Tea is like a beautiful woman

Mr Nirmal Kumar Sethia, owner of premium tea brand Newby Teas, has come full circle since his days of being a tea taster from the age of 14.

Calling tea his "first love", the Calcutta- born 72-year-old bought over the British tea brand in 2004, after it was declared bankrupt by its previous owners.

Besides running the tea company, London-based Mr Sethia is chairman of the N. Sethia Group, which runs various businesses such as security printing, banking and real-estate investment.

In addition, he runs the N. Sethia Foundation, a British charity that is involved in educational institutions in the United Kingdom. Newby Teas is partially owned by the foundation.

He was in town recently for the launch of Newby Teas' South-east Asian office in Singapore. The teas are supplied to restaurants such as Nara Thai at Ion Orchard, Truffle Gourmet in Club Street, Tippling Club in Tanjong Pagar Road and, soon, Labyrinth, a restaurant opening in Neil Road this month.

The teas are currently unavailable for retail here.

The straight-talking Mr Sethia speaks out strongly against other tea companies, which he declines to name, that dabble in what he considers to be "false marketing": "Newby Teas started eight years ago, not 800 years back. Other companies have been around for only five years, but they say they have been established 100 years ago. But does it really matter how old?

"Some sell cheap teas because the appearance of the tea is not visible in tea bags. If the natural taste or smell are missing, other flavours are added to it."

Yet the fault does not lie completely with the companies, he admits.

"Consumers are happy to accept whatever they are offered when it's packed beautifully. So when the masses are willing to buy it, why shouldn't the companies sell it?"

His critique of the current tea market stems from his teenage years working as a tea taster in London, where many of his family members are based. His family, which used to run jute fibre businesses, have owned tea plantations for three generations.

By age 16, Mr Sethia bought his own tea plantation in Assam, India, for US$8,000 (S$10,200) - which he earned from selling tea to Irish tea importers - to learn about tea production. About two years later, he ventured into managing other tea estates in India, including those owned by his family.

But in 1965, the father of three "lost touch" with tea as he moved into other aspects of the family businesses.

Tea was just a "hobby" until his late wife Chitra, who died three years ago, encouraged him to take over Newby Teas when it folded in 2000.

His daughter, 41, helps to run the charities, while his older son, 40, is joining him in Newby Teas. His younger son, 27, is entering the family business soon.

To ensure tea production in optimal conditions, Mr Sethia set up Newby Teas' preservation and packaging facility in Calcutta in 2005, where humidity and temperature are controlled all year long.

The tea is also packed individually in aluminium foil pouches to minimise exposure to moisture.

With more than 250 artisan teas and tea ware available, the brand has an international presence in Russia, the Middle East, Ukraine and Stockholm. It has won many awards in various tea competitions in the UK and North America, and is supplied to many dignitaries around the world. All this was achieved after Mr Sethia took over.

The setting up of an office in Singapore signals its expansion into South-east Asia, with new markets such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in the pipeline.

While the company produces 600,000kg of tea a year, Mr Sethia is geared up to meet "an explosion" in demand and gamely challenges anyone to question the integrity of his brand.

The tea history buff, who drinks up to nine cups of tea a day and counts KanJunga, a Himalayan black tea, as his favourite, says passionately: "We want to go global and let connoisseurs of tea commit to knowing the truth about tea. Tea is not just a hot drink, but an art and culture that is connected with Mother Nature and the philosophy of life."

With a huge private collection of more than 1,000 tea artefacts, he does not rule out opening a tea museum one day.

He is also considering introducing tea lounges internationally for consumers to learn more about his favourite beverage - but not "glorified restaurants trying to sell tea".

Waxing lyrical, he adds: "Tea is like a beautiful woman not only recognised for her appearance, but also valued for her character. Similarly, tea is valued for its character. It should be given due dignity."

For more information on Newby Teas, go to www.newbyteas.com

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