Tea is bought all over the world on the basis of its leaf appearance and cup merit. In India, the largest tea market of the world, the consumer goes for the tea that gives more cups per kg. And it is the tea taster who identifies these various requirements. The tea taster’s function is specialized, demanding talent, developed over years of training and experience. He carries out a comprehensive examination of the samples and apart from the sense of taste, the sense of sight, smell and touch are also used simultaneously to judge the value of a tea. The standard procedure for the preparation of the brew is to weigh out 2.9 g of the sample into a brewing pot and infuse it for 5 minutes in 120 ml. of freshly boiled water. The liquor is then strained into the tasting bowl and the infused leaf retained on the upturned lid. The taster first examines the sample of the dry leaf for its complexion, style, eveness of sortation (uniform sizing) and stalk and fibre content.
Good tea should have a uniform black colour with a bloom or sheen and the presence of fibre is not desirable as it is generally the result of improper or coarse plucking of the leaves. He also feels the leaf to see if it is crisp, indicating proper firing as opposed to a spongy feel. The infused leaf gives an indication of the merit of the liquor and a bright and coppery infusion is the ideal one. The taster then looks at the liquor to assess its colour, takes a sip, swirls it in the mouth for a few seconds and spits it out. By doing so, he judges the strength, body, briskness and also the finer aspects like quality, flavour and character. Sometimes milk is added to judge the colour and strength more accurately.
Tea tasters too have their own jargon. The strength of the liquor is thickness and gives a good indication of the cuppage or the number of cups of tea that can be prepared from 1 kg. While orthodox teas could yield 300-400 cups per kg, CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl process) teas yield 400-500 cups and dust grades even more. Briskness is the liveliness in liquor and brisk teas have good keeping qualities. Character is the distinctive taste which depends upon the area in which the tea is grown e.g. Niligiri character or Darjeeling character. Quality is aroma or the overall pleasant taste, which comes out during periods of slow-growth like winter quality of Nilgiris and other highgrown teas, second-flush quality of Darjeeling etc. Flavour (variably) described as peachy, raspberry, germalene, muscatel etc and bouquet are the ultimate in tea liquor and high prices are paid for such teas, which are rare and appear more pronounced in certain years, when climatic factors are favourable. On the other hand, there are also undesirable teas like smoky, burnt, stale, fruity (often caused by bacterial contamination during manufacture), heavy (thick but dull) and weathery (greenish, raw taste of some rainy season teas). Sometimes teas could be tainted with foreign substances like chemicals and sub standard packing materials.
Trained, sensitive taste buds and a keen nose are essential to judge the quality of a tea in so short a time. As excellent palate memory is a must as he should be able to compare it with the teas he has tasted over the years. Tasters are normally employed in Tea Auctioning firms (all auctioneers are tea tasters), blending and packing firms and some of the larger producing companies. They acquire their skills mostly by on-the-job training.
Tasters, who function as tea brokers, and auctioneers, should be able to relate both the positive and negative attributes of a tea to its manufacture, as they are often required to guide the producers in making teas to suit the changing market requirements, e.g. a tea with greenish infusions and harsh liquors will not keep well, overfired and smoky teas should be identified without delay so that corrective steps could be taken in time; during the quality season, harder withers should be able to monitor changes in demand patterns and production trends and his standing in the trade depends on how prompt and accurate he is in giving information to the buyers and producers. His most important function, of course, is to value the teas based on prevailing market conditions and the preferences and biases of the consumers. The tea tasters, who work in blending and exporting companies, are fully familiar with the requirements of the various markets. The blender takes great care to promote the sale of the right type of blends to suit the local needs and also ensures that consistency is maintained in the quality to protect the brand image. The tasters should naturally be able to put these skills to commercial use by assessing the right time to purchase their requirements from the auctions. For this they should keep an eye on the climatic conditions and crop trends in the tea producing areas as well. There are also a few tasters employed in tea growing companies who perform the function of quality control and standardization at the manufacturing stage.
Recent studies on chemical analysis of highgrown teas, conducted by the UPASI Tea Research Foundation have shown a direct correlation between the biochemical assessment and the tea tasters’ evaluation. It is unlikely that chemical analysis would replace the evaluation by a tea taster because the overall value of a tea as a beverage is much more than the sum total of its chemical ingredients. Therefore, the tea taster continues to play a vital role in assessing the quality of the various types of teas produced, valuing them for market and creating the right blends for the common man, restaurant operator as well as the connoisseur.