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A Taste For Tea

In Features, News on April 30, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen April, 2011

Server Maya Oka-Pregel moves between the pairs of attendees. At the front of the windowed room, 31-year old Venk Prabhu stands and spouts facts about the drink his guests are sampling.

“Green tea is never steeped with boiling water,” Prabhu explains, even as Oka-Pregel begins pouring the next offering, a black tea, into small, white cups. “Wait for it to cool at least six degrees before you pour it.”

pravhu.jpg

Venk Prabhu and his wife Priya Prakash. The couple own Shanti teas, a tea import company in Ottawa, Ontario.

Prabhu and his wife, Priya Prakash, own Shanti Teas, an import company that brings organic and “fair-trade” teas from Asia, the Middle East and Africa to Canada. Tonight he is here to spread his knowledge to eight guests attending a tea workshop at the Grounded Kitchen and Coffee House in downtown Ottawa.

He has been in the business just two years, but Prabhu knows his tea. Twelve examples are brought out in succession, and he is able to offer up history, facts and proper preparation techniques for each.

Shanti, which started in an apartment in Toronto, has become Canada’s largest importer of purely organic teas, its owners say. Prabhu and Prakash brought the company to Ottawa to allow Prakash to work on a degree in naturopathic medicine. Shanti Teas has storage in Ottawa and warehouses in Montreal and Vancouver.

In the overall world of tea, it’s a small player. Shanti expects to gross $450,000 in 2011. Last year, it imported an estimated 15 tonnes of organic tea.

But the company sees much potential for growth as more people move to the market for organic tea, which comes from a growing process deemed free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Standards, however, can vary from country to country. Shanti’s tea is certified by Ecocert, a Quebec-based company set up in 1995 to certify organic products.

Tea had a 12-per-cent share of the non-alcoholic beverage market in 2008, according to Agriculture Canada. Data from Statistics Canada show that the Canadian market for tea and coffee totalled almost $1.5 billion in 2008.

The majority of Shanti sales comes from private-label teas it packages and sells to retailers and coffee shops. It also sells its own tea brand, which is available at Ottawa outlets including the Urban Pear, the Flour Shoppe and C.A. Paradis.

Melissa Summers, owner of the eat-in “cupcakery” the Flour Shoppe, which operates just around the corner from the Shanti Teas office, says the organic teas are popular with her customers.

“All of them have been fantastic sellers, the blends are very unique,” Summers said.

“The customers love it, often times the’ll walk over to the Shanti tea store and look for some they can bring home.”

Retail tea chain Teaopia, which is opening its 35th store in Hillcrest, Ont., this week, says more people want organic products.

“We will continue to expand our organic line,” says Elise Cappuccitti, director of communications for Teaopia, which does not carry Shanti Teas. “Certainly there’s a demand for it, and customers will choose organic over nonorganic if given the choice.”

Cappuccitti cautions, however, that an organic designation is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of tea leaves.

After the tasting, Prabhu sits relaxed in his chair as he rapidly relays stories, information and his tea philosophy.

“Tea is the one thing in life where you’ve got to slow down. It’s not like coffee -you can’t forget about it because it will over-steep, you can’t use boiling water because then you will burn the leaves. There’s so much to pay attention to that you almost have to forget about everything else that’s going on in your life -it’s like meditation.”

Slowing down, however, is not in Prabhu’s business plan. He says he works 20 hours a day, if not at physical labour, then in thinking about his company’s strategy, the next move he will make.

Prabhu began his university studies in engineering, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and then changed his focus to architecture, in which he obtained a master’s degree at Carleton University. But he doesn’t see himself as a fullfledged architect until he better understands the cultures of the world, which he feels is essential to the art.

“To learn about cultures takes time,” he explains. “I feel like when I’m 50 or 60, I’ll be more responsible to do architecture then.”

In the past year, Prabhu has travelled to Sri Lanka, Japan and Egypt to inspect tea farms. He says he prefers those that let him simply show up and look around. He says it’s very important the farms treat the workers well. In the future he plans to go to China, Kenya and South Africa.

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Tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. Prabhu routinely travels to foreign countries where he can inspect the tea crop and its growing process.

Recently, Shanti teas were given as a gift to winners at the Genie Awards In Ottawa. The company holds tea tastings and workshops to boost awareness of the drink.

The company’s next event is a tea blending workshop on March 25 at 6: 30 p.m. at Grounded on Gloucester Street. Attendees will learn about which teas mix well and will be able to make their own blend. Other events, including a chai tea preparation workshop, are scheduled for April.

Prabhu says the company’s goal is to increase the size of the organic tea market and lower the price of organic tea for consumers.

“We want to have the largest selection of organic teas,” he says. “We have to support organic farming because it takes a farm three years to convert from non-organic to organic. Recently, we had a farm (we buy from) convert back from organic because it was losing too much money.”