June 2005 | P Jose David

Flavoured to please

P Jose David details Tata Tea's endeavours to successfully develop flavoured tea bags

Flavoured tea has caught the fancy of many a tea manufacturer with its sheer versatility and the ample scope for product innovation. And though it may not be a connoisseur's cup of tea, it has carved a niche for itself in the minds of aficionados by virtue of its pleasing non-tea characteristics.

Tata Tea's first interest in the segment was sparked when its reearch and development wing acquired, through its independent investigations, the expertise and technology of tea flavouring. Digging deeper into the subject and after a series of high level discussions, Tata Tea, in 2003, decided to introduce flavoured tea in the Indian market as part of its product diversification strategy and as a long-term value addition proposition.

Tata Tea's immediate task was to make a selection of flavours and blends that would appeal to a cross section of Indian consumers. The challenge was addressed by interacting with various flavour houses and briefing them on the overall flavour profile requirement. The flavours decided on were ginger, masala, Earl Grey, cardamom and lemon. This was followed by a series of sample submissions and evaluations involving the company's R&D, quality and marketing functions.

The first stumbling block the company faced was government regulations. Although the Indian market is flooded with a number of flavoured tea offerings, the entry of established teahouses into the market was delayed since government regulations permit the use of only natural flavours, which are costly and comparatively less stable. While for food materials other than tea, the legislation allows the use of artificial or nature identical flavours, it remains an irony that the same is not extended to tea. In this milieu, imported teas with artificial flavours have managed to find their way into the Indian market, as have smaller local manufacturers who flout the rules.

The limitations or disadvantages of using natural flavours became fairly evident as the flavour houses and the developmental team struggled to find the right profiles. But in 2003, after in-depth investigations and as a requirement stipulated by PFA, Tata Tea registered with the Tea Board and obtained permission to manufacture flavoured tea (ginger, masala, Earl Grey, cardamom and lemon flavours) with specified dosages based on the analysis of samples submitted. The licence since then has been extended to two Tata Tea packeting units.

The next big step was to launch its product as flavoured tea bags under the Tetley brand. The conscious selection of the tea bag format was to facilitate selecting flavour granules as a mode of incorporation of flavour to base tea. Encapsulation of flavour in an inert matrix to form flavour granules is an established technique worldwide used to apply flavour to a variety of food materials. In this technique, the natural flavour oil is encapsulated in the inert matrix and spray dried to form flavour granules. Since the flavour oil residues are removed from the surface of granules by solvent washing, the granules are more stable to deterioration than virgin flavour materials. As the flavours are well encapsulated, direct interaction of flavouring substances with the tea leaves is also avoided. These flavour granules readily dissolve in hot water to release the flavour and is thus most suited for application with tea bags.

The method of base tea blend development was then chosen to ensure that the consumer got a strong cup of tea even when had with milk. A strong blend suitable for tea bags was therefore selected as the base tea.

Further developmental work decided on the dosage and method of application. Dosage levels were decided for each flavour, evaluating the product at each stage. Since the flavours used are in granular form, physical mixing was carried out to get the blended tea. A blender that gives a uniform blending with minimum disruption to tea and flavour granules was designed till suitable online blenders were introduced. It took lot of time, effort and another set of tasting sessions to arrive at the type of blender, blending time and blend quantity, which later enabled the later commercial production to go on stream smoothly.

A consumer location test (CLT) was planned to put the new product to the final test — the consumer. During the CLT, consumers were given blind samples, which also included competitor products. Subjects were then asked to rate the samples on a particular scale. The CLT was successful with Tata Tea's product rated best by consumers, quoting distinct advantages.

With the product ready for the market, the next item on the company's agenda was to design a method of packaging and a retail pack. The task was to use packaging that sealed in the flavour and kept the products stable throughout its shelf life. The packaging had to be inert and resistant to light and moisture. Suitably a foil pack with an overwrap was selected after conducting shelf life studies. In conjunction with the decision to launch the tea bags under the 'Tetley' brand, a pack design with prominence of blue was selected with appropriate wordings and graphics in tune with Tetley international style. The advertising thrust was of adding a "twist" to your boring daily cuppa.

Many factors needed consideration while taking up the production of a new product like this. The need to maintain the freshness by storing the blended tea in cool, dark enclosures, lot sizes of flavour purchase and mostly, awareness of the demand for the product. After detailed research into the segment and dedicated development activities, Tetley flavoured teabags (masala, ginger, lemon and Earl Grey flavours) were launched in select cities, in packs of 12. The product, according to initial market reports, is a tremendous success.

R&D area
Initiatives / programmes
Some important results
Tea cultivation Development of new clones Few new grafts and clones developed
Optimisation of cultivation practices Improvement in productivity
Mechanisation of field operations Mechanisation of plucking and pruning
In-house testing of inputs for quality All agrochemicals tested for quality
Tea manufacture Optimisation of unit operations Improvement in quality
Process improvements Optimisation of withering to improve outturn
Effective control of iron filings in tea
Use of waste heat recovery systems 15 per cent savings in fuel
Green tea Commercial facilities established
Cold brew tea Commercial process established, international patent registered
Use of enzymes High cuppage tea
In-house testing of black tea All tea samples tested for quality
Tea packeting Optimisation of packing operations
Reduction of wastage in guill machine packaging
In-house testing of packet tea All brands are tested for quality
Testing of packing materials All packing materials are tested for specifications
New products Development of new products Cold brew, fortified tea, flavoured tea, coffee bag