Steeped in Goodness: Meet Thrive Market Organic Loose Leaf Teas

October 10, 2019
by Brittany Benz for Thrive Market
Steeped in Goodness: Meet Thrive Market Organic Loose Leaf Teas

Grab your favorite mug, because organic, loose leaf teas just hit our shelves! Thrive Market Organic Darjeeling Green and Organic Assam Black Teas hail all the way from India where they’re ethically sourced from local farmers. For the story behind these brews, we reached out to our supplier, Raj Vable, to get the inside scoop. Read on to learn more about how our partnership is positively impacting people and the planet.

Thrive Market Organic Loose Leaf Tea

What inspired you to get into the tea business?

Tea inspired me long before it was a profession. I clearly remember enjoying my first cup of white tea. It really woke me up to the drink’s potential. I was blown away by how present and alive I felt after drinking it.

That was in 2010, when I was splitting my time between working with rural communities in the Himalayas of Northern India and going to grad school in Oregon. The Himalayan communities were rapidly declining in population due to urban migration. My work was centered around creating sustainable livelihoods for the people of those villages.

Two years later, I got a Fulbright Fellowship to go back to India. My interest in tea had grown into a passion, and I wanted to use tea to bridge the two cultures I loved: Indian and American. So I proposed an idea to the leaders of a local nonprofit. I said that if they grew the tea, I would set up a company in the US to sell it. Together, we worked on a business model that would change the trajectories of these rural communities. Since then, I’ve been dedicated to unleashing tea’s full potential. It has become a catalyst for positive change in these vibrant mountain communities.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but we’ve made a lot of progress. Throughout the years, there’s one quote that has always stuck with me. It’s from one of my mentors in the tea industry, Bill Waddington of Tea Source. He said “It's just a leaf and water, nothing magical or mystical, yet wars have been fought over tea, fortunes have been won and lost over tea and lives have been dedicated to tea. I’m not sure why. All I know is I wouldn’t be in any other business.”

What do you love most about tea?

One of the things I love most about tea is the deeper you go, the more reverent the experts become. Tea is a drink that fills us with awe, and while many people have tried to explain why, the best explanations fall short. Yet, just like Bill said in his quote above, tea really is a simple drink. Sure, it has complexities and a wonderful story filled with all sorts of characters and historical drama, but it can also be something more simple and personal.

I guess a better way I can answer this question is by sharing how I study tea. First, I learn as much as I can in the field, from talking to farmers to observing the land. Next, I study the tea itself at the cupping table, where I use all five senses to distinguish the subtle nuances between lots of fresh tea.

Just like any passion, it takes discipline, routine, and (funny as it might sound) endurance. Cupping 20 teas in one stretch can become exhausting, but it’s unbelievably rewarding when you find the perfect cup. I live for those moments because they remind me that there’s still so much I can learn about tea.

Tell us about your sustainable sourcing practices. What types of agricultural techniques do you use?

The model we’re building encompasses a variety of social and environmental practices. Our teas are grown in small batches on mixed use agricultural land and native forests. This is in direct contrast to the estate model that dominates the Indian tea industry. In the estate model, entire mountainsides are mono-cultured with one tea. Over time, this depletes the soil of nutrients and leads to weak root structures, eventually triggering landslides. We support small-scale, organic tea cultivation, where plots of tea bushes are interspersed with other crops. As a result, the soil is healthier and the roots are stronger—so there are fewer landslides and the ecosystem supports more biodiversity.

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Our farmers also intentionally target abandoned land for tea cultivation. Urban migration has led to large tracts of vacant farmland that were once teeming with life. By using this land, we’re able to rejuvenate the soil and rebuild the ecosystem.

One of the most important parts of our business model is the farmer’s role in the supply chain. In the estate model, a large corporation owns and operates several estates, and on each estate there are thousands of farmers. The factories where the tea is processed is also owned by the corporation. So they end up dominating every aspect of the supply chain—from the farm to the finished product—with little regard for the farmers, their communities, or the environment.

The small farm model we’re building inverts the corporate ownership structure and empowers rural communities. Our farmers own the land and the community owns the factory. The last part is the most transformative piece. Without local ownership, the farmer only owns a harvest, which has no commercial value. However, with a factory the farmer can trade directly with international buyers.

Our role in building this model is two-fold. First, we support the professional development of these farmers by connecting them to resources, experts, and capital. Second, we provide market access so the farmers have a guaranteed buyer. We believe this form of cross-cultural partnership is vital to creating thriving rural economies.

How does your program help the farmers and local communities?

Our work impacts mountain communities in several ways. We bring legendary British tea scientists to India to mentor local farmers. This bridges the cultural gap and is one of the most rewarding aspects of our work.

We also host onsite trainings, where we connect aspiring tea farmers to the resources they need to improve the quality of their tea. For example, we organized and sponsored a local farmer to have his first visit to a high-end tea factory. Here, he was introduced to highly efficient Chinese and Japanese processing equipment for the first time in 20 years of working with tea.

In addition, our farmers are paid a fair wage. In the estate model, much of the profit goes to the middlemen, whereas with our direct trade model, we’re able to pay our farmers five to ten times the industry average.

Lastly, we provide farmers with market access. Because we are in the U.S., we’re able to connect rural farmers to American businesses, like Thrive Market. Our partnership is revolutionizing rural farmers’ lives.

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What do you wish everyone knew about loose leaf teas?

That you can—and should—re-steep the same leaves multiple times! Loose leaf teas are made of whole leaves, so they slowly release their compounds over multiple infusions. In comparison, tea bags contain shredded tea leaves, which creates more surface area. When the hot water hits the tea bag, everything in the leaf rushes into the water. So it’s not as potent on a second steep. When you steep loose leaf teas, the infusion is more stable, so the complexities in the leaf are revealed over time. In summary, when you buy loose leaf tea, you’re getting a tea that keeps on giving.

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We’ve heard a lot about “tea cupping.” Can you tell us your process in determining the final flavor?

Tea cupping is the formal evaluation process used to compare teas. The concept of cupping is to make a stronger infusion that allows you to taste everything in the leaf (the strengths and imperfections.) The tea master’s skill is in being able to taste past the strong, bitter notes, and to discover the other flavors that are present.

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What is the best way to prepare each tea?

Everyone is different, so the best way is however you like it. I generally like to use more leaves with a shorter steep than most people. For the Thrive Market Organic Assam Black, I steep it for four minutes in water that has just been boiled. Thrive Market Organic Darjeeling Green is a pretty hardy green; so you don’t have to worry about over-steeping it. I steep it for about three minutes at ~170°F; which is reached just as the water starts to rumble, but well below a full boil. Three minutes is a long time for many green teas, but in this case it works just fine.

In terms of flavor profile, how would you describe the Assam Black and Darjeeling Green teas?

Thrive Market Organic Assam Black is a classic black tea. Strong, robust, and malty with enough body to support a dash of milk and sweetener. This is the tea traditionally used to make Chai, Earl Grey, and English Breakfast.

Thrive Market Organic Darjeeling Green is light, floral, and reliable. It’s an easy-drinking green tea that’s hard to over-steep. I think it’s the perfect introduction to the world of specialty tea. Expert advice: Be sure to re-steep this one!

What has been the most rewarding part about partnering with Thrive Market?

For us, there are two things: The people and the opportunity for impact. Everyone at Thrive Market HQ has been really wonderful to work with. Fairly early on, Jenna Engleman, the Director of Thrive Market Goods, came up to Oregon to meet our team. I believe Thrive Market really cares about forming genuine partnerships, and that has shown through in every step of the development of these teas.

We know that working with companies like Thrive Market is absolutely essential to driving change for the people of the rural mountain communities we serve. So to all the Thrive Market members who are making this possible, cheers to you!

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This article is related to: Green Tea, Organic, Sustainable Agriculture, Tea Drinks, Drinking Tea

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