Somehow, a beverage of some sort has been associated with events that shaped the destiny of Sumon Majumder, the man some credit with having created the Darjeeling variety of oolong tea.
In a way, it also shaped the path taken by Namring tea estate – Darjeeling’s largest by area and production, and run by the company Majumder works for – over the past few years.
General Manager of marketing and exports at HMP Poddar Group, which owns Namring, Majumder could well nigh have ended up selling the popular Blue Riband gin instead of tea, if certain negotiations had not fallen through.
It is a piece of history that he raises a toast to today.
It was 1987 and Majumder, fresh out of college and peddling Prima typewriters, was hanging out that fateful day at the HMP office in Kolkata’s main business district, where his father worked as the principal tea taster.
But it was neither alcohol nor tea but yet another genre of beverage that had drawn him to his father’s office in the first place.
“I would go there to have Campa,” says Majumder, referring to the cola drink popular in India at a time when Coca Cola was yet to begin its second innings in the country – after having folded up Indian operations in 1977 – and Pepsi was but a name to the Indian consumer.
It was during such a “Campa trip” that the group’s executive vice-chairman Manoj Poddar saw the young man, asked him what he “had been up to of late”, and in Majumder’s words, “scoffed” at his job description.
“He said I was wasting my time selling typewriters, and told me to join his company,” Majumder says. “The Poddars were thinking of acquiring Carew Phipson and entering the liquor sector, and I was in Mr Manoj Poddar’s sights for that business.”
Majumder had seen liquor baron Vijay Mallya, who had then owned Carew Phipson that makes the Blue Riband gin, walking the HMP corridors on an earlier occasion. “That sealed it. I was excited and decided to join HMP.”
As the negotiations over Carew Phipson were still on, Majumder joined HMP’s tea division as a junior marketing executive, waiting for the deal to be sewn up so he could take up his new responsibilities.
In the event, the talks failed and Majumder was tied to the tea industry ever since.
For the next seven years, Majumder went about learning the ropes in the tea business that included mastering the finer nuances of tea sampling from his father. Alongside, his exposure to marketing in India and abroad continued.
In 1991, he was invited by a business school in Germany to deliver a lecture on the tea business. Here, while he readily answered questions on marketing aspects, he realised he fumbled when quizzed on garden-related issues.
“I answered as best as I could,” Majumder reminisces. “But that day I realised there was a lot I did not know and resolved to learn everything about tea-making.”
It was then he started badgering his senior in the company, the late BC Tiwari – to whom Majumder says he owes everything he knows about the tea business – to let him visit the gardens and learn the trade literally from the grassroots.
It was at Namring that he began experimenting with Formosa oolong in a bid to develop a “Darjeeling variety”. Helping him was mentor Tiwari and friend Karel Theima of Rotterdam Tea Trade, a Dutch brokerage house.
They succeeded in making something similar to Taiwan oolong, and called it “Darjeeling Oolong”. Majumder says he was personally not happy with his first experiment but the tea was sold to Haelssen and Lyon of Hamburg, Germany.
“It was the first time Namring had made and sold oolong,” he says. “I have always tried to thin k out of the box…even now I try and do that.”
In 1994, armed with a better understanding of the tea trade, Majumder joined the rival Darjeeling Consolidated, which then owned the renowned Singbulli Gardens and Balasun gardens before selling these off in the early to mid-noughties.
Majumder’s job profile remained unchanged: tea marketing and quality control. Needless to say, he introduced the Darjeeling Oolong at Singbulli and Balasun for the export market.
It was also here that he started looking beyond Indian shores in earnest, and began new associations in European markets such as France, Italy and Germany, and across the Atlantic in the Americas.
“This helped me a lot when I rejoined HMP,” he says. “I still have my old contacts in the tea trade that I made years ago abroad.”
In 2009, Majumder was asked by his previous employers to return; the HMP group had undergone a division between the holding family, and the branch that retained Namring – represented by Manoj Poddar – wanted a leg-up from him.
Tiwari, who too had left the group but was working as consultant to it, rejoined formally as its CEO. The two paired up once again for a new beginning, till the former passed away about two years ago in Namring, the garden he loved so dearly.
The owners too had undergone a slight change; the senior Poddars had handed over the mantle to the next generation, and at the helm was Manoj Poddar’s nephew Prateek Poddar, the current head of the group’s tea division.
A new team was in place – Prateek Poddar, BC Tiwari and Majumder. Today, it is just Poddar junior and Majumder, who says they “get along famously”.
“He has taken a huge load off me; he looks after the smallest of details at the garden level, even mundane stuff like a malfunctioning fan… so that I can concentrate on marketing.”
Majumder and Prateek Poddar pay regular trips to Namring, the most recent being this May when a team from Harrods of London wanted to inspect the tea it wanted; the duo was there to offer first-hand tips.
Majumder says the quality of tea manufactured had suffered for a few years before the new leadership had taken charge, and though still among the best in Darjeeling, Namring still had to make a comeback of sorts.
“We needed to show the clients the cleanliness standards, the hygiene maintained in our process,” Majumder says. As he says, it was time for another of his out-of-the-box moves.
So he hauled a movie camera and a laptop to the hills, filmed the entire process of tea-making, made a short video presentation and sent it to Haelssen and Lyon.
“We gave them a ‘live’ show…they were so impressed with the process and freshness that they immediately ordered a thousand kilos of Namring white…soon it became 1,500 kilos”.
Darjeeling’s first flush, the most in demand, he says is known for “discipline” and is the freshest if harvested by Easter.
What helps Namring is its location, the warm breeze from the plains hit the garden’s slopes earlier than many plantations in the hills in the February-March period, helping “bud-breaking” that much quicker for the first flush.
Exploiting this, HMP steals a march over competition by sending garden-fresh samples by flight to get forward contracts, while bigger consignments are despatched from the hills to Kolkata for airlift even before the invoices arrive. “The teas were so fresh we knew we would get the orders,” Majumder says.
This is also how HMP met the flug tee concept of the Hamburg company, he adds, referring to the German terminology for fresh tea flown in to retain freshness.
A new thrust is now on green tea, the manufacturing process of which involves steaming the leaf and not fermenting and requires only a light rolling. “Namring’s green tea is one of the finest, and we want to increase its production.”
Marketing initiatives have taken Prateek Poddar and Majumder to the East as well, and HMP now plans to participate at a tea fair in Xiamen in China this October.
“The business has changed from my father’s time,” says Majumder. “There are many international rules and regulations to keep in mind, many labour practices, environmental issues. If we don’t follow these, we can’t sell abroad.”
It seems the new team at Namring is doing just fine.
Featured photograph of Sumon Majumder (R) with Namring’s Prateek Poddar (in the foreground), by Uday Bhattacharya.