Dilhan from Dilmah: ‘Tea as a 21st century form of luxury”

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Dilmah is one of the most well know teas in the world. Stories about Tea spoke with CEO Dilmah Fernando, one of the twee sons of Dilmah-founder Merrill Fernando. A monologue.

“The most important thing, and the thing that Dilmah has added to the tea category in Sri Lanka, is to drive innovation, to drive marketing methods, to tell people that it’s not about a brand, and its not about this discount culture, it’s about the quality, it’s about the goodness, it’s about the taste.”

“Unfortunately the tea industry, whether in Sri Lanka, Africa or anywhere, it’s just suffering form the terrible commoditization that we have. It started with multi-origin blending. So yes, of course today people say blending is necessary to keep the consistency. It’s not, it’s absolutely not. If you want consistency you can find particular gardens that produce product and when a monsoon comes on one side of the island you find gardens on the other side, by tasting you can do it.”

“Twenty-five years ago, when I joined the business, we all met, we would meet our customers, we would taste tea, you had great tea companies around the world that would taste tea. Today there’s no tea tasting, it’s “this is my price”. That is what led to blending, so it has nothing to do with consistency or quality and everything to do with maintaining a price. Today’s Ceylon tea has gone up in price so let me put in a little bit from this origin and a little bit from that origin.”

“It’s unfortunate because ultimately it is the consumer who is compromised because the cost of a good cup of tea is a few cents more than the cost of a bad one, and the bad one comes with the food safety worries and all those things. Of course, people can say “yes you can add flavor, you can do things” and unfortunately happens. You have some businesses that take one tea, they add different flavors, give it a beautiful name, and they market it.”

“Yes, it works, there have been success stories built around that but the true amazing benefit in tea is the intricate relationship that tea has with nature. When you really consider the plant Camellia Sinensis, it grows at sea level, down near Galle, it’s sandy soils, it’s salt in the air, it’s 34 degrees by day, 28 at night, it’s quite intense, it’s molty, it’s earthy. But you can take the same plant and plant it in Nuwara Eliya, it becomes fundamentally different, you’re going to get sweetness, you’re going to get citrus notes, you’re going to get a light, bright, a little bit of astringency.”

“That beautiful reality behind tea is what forms the luxury in tea. So tea should really be offered as something fundamentally different than what it is today. Not as a commodity of 1.99 or 2.99, but it should be celebrated an that’s what we believe in. We believe that this influence of nature is something that is so beautiful that it’s really a 21st century form of luxury.”   

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