For Hoda Paripoush, founder of Toronto-based tea retailer, Sloane Tea, all roads have led to tea throughout her incredible journey.

Hoda’s family fled Iran during the 1979 religious revolution that saw the persecution of religious minorities. She was born in India, where her family lived for 11 years while they sought a place to put down permanent roots. Finally, Hoda and her family came to Canada as religious refugees, landing in Brockville, where her parents still live today.

Throughout the chaos that comes with uprooting one’s life to pursue personal and religious freedom, Hoda and her family sought the comfort and connection provided by tea. Though some of Hoda’s happiest memories were formed around tea, it wouldn’t be until she attended Naturopathy school that Hoda realized it could be her career.

We recently sat down with Hoda to talk about her transition from naturopathy to founding one of Canada’s leading tea companies, Sloane tea, and her mission to deliver incredible tea from “crop to cup.”

 

Photo Credit: Sloane Tea

 

What is your relationship with Tea?

I grew up experiencing both Indian and Iranian cultures where tea is the beverage of choice. It’s the first thing you drink at the start of the day, and the last thing you have at the end of the night.

Growing up in an immigrant family and moving from culture to culture, we faced a lot of instability. Frankly, my parents worked to survive. But the one thing that was always consistent was that we always managed to somehow sit down and have tea together. Even if only for ten minutes. Tea was something that always brought us together despite the chaos.

When I got older, after we had settled in Canada, I started experimenting in the kitchen. My family had ingredients that a lot of Westerners probably didn’t have access to. Orange blossom water, rose water, cardamom from Indian and Iranian culture and cuisine were all comforting and familiar to me. So I started using these ingredients to make simple tea blends, and people really liked them.

 

Did you always know tea would be your career path?

I was actually supposed to be a doctor. My parents sacrificed so many things to make a better life for their family. After the 1979 revolution, as practicing Bahá'ís, we weren’t allowed access to basic things like education - and we definitely couldn’t go to university. When you go from such a restrictive situation to a place like Canada where you have the freedom to have whatever you want, it’s so important for parents to see their kids have success and stability. Doctors will always be employable, so for the longest time, we all thought I’d become a doctor.

When it came time for university, I loved philosophy and psychology - that’s what my undergrad was in. I worked hard and did all of my pre-med requisites in the summer. I thought I’d become a naturopathic doctor. I enrolled and even went into the naturopathy program for a few weeks. But when I saw how passionate my classmates were about naturopathy, I realized I wasn’t like them. I couldn’t see myself treating illness and disease hands-on, and realized that I wasn’t there for the right reasons.

I went to the Dean, and the Dean recommended that I read The Alchemist. It’s a very short book and the premise is that when you pursue your personal best, the soul of the world aspires to help you achieve it. This book set my path for where I am today. I read the book and left naturopathy.

But during the weeks I spent in my Naturopathy program, I did manage to start a tea club. I figured that had to be a sign.

 

How did you make the switch from naturopathy to entering the tea industry?

The first step was to tell my parents.

I was already married and living in another city. I wasn’t dependent on my parents but I had this need to please them, and I knew it would be a huge shock to them.

And I was right.

Their reaction was panic. My parents’ idea of working in the tea industry is being a chai walla selling tea in a cart. It’s honest work, but they had this immediate fear of instability for me. They didn’t think it could be a career. They didn’t understand the tea industry in North America. But in the end, I told them this is what I wanted to do.

Next, I started researching where I could learn about tea.

Of course, I grew up with tea being a very important part of my family and culture. I also have always had a very sensitive nose, so I’m always drawn to fragrance and perfumery. But, when I first ventured into the world of tea, I didn’t have any technical knowledge.

I learned about the World Tea Expo and the Tea Institute. The Tea Institute is a certifying body that provides tea education. I immediately enrolled in a course that was taught in Las Vegas. They send you the material in advance and you study it, and then you go for an in-person all-day workshop and then sit an exam on the second day. I went from level 1 to level 2 to level 3. Canada had no program, so I took courses in the US - Las Vegas, Atlanta, NYC, until I completed the curriculum.

Then, George Brown College launched a tea sommelier program. I was already certified in the US, and then did a review, and was the first person in North America to get certified both in Canada and the US.

 

How did you go from studying tea to setting up your own business?

I knew right away that I needed some exposure. I felt like I had technical knowledge of tea, but no real experience blending tea or knowledge of tea production. I felt like a chef who had studied the best recipe books but had never been in a kitchen.

So, I started traveling to origin. I went to China and India and Taiwan and Japan - and I’ve been back to these countries many times since. My goal was to build relationships directly with top-class farmers. I knew that even as a small tea company I had to have access to the cream of the crop. I needed to have strong relationships with these farmers and to learn as much as I could about the production practices and what goes into tea.

Hoda in the fields of a tea garden.
Photo Credit: Sloane Tea

I knew when forming the concept of Sloane that I wanted to create a brand that was based on the principles of sourcing beautiful products from artisans and farmers that have an incredible dedication to quality. They saw that passion in me and they gave me exclusivity to their estates for North America, which was unheard of. I continued to meet people that I had no business meeting as a rookie. I feel as though they just came into my life because this is what I was meant to do.

Once I had built these relationships with these incredible farmers, I set up shop.

 

Tell me more about how you produce your tea.

Most people don’t know about tea because it’s not grown here. Discovering the world is a big part of unearthing the story. All tea comes from one single plant called Camellia Sinensis. The difference between types of tea is in the manufacturing process and the oxidization of the leaves. Leaves grow in mountainous fields where each leaf is harvested by hand by women. There is a lot of labour and love that goes into producing tea. For tea farmers, it takes decades of sacrifice to get to a point where you have a respected product and it can be exported at a premium.

At Sloane, our focus is on direct trade - getting from crop to cup within 3 months. Normally the process has so many steps in between farmer and retailer that it takes 9-12 months for tea gets sold in a store. It will go from grower to auction to distributer to the seller. But, because of our relationships, we have products in our shop within 3 months of growing.

Hoda in the fields of a tea garden.
Photo Credit: Sloane Tea

This freshness that many other tea retailers can’t promise makes all the difference when blending. For example, the bergamot absorbs better because the tea leaves are fresher and more porous. We blend everything here in Toronto - it’s as local as you can get with tea because they’re sourced from origin, and then blended and packaged in Canada (in biodegradable tea bags made in Canada). We are proud to provide transparency in our product in terms of where we source things from. We do it all in house. Our facility is kosher certified and nut-free. We have a small but mighty team that is really dedicated to quality. Our goal when we blend is not to take a poor quality tea and mask it with other flavours. Our goal is to take a premium product that would be great on its own and blend with other premium ingredients to tell a different story. We couldn’t do what we do without the relationships we have with our farmers around the world.

In fact, the farmers I’ve met around the world have become my greatest mentors.

 

 

Tell me a bit about traveling to origin to meet with tea farmers - what is that like?

I’m fortunate that tea travel is far off the beaten path. Typically, I go to rural areas in the mountains. I enjoy cities but the magic happens when you leave them. That’s when you get exposed to the serenity of nature. I’ve met farmers that were born in their family’s tea gardens and are 90 years old and when you ask them what they do, they say “I make tea.”

I stay with the farmers and their families in their homes. I don’t stay in a hotel and commute in. I stay with them, I eat with them, I’m immersed in life in the tea garden. And, no matter where I go, I’ve always been welcomed with tea. It’s a symbol of hospitality and peace that always means, “welcome, please come in.” When the farmers I visit hear what Sloane is about, they all believe in my mission because they know how much work goes into producing tea. They understand why we invest so much time and energy into telling the story of the tea. It’s a powerful thing to be a part of.

 

Do you have any favourite stories from your tea travels?

One of the farmers that we work with in Darjeeling has become a mentor to me - they call me “little sister.” I stay with them when I visit, I get invited to their weddings and I meet their children.

I realized that while they work so hard every day to produce some of the best tea in Darjeeling, they never see how the finished product is consumed.

They came to visit me recently and we went to afternoon tea. I wanted to show them the amount of respect their tea is treated with, and how much people appreciate their story during tea service. Well, they had never in their life been to an afternoon tea service or seen how their tea is appreciated around the world. The staff is trained extensively, and my friends were awestruck by the reverence in which their tea is treated. They were almost in tears! They had never seen such incredible attention to detail on a product that they’ve put their entire life into producing. It was so gratifying that even though they know that I appreciate what they do so much, their story has been passed on and others respect it too.

 

You can find Sloane tea in our Toronto gift baskets