Tea meets Technology

Can the caffeine content of a cup of tea match that of a coffee one? Can there be a single factory to process tea for all the tea gardens of India? Is there any way to capture the aroma that the tea leaf gives when it is being processed? Can there be a truly instant cup of tea? Can we have a super infusing tea that discharges all its flavors in one seeping?

What if we were to tell you that the answers to all these questions is a resounding “Yes”. What if we were also to tell you that there is one man who has worked on all these problems and come up trumps? Dr. Gurmeet Singh obtained his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from IIT, Delhi and went on to do a PhD from Penn State Univ. Serendipity got him to Bangalore and Unilever – and that is where Dr. Singh spent more than 20 years researching the tea plant and the best ways to process its leaves. And that is where he worked on all these questions. And got answers too – as Dr. Singh today holds over 25 patents in this domain.

The classic image of a research scientist is that of an absent minded person, donning a lab coat, toiling away at ever esoteric projects on topics only he or she can fully grasp. Well, Dr. Singh is not that scientist.  He spends as much time discerning consumer trends as doing his actual research.  

Take a look at one current trend – that of a world consumed by deadlines and targets. From students to employees – all are subjecting themselves and their loved ones to an exhausting achievement-at-any-cost schedule.  This, in turn, has fueled a ravenous appetite for higher caffeine content drinks – from double shots of espresso to strong energy drinks. As people type out instant responses on their cell phones late at night, increased caffeine in every cup has become the lubricant for this behavior.

And tea has been the loser in this caffeine race. The two – tea and coffee – were once brothers in arms – National Geographic even states that the rise of the Industrial Age was facilitated by tea and coffee. However, the always-on world seems to reach for the coffee cup a little more often nowadays.

Can tea generate the same rush? For a 200 ml cup, could we have a cup of tea that gives you 100 mg or more of caffeine (as against the current 40 mg). Dr. Singh feels that a high caffeine tea can indeed be created. One could extract and enhance caffeine by focusing on the caffeine producing elements of the leaf and tea stem.

We spend some time discussing rapid strides made by the coffee sector over the years and the role played by retail giants – and by Starbucks in particular – in giving coffee a solid cultural acceptability. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge to the Indian tea retail start-ups – give us path breaking innovations – and not more of the same. A high caffeine content tea based drink could be a robust start!

Another interesting area that Dr. Singh worked on was on capturing the aroma of tea. A tea factory is redolent with this aroma but somehow it never makes it to our cup. Dr. Singh likens the aroma to Pablo Neruda’s “a sacred unplaceable scent” from Neruda’s poem – Ode to a Box of Tea. Dr. Singh was able to extract the aroma and ensure that your cup of tea retained that very same fragrance. While this invention has not yet been commercially launched in the Indian market, we hope that it is soon.

After his innings with Unilever, Dr. Singh rekindled his love for teaching. (Dr. Singh had briefly taught at his alma mater, IIT Delhi – after completing his PhD and before joining Unilever). He now heads the Center for Ayurveda Biology and Holistic Nutrition at The University of Transdisciplinary Health Sciences and Nutrition, Bangalore. Amongst the projects that his team is engaged in, is one rather interesting one – that of understanding and contextualizing ancient Ayurveda recipes. A mammoth task but one that would instantly offer ancient texts to modern cooks with the ingredients of today. This would rejuvenate the age old knowledge trapped in timeworn texts. Now that is something to look forward to.

Combining these two – his love of tea and his regard for botanicals and Ayurveda, Dr Singh also runs a club for interested patrons. The club members of Infusions of Goodness Tea Club – receive monthly packets of blends of tea and botanicals. Given his extensive research, he is uniquely placed, at the intersection of tea and Ayurveda, to offer these blends.

We ask Dr. Singh for some parting advice and he says, “Love whatever you do”. Words to live by, people.

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

~ Kahlil Gibran

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.