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Priya Ganapati in Bangalore | November 20, 2003

Fancy a cup of tea? Maybe a cup of 'Stupa', where the tea leaves are woven into the shape of a bud that blooms into a flower in a cup of hot water? Or a glass of 'Enigma On The Rocks', a brew where the tea leaves are allowed to infuse into chilled water to get the look and feel of whisky. Or even a cup of 'Tanwan Rose', a cup that tastes of tea and smells of rose.

All this and more is on offer at Infinitea, India's first tea bar and the first in a chain to open around the country.

There are wannabes around-the cha bar at the Oxford Book Store or the tea centre in Mumbai. But both do not make tea their primary business and do want to start a chain of them countrywide.

Infinitea does.

It positions itself a tea bar and offers a range of teas, besides the usual Assam and Darjeeling teas. There are hot and cold teas -- both, with milk and without it.

For instance, there is the cinnamon milk tea, which is a cold milk tea or the white tea where the brew is silvery white instead of brown. White tea is made from fresh tea buds and is not fermented.

In iced tea alone it serves 27 different kinds where flavours range from the regular lemon or peach to the exotic, like vanilla and saffron.

It also serves Kahwa, the Kashmiri spiced tea, the Chinese green tea, herbal teas and special teas like chamomile and mint tea.

Infinitea is run by the Saria family which owns five tea gardens in North Bengal -- three in Darjeeling and two in Dooars, which is about an hour away from Siliguri -- whose produce is sold to exporters.

But as the tea business started dipping, the family had to explore other opportunities for their products.

"We have been largely selling to exporters. Things were comfortable for us for so long as the tea auctions were good and fetched us good prices. But now things are changing and the business is on a downfall," says 24-year-old Gaurav Saria whose idea is Infinitea.

Saria started Liquid Gold as the marketing arm for the family's tea produce. Under the aegis of Liquid Gold, he drew up plans to start a chain of tea cafes in India.

The first of those opened on Bangalore's Cunnigham Road in July this year.

"We had heard that Bangalore is open to new ideas and that it has a mix of people from all around the country and parts of the world too. So it was the right testing ground for our first store," says Saria.

The Sarias have been in the tea business for over a hundred years. They started out supplying to the British and then after Independence, D C Saria, Gaurav's grandfather, became one of the earliest persons in India to own a tea garden.

The expertise and connections that the family has built over the years shows up on the menu in Infinitea.

Some of the Chinese teas are handpicked and sourced individually and exclusively for Infinitea.

There is a range of exotic teas available on the menu. These include Stupa, where the tea leaves are woven tightly together into a bud and that is put in a cup on which boiling water is poured.

Slowly the bud then blooms into a flower inside the cup and the flavour of the tea infuses into the hot water.

Similar is the Peony Rosette which again comes in the form of a bud that blooms in a cup of hot water.

There is also the Pearl of the Mountain tea where individual tea leaves are rolled into pearl shaped balls that unfurl in the cup of hot water.

Every kind of tea on the menu is served in a cup that is suitable for it.

Darjeeling is served in a white bone china cup, while Enigma on the Rocks, the brew that looks like whisky, comes in a whisky glass. Green tea is served in little Chinese tea cups.

For the exotic tea varieties like the Stupa or the Peony Rosette, where the tea bud blooms into a flower in the cup, Saria has taken care to ensure that the cup is a light transparent one that reflects the beauty of the flower and the brew.

Masala chai, naturally, comes in glazed earthenware.

"We thought of what tea goes with what kind of crockery because every tea has a different visual appeal and colour. We wanted to showcase it in crockery that bring out the best of every tea," says Saria.

The teas are priced reasonably -- a cup costs Rs 35 at the minimum and can go up to Rs 79 in case for a pot that serves two.

Infinitea also retails different kinds of tea leaves in its outlet, which lets customers brew it at home.

Saria and his father regularly organise tea tasting sessions for small groups of up to ten people for free where they are introduced to a variety of teas and taught the history of teas and the etiquette of drinking it.

Recently, they did a workshop at a local jewellery store where selected upper middle clientele of the store went through a tasting session.

On weekdays, Infinitea, which is open between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m., serves about 150 customers, while on weekends that number doubles.

"Today, with Infinitea, I am in the position where coffee pubs like Café Coffee Day was in 1996. Customers are now slowly discovering about the different kinds of teas and how going out to tea can be made a part of their lives," says Saria.

By next April, Saria hopes to have the second Infinitea outlet opened in Koramangala in Bangalore and by the year end he hopes to take Infinitea to cities like Pune and Jaipur.

"If all goes well, then we should be in Mumbai after that. I want to make sure we get our process right and iron out all the problems, because when we go to a city like Mumbai, we have to be 100 per cent efficient," says Saria.

For the first Infinitea outlet, Saria has spent Rs 70 lakh (Rs 7 million). As he expands, he hopes to look at the franchisee route for his planned chain for cafes.

Along the way though, he has learnt quite a few things about the Indian tea drinker's preferences.

Iced teas are the most popular, with lemon flavour the fastest selling. Last month alone, Infinitea sold 500 glasses of iced teas. Darjeeling and Assam too are well-known among tea drinkers.

"It is a myth that the Indian consumer does not have a discerning palette. Some of the teas are an acquired taste. But the consumer has never been given a chance. The best teas in India are not available locally. They are exported. With Infinitea, we hope the Indian consumer will get to drink tea that is on par with the international standards," says Saria.

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