Family-grown tea company Dilmah continues to flourish

Eloquent yet soft-spoken, Merrill J. Fernando's heart lies with a beverage and industry he has been in for 65 years.

The Sri Lankan founder of Dilmah tea continues to elevate tea-drinking to a different level together with his sons Dilhan and Malik, after whom the brand was named.

Known for pioneering single origin teas picked and freshly packed at source from their estates in Sri Lanka, family-owned Dilmah was first established in 1988.

Merrill's passion and philosophy is in providing good quality tea - estates, factories and processing facilities are all located in Sri Lanka - while ensuring that tea growers' welfare is maintained.

"There are so many countries that produce tea but they all supply tea in bulk as raw material. Tea producers and growers make no money because the global tea supply trade is controlled by a few key players," says Merrill, 85, over an interview at the company's t-Lounge outlet in Putrajaya, the first in Malaysia and South-East Asia.

"Tea has become an ordinary commodity; that is why (suppliers) can sell it very cheap. We are selling pure Ceylon tea and encourage people to drink our tea because it's natural, healthy and has antioxidants," adds Merrill, who was recently in Kuala Lumpur to speak at the 2015 NHRC (National Human Resource Centre) Malaysia SME Congress.

Is quality tea affordable for the average consumer?

"The price is affordable for people who value their health. People want to save every cent when it comes to food and drinks but they are willing to spend a lot on clothes and so on.

"But people must care for what goes inside their bodies more than what's outside," he says, adding that the difference between commodity tea and Dilmah tea is $0.01 a cup.

The brand's range of teas include traditional Speciality Gourmet and Premium Tea, Herbal Infusions, Spiced Chais, boutique Watte and t-Series selections, and the latest Dilmah 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee Gourmet range.

Besides single origin teas, the brand also offers single region teas (from premier tea growing regions in Sri Lanka) and single estate teas (from selected tea gardens in Sri Lanka).

Dilmah is also run as a business with a heart.

By marketing tea directly to consumer markets, the company ensures that the earnings remain in Sri Lanka and shared among workers and the community.

Ten per cent of earnings before tax from all Dilmah companies go to the MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation, which help underprivileged people and promote sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

"Our purpose in life is that tea farmers earn a decent living by getting a better price for tea. If all producing countries do the same thing, all the wealth that is removed from producing countries will remain within," asserts Merrill.

In May, Merrill was named one of the 2015 Oslo Business for Peace Honourees by an Award Committee of Nobel Laureates in Peace and Economics.

Every year, the Business for Peace Foundation selects honourees for the Oslo Business for Peace Award "in recognition of business persons who, through their own actions and commitments truly are business worthy, promoting socially responsible and ethical business practices in an outstanding way." Bringing back tea in High Tea

This year also marks the inaugural Global Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge held in Sri Lanka early this month.

The challenge - an idea of Merrill's younger son Dilhan - was first held in 2007 in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, it was held at the national level in different countries around the world.

The objective of the challenge is to recreate an "Afternoon Tea for the 21st century, putting the tea back in High Tea". It also aims to educate and motivate hospitality professionals to offer guests a new tea experience.

Participated by 21 teams of top chefs from 14 countries, this year's challenge was won by Team Museum Art Hotel from New Zealand.

"The idea of the (Real High Tea Challenge) is to reinterpret the concept of high-tea. For the longest time, when we talk about high-tea in hotels, it's not about the tea. You have the cakes and scones, and so on, and then there is some tea," says Malik Fernando, older son of Merrill, who was also at the interview.

"Tea has to be given its foremost place, where you present the tea with food that matches, and actually use tea to make some of the food. So it's really a combination of food and drink that places tea in its prominent and correct position," explains Malik.

When asked about coffee and tea drinking trends, Merrill said tea was making a comeback.

"Many countries which are heavy coffee consumers are slowly coming back to tea. Tea sales globally are going up and in many countries, coffee sales are coming down because people are realising the natural goodness in tea," says Merrill, whose favourite variety is Ceylon Supreme.

"Coffee has three times more caffeine than tea. In tea, the polyphenol anti-oxidant also helps neutralise the effects of caffeine in tea," shares Merrill, who is the head taster of the company.

He adds that Malaysia is very conscious of tea-drinking but people are not educated enough about the goodness of tea.

The younger generation, however, is taking more to tea now, he observes, because of the health benefits.

Dilmah Tea launched its signature t-Lounge, located in IOI City Mall, Putrajaya in Malaysia on March 5.

The outlet serves a variety of teas in the form of teh tarik, chilled teas, sparkling or mocktail concoctions. Casual, light bites are also available, some of which are prepared with tea as an ingredient or paired with specific teas.

The t-Lounge, in collaboration with the Dilmah School of Tea, also hosts dedicated tea education and tasting events.

Currently, there are a total of 11 t-Lounges around the world in Kuwait, China, India, Sri Lanka, Poland and Malaysia.