Our Editor travels up the Grand Union Canal to visit the HQ of Tetley’s Global Operation in North West London to meet Sebastian Michaelis, a tea taster, to share a brew or two.
Seb is a rare breed, a Tea Taster, it’s not your run of the mill job. In fact it emerges that they are quite a small close-knit group, as there are only a few dozen knocking about in the UK. In a nod to the imperial connections between Britain and Tea there is apparently still an annual get together where the great and good of Tea pop on some gowns in a grand hall and enjoy a tipple slightly stronger than their usual brew. You imagine in centuries past that half the wealth of the Empire would have been in that room.
Despite the imposing picture I built up in my head on the bus ride over, I’m put at ease early on by learning that Seb studied Philosophy at University, like myself . Though I imagine that most of our dear readers didn’t spend four years reading Aristotle and Seneca like myself and Seb, it is nice to know that someone leaving the hallowed halls of Higher Education with the most abstract degree you can get, can end up with such a set of highly practical and specialised skills.
Upon my arrival I’m ushered up to the tasting rooms, a stunning collection of Antique cabinets and tea tins containing tea samples pretty much from every corner of every tea field in the world. The old room has been brilliantly implanted in a modern office building with a panoramic view of the Grand Union to both allow for maximum light and I suspect a perspective of the story the room is part of. Overlooking a waterway that carried for centuries an imperial nations thirst for Tea . My wistful and overly poetic reflection on the imposing nature of the room is delightfully interrupted by the return of the collection of women who run the tasting room. The only way to describe them is like a collection of the kind and friendly dinner ladies we all remember fondly from primary school.
First and foremost before we get round to the serious business of Tea tasting I’m fascinated to learn how one goes from being perennially frustrated by anything Immanuel Kant or for that matter any German philosopher writes, to haggling over the prices of dozens of tons of tea in something akin to a cattle market in Kenya. Seb tells me that slightly unsure of what to do post-university the graduate program at Tetley seemed an attractive prospect.
Fast forward a decade and Seb has a wealth of knowledge and is an increasingly important part of Tetley’s ability to stay ahead of the game. Seb tells me it takes, in reality, about five years to get to grips with tea tasting and there is a great variance in the tasks you are expected to perform. ‘My friends seem to think all I do is sit round and drink Tea all day, in reality it is a lot more complicated than that’. As part of his training Seb was sent all over the world learning about the global industry. Tea Tasters are the buyers for Tetley’s, they have people on the ground ready to source, taste and buy tonnes of tea in all the major auctions around the world. Tetley’s buy one hundred and thirty million kilos of tea a year. This very interview with Seb had taken months to schedule as he had been in and out the country constantly dealing with various shortages of particular types of tea.
As Seb starts to reveal the finer details of the world of tea two major things become apparent. Firstly that Tea for the most part is essentially the same plant the world over. It might seem a dim and obvious thing to say but when one considers the difference between the ‘builders brew’ you enjoy and that refreshing cup of camomile it is remarkable that it is the same product just changed by terrain, weather and production. The second thing that dawns on me, hearing of Seb’s recent travails, is that Tea, a everyday joy we all take for granted, is as complicated as the wine industries. ‘It’s been a bad year for Saint Emillion Hugo’ we’d likely overhear in Waitrose. Though little do we think of the effort and varying factors it takes to create that classic English Breakfast taste for us to dunk our biscuits in, and tut furiously at whatever we disagreed with in the morning papers.
Tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, and Seb lays out a dozen or so tea leaves of varying colours and sizes for me and explains this less than 0.1 percent of the types of Tea leaves produced around the world. Depending on how you pluck it, cut it, dry it and all the other variants of production you can arrive at any one of these thousands of variants of Tea. Like wine, the taste of the Tea can change due to levels of rainfall and changes in temperature, so Seb and other tasters have to sample every batch that arrives from the multitude of factories that Tetley’s deals with around the world. Unlike wine which has a harvest a year, Tea is picked every few weeks and can potentially change it qualities with each new picking. Seb explains the difference between green and black tea is simply that black tea is left to oxidize where as green tea is dried straight after picking.
So we eventually don our aprons and get ready to taste some Teas. Tea tasting isn’t quite as you think it would be, it isn’t just Seb and I sat around enjoying a few cups with a nice accompanying cucumber sandwich. No, the tea is brewed for six minutes using twice the amount of tea usually used in a tea bag. It makes some strong stuff, and because of this it is standard practice to spit out your tea after sampling. Seb explains that it has to be done this way in order for them to be able to pick up all the elements and analyse the batch best.
Tetley’s have their own in-house tasting language called Ohuru, meaning ‘Freedom’ in Swahili. It looks at four main elements in the Tea; Zing, Colour, Sparkle and Body. Zing is the overall taste quality, the flavour and the impact of the flavour on your tongue. So a high zing tea you can still taste twenty seconds after. Sparkle is their word for the intensity of the colour of the Tea. Each element has a rating range of 1-40, so every Tea has an eight digit code. Seb can look at each code and instantly know the taste and its likely country of origin. These codes allow Tetley’s to blend their Tea and hit the right numbers and create their classic tastes like their famous ‘Blue Label’ we’ve all probably had a cup of at some point.
We proceed to try a range of teas, starting with a quite unpleasant low quality Argentine tea, used to make iced tea for the US market, to a stunning Chinese tea which sells for $100 a kilo. Seb points out a fascinating range of flavours in the variety of green and blacks we try, from sulphur & liquorice to germaline & pineapple.
I leave North West London even more fascinated by the world of tea and the jet-set lifestyle of the Tea Tasters, those noble guardians of the great British cup of tea. Ensuring we all have an enjoyable brew, morning, noon and night.
By Morgan Hamilton-Griffin
Illustration by Marko Anstice