I was featured in Canada’s Mandarin language newspaper, Ming Pao.
At the farmers’ market, people often ask Trudy Ann if she sells Chai Tea. She patiently explains: “To be accurate, it’s called masala chai.” In Hindi, ‘masala’ stands for a mixture of spices; ‘chai’ means tea.
In India, there are more than 20 official languages, but in almost every one of these languages ‘chai’ is the word for tea. Tea is India’s “country beverage”. In the Indian Bollywood movies, we see many scenes with people holding a cup of tea, no matter the time of day, the place, the weather, and no matter who it is that is having the tea!
Trudy Ann’s hometown is in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. She lived in California, where she was a teacher for 17 years. Her friends asked her to open a chai cafe, which she did pursue with two very young sons at that time.
Making tea in a country of coffee
The tea shop has not yet been opened, but after years of moving to Vancouver, in 2006, Trudy Ann actually started blending masala chai.
The first chai she sold had simply been ‘pre-ordered’. Her son’s music teacher asked her if he could buy the masala chai the next time she made it, so he could brew it at home. What this implied was that if she developed her tea-making into a business, he would become a permanent, loyal customer. In fact, Trudy’s first loyal customers were friends and acquaintances who had been to an afternoon tea party at her home.
Trudy Ann recalls that when she was a child in Mumbai, her grandmother would summon family and friends to have tea at 4 PM, every day. “At that time there was no Internet, there were no smartphones. It was people in face-to-face conversations. On school days, we were told by the adults to sit at the tea table while writing our homework. I used to go with my grandmother to the homes of neighbors. The younger generation would offer tea to the older to show our respect. In turn, the older generation would offer tea to the younger generation to show love, to show that this is our way of life and social style.”
Trudy Ann demonstrates the most traditional, but also the best way to make good Indian tea: by boiling it with spices and cream. She has a set of different sizes of stainless steel pots, for her tea. But, these pots do not feature a handle. Wondering how long until the tea would be poured out of the pot, I saw Trudy Ann take out a special set of long iron pliers, clamp the pot and take it off the stove.
“This pot, this clamp, and the way this tea is brewed is the way I saw my grandmother make tea, and I remember the perfect mix of tea, spices, and milk,” Trudy Ann says. “The recipe aims at mastering the proportions of spices for the tea. How do you do this? On the one hand, by paying attention to the quantity of spices and on the other, the length of cooking time. Is there a tea formula? In India, it can be said that everyone has their own tea ‘recipe’. A thousand people may mean there are thousands of variations of masala chai!”
Trudy Ann makes a cup of ginger tea with fresh ginger finely chopped, boiled and filtered using a very fine strainer, into a fine cup, with milk and sugar – a cup of perfect masala chai to be had hot! Trudy Ann’s process of preparing tea is traditional, even though she’s preparing it in her own kitchen. She has a very astonishing ritual touch, it must be inherited from ancestors. A masala chai that cannot help but awaken “years of history of the river.” This good feeling must be the spell of the good black tea!
The business is small but the product is “big”
Trudy Ann’s tea enterprise, in any case, is very ‘small’: she prepares it from start to finish. First, to find and finalize on the black tea suppliers. This is easy. Her hometown, India, is among the world’s largest tea-producing countries.
Trudy Ann’s black tea comes from Assam, the most famous tea-producing locale in eastern India, and is carefully selected by experienced tea merchants. Generally, she orders the tea once every four months. The spices are ground every month to ensure that the tea and spices remain fresh.
For the fruit tea, the fruit is grown and dried by a local farm, Klippers Organics. Even the paper bags used for the packaging are environment-friendly. They also carry a detailed description of the tea. For the mint tea, fresh mint leaves are dried, and then the tea is hand blended. Trudy Ann says that a lot of spices need to be cleaned before using. In the initial stages, she used to grind all the spices by hand. Later, when the business began to grow, she had to upgrade to a grinding machine. Producing the tea this way in small batches, focusing on the origin of the raw material, taking care that it is organic and contains the healing properties of the tea product; this makes us refrain from describing the business as “big”.
Listening carefully to customer requirements
Trudy Ann has been making spice tea for seven years. She admits that from the very beginning when she started out with one tea down to the present 12 types, many of the teas came about because of enthusiastic customers repeatedly “lobbying” for new teas. Among the results are such as the caffeine-free Rooibos tea, alongside mint and lemongrass. Fruit tea blends were also a response to customer needs.
Trudy Ann first started selling her tea at the Vancouver farmers’ market. But on the advice of and urging by customers, Trudy Ann’s Chai & Spices social media account was set up. This became her main marketing strategy. Over seven years, Trudy Ann’s Chai & Spices has seen the rise of a long mailing list of loyal customers. There are many local customers who go to the farmers’ market, sometimes just to see her and chat with her.
“I really enjoy my time in the farmers’ market. I like to share my passion for my culture. I enjoy seeing people’s surprised and satisfied expressions when they’ve sipped my tea. People even talk to me, holding a cup of tea!”
Like last year, this year, too, Trudy Ann will be seen wearing her most dazzling Indian traditional clothing at the Vancouver Tea Festival. Get ready to accept a cup of aromatic tea made with love.