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A Tea Taster’s Tale

BY GRAHAM STORK
Master blender/taster in Sri Lanka

Tea blender and taster is one and the same person, tea taster being the better known title. There is no school or institute in Sri Lanka that will teach one to become a tea taster. Almost all reputed tea companies recruit young school leavers.

Usually recruitment is through personal recommendation while school and extra curricular activities play a major role at recruitment, yes, cricketers have an edge over others. Former Sri Lankan captain Duleep Mendis can confirm this.

Once recruited a ‘trainee tea taster’ is under training for one year.

Training starts at the warehouse for a month or two where he gets to learn the tough side of the trade working long hours under hot and humid conditions, not forgetting the dusty blend floor (these conditions are now improving along with ISO and other certification).

Thereafter, he is moved to the tea room where he starts learning work from the bottom, opening of tins, packing samples, preparing liquors for tasting and in some cases even washing cups and sweeping.

Meanwhile he continues to learn grading and tasting from a senior taster. He will also watch while blends are being allocated.

When the senior taster is confident that the trainee is capable enough, he will get the trainee to prepare samples to be sent out to buyers and allocate blends, all under his supervision.

The next level will be for the trainee to start grading and tasting teas that are on offer at the auctions, also supervised by the senior. At the same time the trainee also attends the auction and learns buying from the senior.

The Colombo Tea Auction, which is the largest tea auction in the world, is also a meeting place for all tea tasters where they group together for lunch and tea, putting aside the rivalries of bidding against each other to socialise and crack a joke or two, not forgetting to plan out the drinking session for Friday night. Tea tasters being teetotalers is the greatest myth of all.

The Colombo auction is a place where millions of dollars worth of tea is traded without a single gram of tea or a single rupee entering the auditorium, great trust is placed between the buyers and sellers.

When the senior taster is confident enough he will hand over a part of his work to the trainee. This process takes a year or two depending on the capability of the trainee and the exposure he gets.

A further year or two later the young lad will slowly get involved in ‘trading’ as well. This depends on the company. The bigger companies have a separate team for marketing/trading.

It must be said that the trade still hands down to the next generation the old British ways of working and traditions that one would treat with respect.

You could say it takes about one year to become a tea taster/blender and as the years go by he ends up a “wise old taster”, probably heading the department.

START OF BLENDING

I am not quite sure how blending started but I believe the reason will be shortage of tea. Each factory will produce about 1000kg of a particular grade per auction. Orders usually come in container loads (15000kg approx). Therefore, you need to blend in teas from different factories to meet quantity.

Usually teas of the same region are blended. However, now different region teas are blended to get a unique cup, this has to be done carefully. Example: our English Breakfast is a blend of the best high-grown teas (rich in aroma) blended with a low-grown CTC tea (dark colour and strong taste, Kalubowitiyana is one), this blend has good aroma and strength with a deep red coloured cup. You could say this blend took the CIS by storm within the last decade.

English Breakfast is a black tea that could be drunk with milk and sugar. A tea with dark colour, strong taste and rich aroma would be a good English Breakfast. However, today it seems any black tea can be called English Breakfast.

A few decades ago, from a Sri Lankan tea taster’s point of view, English Breakfast meant a good high-grown black tea from the Dimbula region, today it’s not always so.

CREATING A BLEND

When we sell tea we first make a sample, break it up into two, send one to the buyer and keep one for us known as the “reserve sample” or “the standard”.

When the order is confirmed, we examine the standard sample we have with us and buy tea based on this sample.

After buying the tea, we examine and taste samples of our purchases and blend them to match the standard sample we retained with us. In other words, we make a sample blend proportionately (known as “hand trial”) before blending the actual quantity of a few thousand kilos.

Once hand trial is complete and satisfactory, we blend all teas and taste a sample of the actual blend alongside the standard sample we sent to buyer and the hand trial.

When the taster is satisfied and believes the quality of the blend sample matches the standard sample, approval will be given for the teas to be packed to buyer specifications for export.

Teas mature and then go stale with time, these facts have to be considered when comparing samples, this is where a taster’s experience counts, there will always be a technical difference and room for argument. Older teas get darker in liquor and will lose aroma.

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