The term tea sommelier brings to mind images of a surly, moustachioed Chinese tea merchant, in a picturesque garden, imperiously imparting knowledge on all things tea-related. However, if you were to encounter tea sommelier Snigdha Manchanda, the stereotype would be instantly shattered. Charming, articulate and impeccably groomed, Manchanda, 29, from Mumbai and now based in Goa, wears her passion for tea on her sleeve. She set up her company Tea Trunk in October 2011 and has since then established herself as India’s premier gourmet tea sommelier. In a country where the practice of tea drinking rarely ever goes beyond the cup of chai, Manchanda, through her line of exquisite gourmet teas and workshops, is playing an important role in a tea revolution taking place in our country. What started off in 2011 as an innocuous fundraiser for an NGO is now a full-fledged tea-driven activity.
Manchanda’s passion for brews and infusions began early. “When I was little, I used to collect teas from around the world, which we received as presents. That’s where it all began,” she says. This former communications professional went on to acquire a formal certification from the Tea Sommelier Academy in Sri Lanka, where she studied under Japanese tea expert Nao Kumekawa. Rich with the experience, Manchanda returned to India hoping to share her expertise. She says, “Studying at the academy was a fantastic experience. From waking up at 5am, going down to the estate, plucking leaves, coming back to the factory and understanding every aspect of the production process, to finally drinking a cup of freshly brewed tea. I explored tea in all avatars. In India, people are often unaware that there are so many different kinds of tea—black, green, red, white and even blue, purple and yellow tea. It is very fascinating.”
In a country with a rich tea heritage and with so many offerings, how does she manage to carve a niche for herself? She responds, “I work closely with estates, especially in Darjeeling and Assam, to craft each blend. Being a sommelier, it is important for me to work on creating a blend from scratch. For example, the lemon green tea blend that I have created is specially designed for the Indian palate as it does not turn bitter even after two or three brews.” Manchanda prides herself on the fact that only natural ingredients go into each blend. She shares, “In India often even products labelled as natural, use a very small percentage of natural content. On the other hand, our teas are 100 per cent natural. In the case of lemon tea, I wanted to create something completely natural—without the artificial lemon essence that you find regularly in mass-produced lemon teas these days. We painstakingly worked with lemon peels, powder and lime leaves. We finally decided to add peels to the blend. This results in a delightfully flavourful cup. Similarly, for the rose oolong tea, I shortlisted 15 kinds of roses, whose petals would go into the blend—including the famous Gulkhand from Kashmir. I finally settled for a special variety of Kashmiri roses. For the vanilla black tea, there are actual vanilla pods added to each blend.”
On tea's health benefits, Manchanda agrees. “Benefits of green tea are immense. You could switch to a white tea, which has seven times more antioxidants than green tea. Similarly, oolong rose benefits the skin and digestive system. Have tea of the highest quality to enjoy the benefits.”
During the tasting session, the sommelier points out some incorrect practices. “Green tea should always be brewed in water which is at less than boiling point. As should the other more delicate blends. This prevents the leaves from getting damaged and brings out the flavours and textures. Darjeeling tea should never be consumed with milk. However, Assam teas take very well to milk. A cup of vanilla tea should be brewed for longer as pods take time to open up. A little sugar makes flavours more rounded.”
With plans to expand Tea Trunks offerings and an upcoming tea room in Mumbai called Tea Trail Manchanda is slowly but surely changing the way Indians consume and appreciate the ubiquitous cup.