Meet the Birmingham Couple on a Mission To Build an Ethical, Sustainable Business on a Southern Staple
From India to Birmingham, Sachai Tea Co. lives its mission to bring consciousness and sustainability to its business model and community.
Ask many a Southerner, and you'll find that tea is a ritual, best enjoyed sweetened, on ice, sitting on the porch with company. It's this communal culture that Southern sweet tea shares with that of the one Rebecca Denson experienced growing up in India.
"Chai is such a big part of hospitality in India. It's just the norm; you go to anybody's house or people visit your home, the first thing you offer them is a cup of chai," she says. It's just part of the social custom, a common man's drink. Chai is the symbol of hospitality and a pause. It's also a communal drink. You don't drink chai by yourself. You always sit down with people or find a buddy. It brings people together."
Denson is the co-founder of Birmingham-based Sachai Tea Co., which she operates with her husband, Clint. Both share a love for tea—Clint was raised in Mississippi, but also spent time living in West Africa, where tea was a popular beverage.
After getting married, the duo took a trip to India. They visited tea gardens and realized they wanted to explore the idea of starting their own business—but it had to be socially and environmentally conscious. Rebecca took inspiration from a local café, Seeds Coffee, when developing the direct trade model for Sachai Tea Co.
Before the pandemic, a trip to India meant hauling back tea for production. But as they've grown, that's no longer a sustainable model.
"Pre-COVID, we would go once a year and bring tea back in suitcases, which we can't do anymore because we're growing. One suitcase of tea is enough for a month," Rebecca says.
At Sachai Tea Co., it's about much more than the tea itself. Rebecca is committed to bridging the gap between the farmer and the consumer.
"People don't really ask the question, 'Where did this tea come from?' or 'Where did this thing that I'm consuming originate?' We're in this consumer mindset where we don't ask these questions. [Sachai Tea Co. was a desire] to bring consciousness into business and into the tea industry specifically."
On the customer side, this means opening the conversation on direct trade and helping people to become conscious consumers. Rebecca does this through farmers markets and other events since they do not own a storefront. All their production takes place in the Cahaba Brewing facilities in East Avondale.
"They've been really kind to us and [are pretty much] incubating our production," Rebecca shares. "They were just wanting to invest in neighboring communities in Birmingham and be a positive influence. When they heard that I'm a minority business owner and that I'm trying to scale my production, they offered to help in whatever way they could."
When it comes to sourcing, Rebecca and Clint work with a co-op in the northeast Indian state of Assam, a region synonymous with black tea. It is the home of the tribal Bodo people, with whom the co-op primarily works to farm and purchase tea in a socially and environmentally conscious manner.
"They don't use any pesticides and they treat their labor force really well; they pay them really well," Rebecca says. "They also buy tea from people that grow tea in their backyard [and] they give them a really good price. It's so significant how well they take care of their farmers."
The tea industry and general agricultural industry, according to Rebecca, is traditionally deeply entrenched in the monoculture world. The co-op that they partner with is working to change this.
"They've been teaching us so much about fighting against focusing entirely on production of that [one] crop instead of thinking about the ecosystem and thinking about the people that have to pour the pesticides over that crop and don't live past 45 because they're inhaling this chemical every day," she says.
Part of the work the co-op does is encouraging local families to farm where they have land, like their back or front yard, and do so mindfully. While tea gardens are susceptible to pesticides and other harmful practices, the co-op helps farmers grow the tea responsibly. This is also a way to uplift the Bodo community, which, as a tribal people, are below the caste system still prevalent in India today.
"Tribes are actually out of the caste system; they're not even considered part of the caste system," Rebecca says. "The majority of the population still has to face the biases and discrimination [of being in a lower caste]. It's really cool to see tribal people striving and working to uplift their [community].
Back in Birmingham, Rebecca has big plans to pour into her own community. In the same way Cahaba Brewing is incubating her business, as Sachai Tea Co. grows, Rebecca wants to empower other minorities to pursue entrepreneurship.
"We want to have impact here in a way of influencing other minorities to feel empowered to start their own businesses or to be proud of who they are and their stories, but also to create employment," she says. "We have a warehouse in the inner city that we want to move our process to. This is something I've been working on for a long time now. I want to move our chai process there and start an incubator kitchen. We want to create a grassroots program that's accessible to minorities in Birmingham, and just encourage the culinary scene here."
Find Sachai Tea
Illinois: Post Commons
Mississippi: Urban Foxes
Tennessee/Georgia: Market Wagon