What’s the story behind Alaya Tea?
Alaya Tea came together in 2019. As two Indian-American women who grew up in households where tea-drinking was a daily ritual, we wanted to use our backgrounds working in the climate change and social impact spaces to create a more eco-friendly option for tea drinkers. Unlike much of the tea industry (which relies on auction houses and traders), we source our teas and herbals directly from farmers and tea estates. This way, Indian farmers can get a higher price for their crops, reinvesting those funds into their farming practices and their workers. Our shorter supply chain also allows our customers to get the freshest product, not tea that has been sitting in a warehouse for months or even years. All of this is packaged in compostable packaging and served loose-leaf. No tea bags - and no plastic!
Tell us more about your commitment to small farmers and the regenerative movement, and why it's important to your business' values.
Over the last several years, we’ve had the privilege of working with pioneering Indian farmers at the base of the Himalayas who are mitigating climate change through their farming practices. We also work with Fair Trade (or Fair For Life) farms for all of our teas and herbals: this means they provide a variety of social services to the workers who harvest the tea, including educational support, access to healthcare, training for better agricultural practices, and more. These projects are determined by the producers so the funding can be used as per the need.
Plus, the estates we work with are not only about the health of their workers, but the health of the planet as well. They are certified organic, biodynamic, and some even regenerative organic, which is a newer certification emerging as one of the highest standards in the world for environmental and social impact. They're rebuilding soils, tackling climate change in their regions, planting trees to protect from landslides and runoff (especially important in hilly areas such as Darjeeling), making their own organic fertilizers using bio waste and local materials, using mulch and covering the soil, and just leaving areas for forestry amidst the tea gardens. Alaya was built to invest in these farmers, and we’re excited to support long-term impact around regenerative agriculture. There has been a lot of short-term buzz and excitement around the word ‘regenerative’; the data still needs to be shown about how impactful it truly is over the course of time. And we plan on supporting the farms and estates we work with to better understand the impacts of their hard work.
Can you tell us more about the daily ritual of drinking chai?
We both grew up in first-generation South Asian households (Esha was born in Delhi and immigrated to the U.S. as a kid, and Smita’s parents are Indian and Pakistani). Between us and our families, we’ve sipped dozens of varieties of masala chai. The most common includes a simple combination of crushed black tea, fresh ginger, crushed cardamom, milk and a bit of sugar, brewed in a big pot and strained into cups.
But there’s so much more to tea in India than just one type of chai. Regions of India have their different tea-drinking cultures and tea-growing areas produce teas that have their unique flavors, like the Nilgiri mountains in the south, or Assam in the northeast. Darjeeling is the so-called “Champagne of teas” because the teas are grown at high altitudes and handled by hand entirely. They have a lighter, more delicate and floral flavor, and are usually drunk alone, without milk or sugar. We are excited about highlighting all of these.
Has anything surprised you about your journey/success?
Daily! We could have never imagined that 6 months after starting our business, a pandemic would have started. Over the last three years, we’ve seen an increase in tea drinking, as more Americans looked to personal wellness and creating space for downtime during the pandemic. As most people know, COVID rocked supply chains, causing huge disruptions in the cost and speed of our shipments from India and we had to adapt to these changes (and still are) as a small business.
The other challenge we’ve experienced is offering an eco-friendly bag that is price competitive for a small business like ours. One of our distinguishing factors as a tea company is that we’ve been committed to some ambitious environmental goals from day one. We came across many challenges: materials that didn’t hold up well in the mail, high minimum quantities that aren’t feasible for a small business, and middle-of-the-road solutions that didn’t promise 100% compostability. We spent over a year researching compostable packaging options before we landed where we are, and we’re constantly on the lookout for even better options. However, we’re seeing the packaging industry changing real-time around us, and we’re thrilled to see consumers’ increased interest in eco-friendly packaging.
What’s next on the horizon for Alaya Tea or what do you hope to do next?
We’re keen to continue expanding America’s excitement around drinking high-quality, loose leaf tea. We know America has an obsession with craft coffee, but we still have a ways to go with tea! We also are looking forward to giving tea-drinkers a more fresh, eco-friendly and affordable option for high-quality tea.
We’ve also brought new items to our shop this past year that speak to our values, including a 100% organic cotton tote bag with our friends (and fellow Southern California company) Gallant International who are pioneering the way in regenerative organic cotton in India, and a set of new, cozy ceramic cups made on a permaculture farm in south India. And, we have a new tea variety launching this year – stay on the lookout for this!
Tell us one thing on your mind right now, either environmentally, socially, etc
We have thought a lot about what building an eco-friendly business means to both of us. One huge priority right now is accessibility – we want to make our teas as accessible to as many people as possible. We believe shifting our economy to one that is truly more planet-friendly will mean making these food options available to a broader set of folks than historically has been the case. We pack our bags full of tea, cutting out a lot of packaging fluff, because we don’t want to create waste -- and that means you’re getting organic, biodynamic tea at relatively affordable prices. All of our teas are on average ~ .50 per cup or less (plus you can resteep the leaves because they’re strong, full leaves!).