The tea industry boss in love with the drink

By Johny Cassidy
Business reporter, BBC News

Nirmal SethiaImage source, Ed Miller
Image caption,
Nirmal Sethia has been selling tea for more than 50 years

"Tea is like a beautiful woman," says Nirmal Sethia.

"You look for the deep characteristics. There's no need to concentrate on the appearance."

For someone who has worked in the tea industry for more than 50 years, Anglo-Indian businessman Nirmal Sethia has lost none of his passion for the drink.

Now in his 70s, he also still takes tea very seriously. "Tea is life," he says. "Tea is religion, tea is music."

The co-founder and boss of upmarket brand Newby Teas, Mr Sethia's relationship with tea started in London after the end of World War Two.

However, Mr Sethia, the son of a successful third-generation Indian businessman, initially just wanted to have fun in life.

Looking back on his teenage years, he says: "I was a rebel.

"I used to see all the boys smoking in London and wanted some of that. Smoking, and drinking, and girls looked exciting to me, even at 13."

It was then that he told his father that he didn't want to go to school any more.

"I knew that route wasn't for me. I didn't want to do exams, and wanted something more exciting."

Image source, NK Sethia
Image caption,
The teenage Nirmal Sethia initially had other interests

A chance encounter one day with someone who worked in a tea supplier led to Mr Sethia becoming an apprentice tea taster for one of the biggest tea merchants in London, something he believes was the hand of God guiding him.

"It was my first lucky break," he says. "Divine intervention I suppose.

"Someone I knew saw me smoking outside the tea offices, and seemed to see something in me. He worked there and introduced me to the boss."

'No money'

That first encounter on a London street in the late 1950s started a lifelong love affair with tea for Mr Sethia.

He was soon working for one of biggest tea importers in the Republic of Ireland as a buyer in India, tasked with buying tea at auctions in Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta).

Image source, Newby Teas
Image caption,
Mr Sethia says tea drinking should never be rushed

His father was impressed with how his son had taken to working in the tea industry, and encouraged him to do more.

So with his dad's support, the young Nirmal Sethia started his own business - Sethia Tea Estates - from the family's home in Kolkata, buying and selling teas from all over the world, for tea merchants the length and breadth of the UK and Republic of Ireland.

By then tea had really taken over his life, and Mr Sethia bought a tea plantation in the north eastern Indian state of Assam.

"I didn't have any money [left over]... I used to sleep on the veranda of one of the buildings in the tea garden and drink tea," he says.

"I taught myself about the different characteristics and subtleties in flavour.

I seemed to have a gift for tasting tea. I was able to distinguish and discern teas from different parts of India and beyond, something that impressed the buyers I met."

Wife's support

Having made a success of his tea business, Mr Sethia's destiny took a different path in 1965 when he started his own company dealing in jute, a vegetable fibre used to make rope and bags.

He says: "My uncle was running the family business, but I didn't think he was doing a very good job of it.

Image source, ADRIAN WOOLFE
Image caption,
Mr Sethia says his late wife Chitra was his rock

"I thought I could do better. The arrogance of youth, I suppose.

"I went to my father who loved the idea of me thinking I could do better than his brother. The sparkle in his eye assured me I had to make this business a success, which I did."

This new company, N Sethia Group, became Mr Sethia's main interest and over the years has expanded across a number of business sectors, including banking and property.

However, his love of tea remained. Fast forward a few decades, and tea was once again to come knocking at his door.

Mr Sethia says: "My nephews wanted to start a tea business in early 2000."

Image source, Newby Teas
Image caption,
Newby sells a number of different teas

"They knew I still had contacts in the tea business and asked me for help, something I was willing to give them."

And so Mr Sethia became a co-founder of Newby Teas.

However, the business struggled in its early years, and lost money.

Mr Sethia was going to quit, but his late wife Chitra Devi Sethia persuaded him not to.

He says: "She said one thing to me. If anyone can make it work you can.

Image source, NK Sethia
Image caption,
Mr Sethia owns one of the world's largest collections of tea accessories

"That's when I knew she was right. With her support I could do anything. She was my rock, always there to stop me from falling."

So Mr Sethia knuckled down, and turned around the business.

Today it has a turnover of around $15m a year (£10m) a year.

While its teas are for sale in the UK, Russia is its largest market, and it is expanding into the US.

No milk

Mr Sethia says he is on a mission to teach people about tea, and struggles to think about the cheap tea that many people drink.

Yet he concedes that Newby's prices - nearly 40 pence per teabag, compared with around 2p for a regular - might be seen by some as too expensive.

Image source, Newby Teas
Image caption,
Newby's teas are processed at its own factory in India

Whatever tea you drink, he says you shouldn't add anything to it.

"Tea shouldn't have sugar, or milk, or rose water, or anything else added to it," he says. "The subtle flavours should be obvious.

"You don't slurp tea, you sip it. It's not supposed to be drunk quickly, it's to be savoured and enjoyed."

He adds: "A good cup of tea is like a journey to the heavens. It's there to delight in."

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