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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Tea Sommelier Snigdha Manchanda Brews For Us A Warm Cuppa Of Her ‘Tea Trunk’ Memories

  • IWB Post
  •  June 29, 2019

My fondness for tea had just begun brewing when I came across Tea Trunk’s cute little trunks one day. Excited, I scrolled through their online catalogue, and I still haven’t figured whether it was their mascot that stole my heart, or the carefully curated tea menu.

Fast forward to the no-longer-a-random day when I got the idea of writing for an interview to Snigdha, the tea lover, sommelier, and brain behind my now-favourite brand. And voila, in no time we were on phone talking about her love for tea, the vintage tea collection she has, and about how life helped her brew her own tea company, Tea Trunk!

It was when she took a sabbatical from her eight-year-long brand strategist career that Snigdha’s deep-sown love and desire to learn more about the world of tea, took her from Mumbai to Sri Lanka’s professional Tea School.

“At the Tea School, I learned about the herbs and spices that complement tea, and the nuances of tea blending. The course focused on tea as a lifestyle product and not simply a commodity, and that’s where the idea of venturing into the Indian tea industry as a Tea Sommelier, and not marketer, struck me,” Shared Snigdha.

‘Sip in’ our conversation while Tea Trunk’s cute baby elephants prepare a hot cuppa for you:

Tea Trunk

I read that you have a vintage trunk in which you have been storing teas from childhood? Tell me more about it, and may I sneak a quick look into it, too?

Sure you can, and I still “trunk” my teas. It was my father who introduced me to the world of teas, I’d say. It started with him gifting me a packet of green tea, and I didn’t even realize when that took the face of a custom that all my friends and family started bringing me tea as souvenirs from whichever country they visited. There was a time when I owned over 100 rare and exotic teas, she exclaimed. China, Japan, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, I had teas stored from all these countries in my trunk.

Whoa! And which is the most unusual tea in your collection?

Uhmm, they were all exotic varieties. For instance, the ‘Cactus Tea’ from South Africa was rather unusual. A friend visiting from Sweden had brought it for me, and it’s still very much a part of the collection. Made from sun-dried Cactus, it shares notes with Aloe Vera, and though it has lost its flavour over the years, there are still days when I’d brew it for memory sake.

Tea Trunk

Speaking of exotic variety and memories of tea, do you also have some “local” cutting chai memories preserved in your trunk?

Oh yes, of course. Back in time, I used to host a ‘Chai Walk’ in Bombay, to guide tea lovers to the few iconic tea places of the city. And if one stop was Taj Hotel, there was also Ashok Tea Stall on that list. A popular “tea spot” opposite the Bombay Stock Exchange building, it still runs out of a small cupboard. (Yes!) He keeps tealeaves, sugar, ginger, mint, and the few other necessities, neatly stacked on the shelves, and makes some amazing masala chai. Tea Trunk’s ‘chilli chai’ flavour is inspired from his cutting special chai.

Tea Trunk

Ah, I’ve had the pleasure of tasting his cutting special! So who’s your favourite tea-person, Snigdha?

Hmmm, tea-person, she repeated. I think it has to be my Japanese Tea Master, Nao Kumekawa, from the Tea School I studied in in Sri Lanka. I learned a lot about tea from him. 

Tea Trunk

Oh, that’s nice. And on that note, you ought to settle my curiosity regarding ‘Tea Schools’. What are you taught there?

In India, most programs are designed from an agricultural perspective, but there exists another side to it also, which is about the place tea holds in the hospitality sector. And that is the area I gained insight on. I learned about the kind of herbs and spices that go with tea, and the nuances of tea blending.The course I did was a vocational program that focused on tea as a lifestyle product and not simply a commodity.

So what would be the biggest lesson that you learned from your Tea Master?

Our master used to often say, “when tasting tea, allow your taste buds to guide you, and not your head. It is isn’t supposed to be a task, but an experience.” 

Tea Trunk

Aha, the art of tea tasting. Educate me about it, would you? 

Interestingly, tea and wine tasting is quite similar, they share the same vocabulary, and their tasting notes are also same. But I couldn’t agree with him more, tea tasting ought to be associated with experiential learning, and not intellectual mood and terms. I always encourage people to draw a connection between the aroma and their memories and personal stories, and I love when people tell me that a particular flavour reminded them of their aunt’s kitchen or their grandma’s spice-box. 

That sounds warm and cozy, so I think I got a taste of what you mean. But tell me, have you ever gotten “tea drunk”?

Oh, many times. While studying at the tea school, we often had to taste more than hundred varieties of teas in one day; from one end to another, the entire table used to be lined up with teacups. And after having consumed that high an amount of caffeine, you ought to feel dizzy. A tea tasting session can be extremely overwhelming, she laughed. I always advise that at once, not more than four tea flavours should be tasted.

Tea Trunk

That’s one important piece of information for tea lovers. Which is the biggest change that happened for you over tea?

Definitely the decision to start Tea Trunk, she stated in an excited tone. I don’t come from a ‘tea’ business family; I had no trajectory to follow. It was when I was on a sabbatical that I decided to explore my love for tea a bit deeper, and that’s how I landed at the Tea School. The idea of venturing into the Indian tea industry as a Tea Sommelier and not marketer struck me there, and I decided to give it a go when I returned. 

And that’s how ‘Tea Trunk’ got brewed, amazing! A tea-date that your can never forget?

October 16, Tea Trunk’s anniversary date, she laughed, having played smart. Well, I’ve never really been on dates over tea, speaking of which, people have always been meeting “over coffee”, it is only in the last few years that tea-dedicated places have gained popularity. I have grown up in Bombay, and there were a few favourite tea spots of mine, Tea Centre and Taj Palace Hotel being the favourite two. It was at Tea Centre that I first tried ‘Single Origin Tea’ and tea flavours like Hot Butter Apple, Banana Caramel, etc.

Tea Trunk

You had me at ‘Hot Butter Apple Tea’. Share a few more unusual things that complement tea? 

Chocolates go really well with tea, and while working on the Tea Trunk flavours, we brewed some unique tea-chocolate pairings. For instance, white and milk chocolate beautifully complements Darjeeling Tea, and even coffee chocolates can be paired with teas. Also, since tea and wine share similarities, and wines have forever been paired with cheese, we tried pairing cheddar cheese with the pure Darjeeling tea, and it was heavenly.

I once read that through Tea Trunk you wish to ‘demystify tea speak’. Decode it for me, would you? (Curious laughter) 

Tea-experience of Indians has always been at the extremes, its mention either takes you to high society’s snobbery-driven high tea ambience, or to the roadside cutting-chai places. Though in between exists a whole generation of young tea lovers who were yet to be greeted with an appropriate ‘tea culture’, and that niche is what Tea Trunk aimed to tap and acknowledge. We’re always working on what new we can offer them to enhance their tea experiences!

Tea Trunk

I see. So, what tea etiquette does the young Tea Sommelier of India wants to encourage?

No, in fact, I want to discourage all tea etiquette, she laughed. I want to remove all the snobbery and formality that exists around tea. Tea is a social fuel in India, for some people their day starts with tea, for some it is a conversation starter; a lot can happen “over tea”. And I want Indians to personalise their tea experiences, and forget all the etiquette. 

Ha-ha. Chalk a quick tea-travel guide for Indian tea enthusiasts, too? 

You could start closer to home, Darjeeling. Darjeeling tea is celebrated by the world over as the Champagne of Tea, and so it has to be the first stop. Next could be China, and Japan, teas of both of these countries are quite famous. China also happens to be the home of tea, where tea was first discovered, so one can get to learn from there. 

Tea Trunk

Brilliant. And now the last sip, your trunk, of which you let me take a good look as our tea brewed; what else does it hide beneath the tea boxes? (ahem)

Oh, it has been filled with teas from corner to corner, she laughed. But to answer your question, I’m a huge fan of Ruskin Bond, and have a collection of over 150 books of his. I’d met him 10 years ago, but by the stroke of luck, I got to meet him again, recently. The Dainik Bhaskar group asked Tea Trunk to craft a special tea for him, and it was a dream come true. I customised an all-new blend for him, an ode to his love for mountains. It was a wonderful experience!

Thanks a trunk for this lovely conversation, Snigdha!

Tea Trunk

This article was first published on December 15, 2017.

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