Pioneering specialty tea distributor Devan Shah, CEO of International Tea Importers (ITI), passed away unexpectedly on April 3, 2016. Shah greatly influenced and strengthened the fledgling specialty tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) industry in the United States, and it is now a multi-billion-dollar industry. The US is currently the third largest tea importer in the world behind Russia and Pakistan. Shah’s visionary thinking and tireless efforts grew from his early interest in the Indian tea industry, and, through ITI, he sought to support the world’s tea market with education and empowerment.
Shah was born in Mumbai, India, and grew up in the southern city of Coimbatore. The youngest of six children, he spent his early summers on his brother-in-law’s tea plantation in Coonoor, in the Nilgiri mountains in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. This exposure to the tea business would influence the trajectory of his career: After earning a degree in business, he became an assistant to a tea broker before immigrating to the United States in 1989.
“None of us in the world of tea would be where we are were it not for Devan,” said James Norwood Pratt, Shah’s longtime “tea brother” and author of The Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury, which was published by Shah in 2011. “When he arrived in this country [the US], the tea trade was not just sleepy. It was comatose. … Nobody in America, me included, knew anything whatsoever about south Indian tea.”
Recognizing an opportunity, Shah quit his job at an electronics company and founded India Tea Importers in 1990. The small enterprise began with six chests of tea, stored in his father-in-law’s garage, and grew slowly under his leadership. Along with his wife Reena, he acquired a tea room in California in 1994, determined to sell his high-quality product to the trendsetters and tastemakers in Beverly Hills.
“Meanwhile, I was far from the only person Devan was educating about tea,” said Pratt. “Right from the outset, … Devan Shah played a decisive role in developing [the US’s] tastes in tea.” According to Pratt, Shah was responsible for the popularity of chai tea in the US, which was relatively unknown before then. Using black tea from India, Shah worked with tea blenders in Oregon to create a ready-to-drink version of chai.
Since its introduction state-side, chai tea has truly been embraced by Americans, turning it from a little-known regional Indian blend of tea and spices into a cultural juggernaut and household staple. According to the HerbalGram tea market report for 2014, sales of bagged chai tea in the US rose 15% from 2013, while sales of loose chai tea blends increased by almost 20%.1 Shah’s vision for the US tea market had taken off with a success that exceeded all expectations.
In 2002, India Tea Importers was renamed International Tea Importers to better reflect the global nature of the market and the addition of teas from China and other regions. In contrast to the six starting crates, ITI currently imports more than 600 different types of tea, and creates its own blends and flavors as well.
In an ITI catalog from 2011, Shah wrote: “Tea, the most romantic of beverages, has certainly come a long way in the United States. … Today, the United States is buying more tea than ever, there are more businesses than ever retailing tea, and the world at large is more attentive than ever before to the tea trends we nurture and originate.”
Shah’s educational efforts and constant drive ensured that this growing market would continue to find new footholds and flourish. In recognition of his contributions to the tea industry, he received the 2013 Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award from World Tea News.
ITI will continue under the leadership of Shah’s daughter, Bianca. She had worked closely with her father before his passing, and her brother, Brendan, will serve as the company’s chief technology officer. Shah is also survived by his wife, Reena, the president of ITI. Through his family, Shah’s lifelong passion for tea continues on for future generations to enjoy.
“He did his utmost to educate us in excellence, not only in our tea life but in our whole life,” said Pratt in his eulogy to Shah. “Such was his unmistakable integrity and generosity, his enthusiasm and powerful positive energy, his endless helpfulness and constant effort to bring us into a higher awareness of what he saw and knew was possible.”
- Keating B, Lindstrom A, Lynch ME, Blumenthal M. Sales of tea & herbal tea increase 3.6% in United States in 2014. HerbalGram. 2015;105:59-67. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue105/hg105-teamktrpt.html. Accessed May 2, 2016.