The Art of Tea Tasting & Blending

Tea tasting and blending most often go together, although tasting capacities may also be used for some non-commercial purposes. Blending skills without tasting abilities will not yield any valid results. Therefore, established tea masters have started to practice, memorize and learn at the tasting table and have then gone further by applying their experience, expertise and knowledge to blend the teas. Many have then taken the third step of becoming involved in the sourcing of the teas, either directly or through advising the company buyers according to their rating and evaluation criteria.

This may sound complex and abstract as a starting point. However, noting that tea is an agricultural commodity with variables that affect quality and volume, that almost 75 percent of the world’s tea exports are sold through auctions and that over 80 percent of the teas consumed in the West is marketed in tea bags; the need for capable tasters, skillful blenders and competent buyers is obvious.

A True Pioneer

The development of tea consumption in Europe and in the US was mostly based on British traders buying teas in China first and later by British business investing in growing tea in their colonial territories. An example in that context is Sir Thomas Lipton. A true pioneer, Sir Thomas began selling affordable quality tea in 1890. He eventually bought tea gardens in Sri Lanka to directly source from his own tea crop. The strategy of a fully integrated supply chain – devised more than 120 years ago – ultimately made Lipton a trusted household name across the globe and made blended, quality tea available to the mass market. The Lipton brand, which was born over 125 years ago, is now owned by Rotterdam and Londonbased Unilever, one of the globe’s biggest food and beverage companies, and considered to be the world’s biggest tea packer. According to a 2012 worldwide ranking, the other major tea packers are India-based Tata Global Beverage (TGB), which owns the Tetley brand; Associated British Foods (ABF), which owns Twinings; and the Russian company, Orimi Trade.

Regular tasting of the batches of made teas that are churned out after the last drying process are a basic factory requirement and take place in labs at least once every day. A family owned, small-holder tea farmer will brew and taste the daily output during the harvesting season in his home to ensure quality. The bigger units will have tasting teams of two or three qualified experts and the very big factories will have tasting brigades. Further tasting sessions will take place in the auction centres, in order to describe the teas for the buying catalogue and set price bands.

After the teas have reached the importers, there will be tastings again before making the purchase decision, either by brewing the samples in the smaller companies, or by travelling to the origins for big volume buying for the mainstream markets suppliers, ie the big packers. After that long sequence of tastings there will the buying and finally the blending for the wholesale and retail market.

Training the Senses

During a recent ‘Tea and Macaron’ pairing session in Paris, France, run as a joint master class by Pierre Hermé, the famous French pastry maker and Kurush Bharucha, one of Unilever’s top tea masters, the latter explained, “An established tea professional will have tasted thousands upon thousands of teas over one’s career, in order to train his/her senses into developing an encyclopedic palate memory, so as to enable the registering of all the flavour notes and profiles. The motto is that practice makes perfect, so perfect your practice!” The world of available teas has become so vast, that the training never ends, “there is always more to learn and more teas to be discovered from  new gardens and new harvests coming to the market,” Bharucha said, adding, “green tea drinking continues to be a growing trend over the past decade, with a different set of sensorial attributes and descriptors, as compared to the more widespread universe of black tea products and blends.”

Preparing a blended cup requires first taking into account the quality aspects, namely the cup colour, flavour, strength and briskness; followed by calculating the cup’s price and the volume availability of the teas to ensure continuity of supply. Tea Masters handle this job, with the assistance of their teams.

Mainstream teas for the Western tea bag market, will mostly be CTC black teas. CTC stands for “crush, tear and curl,” a manufacturing process that produces small-leaf particles, which infuse and colour fast, and fit well into the tea bags. Green tea does not go well with CTC and will mostly be leaf tea, with the small gun powder balls as the mainstream version.

Tea blending is virtually unknown in China, where over two thirds of the production are green leaf teas. When blending for the leaf tea segment, then the visual aspect of the tea before infusion will also need to be taken into account: homogeneity, pleasant colour and clean smell are paramount. Blending equipment will vary from blending drums that can run a five-ton batch in an hour down to customized hand run test batch blenders for a few kilograms.

Hands On Training Required

There is a growing trend for not only blending different teas, but also blending teas with herbals. These blends require additional knowledge and knowhow and open the door to even more reported health benefits. Such tea and herbal blends have a longstanding tradition in the producing countries, namely Jasmine teas for China; Chai, the spicy brew with milk for India; and green tea with mint for Morocco and its neighbours. The blending of tea with exotic herbals is attracting smaller retailers that have the knowledge and the sources to cater to a niche market with creative new wellness teas, sometimes reaping considerable added value.

Whilst the bulk of the blended teas target the mainstream market and lower prices, there are also premium blends made with origin teas, such as pure Darjeeling blends, a pure Kenya or Assam blend, which combine the teas of various regional gardens, which makes them single-origin blends. There are also the many breakfast teas, with their specific English, Scottish and Irish taste profiles, the precise recipes being carefully kept in the factory records.

Blending teas with the skills of an experienced tea taster is the task of a Tea Master. These high level tea professionals have mostly been trained inside their companies and have been selected for that career because of their sensorial facilities and their patience to continue to learn and to practise for many years. There seem to be no schools or academic places where such an education can be acquired, because it needs to be hands on – tasting hundreds of cups every day. A true challenge for the happy few!

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