rules must not be breached,” says John.
It is one of the most interesting afternoons listening in on the conversation between a buyer and a seller. Of course, the buyer becomes a seller once he reaches home. The various colored teas set neatly on the table for tasting look inviting. Some of them are very fine tea. Having tasted about a dozen different teas, I’m highly impressed with the white tea.
Some other buyers have also visited Nepal and John has taken Nepali tea a long way from the time he started working for HIMCOOP. Years ago, when I visited his office, he had just begun making contacts in the west. Today he sends samples to twelve buyers every week. And that says a lot. Nepali tea has arrived in the world market!
Julien Monnet, a buyer from France
Coming all the way from Paris, Julien Monnet is a French buyer who met John in his hometown when the latter visited France to meet buyers like him. The day of his arrival in Kathmandu, he popped into HIMCOOP’s office to check on the tea samples. His introduction was the most interesting as his brand’s name is KANCHA. But when asked how he came up with the name, he reveals there is no connection to the Nepali word. “It’s a Chinese word; Kan meaning water and Cha is tea,” says Julien. “But, I’m also the youngest out of three brothers,” he adds deliberately, making John and I smile. Yes, it’s merely a coincidence.
It’s not a good day for Julien to do tea tasting as he’s still jet-lagged, but his schedule is tight. “I’m leaving for Ilam tomorrow as John has arranged for me to visit many tea estates in eleven days. It’s good to know the people involved in producing the tea and to get the taste at the source,” says Julien. “It’s not going to be all fun; some places you’ll have to visit by motorcycle and it will probably be mostly Daal-Bhaat for meals,” teases John. But Julien is so dedicated to learning everything about tea, he’s willing to undergo any hardship. He started KANCHA from scratch and wants to introduce French people to the best teas from around the world. It has only been three years since he started this venture but listening to him converse with John, it becomes obvious he has immersed himself in the tea business. He wants to know what kind of plant the tea estate has and they talk in code which is Greek to me.
Julien initially worked for a tea company called L’autre The, which dealt mostly in flavored tea which he doesn’t appreciate. He trained the staff and held workshops while working for the company. With his distaste for flavored tea, he left the company to open his own firm which would only deal in good, unflavored orthodox tea. “My goal is to promote the kind of tea I drink myself, which is quality tea. Tea culture is growing in France. The older generation didn’t like tea because they saw it as an English thing to do. But now with access to better quality tea, more and more French people are drinking it. Our job as tea sellers is to explain to the people which tea is better and where it comes from. People didn’t know much about tea but that is changing,” explains Julien.
KANCHA not only sells tea to tea shops around Paris, Julien also has his own outlets to sell directly to customers. Even though a new-comer to this business, he has already visited China, Taiwan and Japan. He buys from all these countries as well as Africa which he has yet to visit. “But when it comes to Himalayan tea, I prefer Nepali tea. That’s my first choice, which is why I am here,” says Julien. Before arriving from France, he had received samples from John and he already had some idea what he wanted. When the tasting is over, he tells John, “I will decide when I come back from the visit.” He then looks at me and says, “He’s the man. I’m here because of John. We met in Paris a week ago and here I am tasting tea in his office and then visiting all these tea plantations from tomorrow. Wouldn’t be possible without him! We are on the same wavelength; he understands how I think.”
- “But Nepal’s tea didn’t have a brand and it was difficult to enter the international market without a brand,”
- “We are now selling to buyers in Germany, France, Russia, Czech Republic, China, Taiwan and the U.S.,”