A tea-taster can appraise up to six hundred types of tea per day. What is this profession about? Where can you study to become one? Why are tea sommeliers paid so well and so greatly appreciated?
Market studies, research into new tea blends, creation of new blends, procurement management… The tea-tasting business requires vast professional experience, fine senses and irreproachable taste. Tea-tasters help production companies to create balanced quality beverages without any imperfections or technological flaws.
Tea-tasters evaluate the calibre of the tea, making new compositions and blends. These professionals appraise the quality of the drink and create new blends from the coupage.
On the one hand, it’s hard to call it a new profession since there have been people tasting teas since the moment it was first produced. On the other hand, this profession cannot be called popular. Tea tasters are those rare professionals who have mastered very specific areas of knowledge – and even some secrets. In the past few decades tea-tasters have become more and more in demand due to the growth of the tea market and the increasing volume and variety of brands and product. But there are still very few real experts in this area in the whole world.
You won’t find a vacancy for tea tasters in the labour markets and it’s hard to gain a qualification in the field. The approach to this profession is quite different in Asia and in Europe and despite having similar responsibilities and authority, tea-tasters from England and in China develop as specialists in completely different ways.
China — the Motherland of tea — has included tea-tasting in its educational curriculum. There are very few institutions in the world where one can study tea-tasting but in China you can study tea-tasting at universities that specialise in agricultural sciences.
European production companies follow another route: they look for potential candidates themselves and take them on as employees. It is the companies which take care of the training programme.
It takes about ten years to master this profession. These specialists have to study the technologies, acquire vast knowledge and become familiar with the production process, including at the plantation stage. At first this profession doesn’t bring in much money, but experts with twenty or thirty years’ experience are greatly appreciated and respected – and worth their weight in gold.
The tea sommelier conducts taste-olfactory analysis according to five main features of the drink: its visual appearance, the colour of the sample, its aroma and taste. The last category includes the appraisal of the tea’s strength and tartness.
Conventional wisdom says that the intense colour signifies the strength of the drink. In fact, this isn’t so. The main factor affecting the strength of tea is the volume of agents in each tea leaf: the more there are, the stronger the tea. That’s why the first thing the tea-taster pays attention to is the quality and chemical makeup of the dry leaves. High quality green tea is stronger than poor quality black tea, despite being much lighter in colour. For example, Richard Green Tea with its flowery, fruity undertones is strong and full-bodied but is still transparent, light and bright. Strength doesn’t depend on the steeping time: tea acquires its proper and natural strength in five minutes if brewed correctly, and in five to ten minutes will start to become bitter. Both Asians and Europeans prefer to drink tea right after brewing, despite waiting some time to enjoy a high-quality drink.
The colour of the tea signifies its fermentation stage and variety: black, green, white or red. Again, as with its strength, the colour varies depending on the quality of the leaf. Tea-tasters gauge the intensity, density and the colour brightness. The last reference point is the essential one. If the drink is bright and isn’t cloudy, it means that the raw product is high quality one. The opposite means that the production company have a very superficial approach to the technological side of the process.
Tea-tasters appraise the smell and taste of the tea independently, but they take both into consideration as long as the bouquet derives from both, for that is how the consumer is going to judge the drink.
Tea-tasters have their own vocabulary. The base aroma of tea can be characterised as smoky, resinous, spicy, fruity or flowery. After that, each drink is opened up to all manner of complexities, each tea having its own gorgeous characteristics. For example, Richard tea with fruit and herbs is based on smoky thick tones with peculiar undertones of orange and cinnamon, thyme and rosemary, kaffir lime and English mint. Classic Richard Earl Grey and Richard Royal Breakfast both have pleasant tart taste and a delightful aroma.
In most cases the experts have more responsibilities than just tasting the tea. They include:
There are several limitations for tea-tasters too, including ethical ones: tea sommeliers should be unprejudiced and can’t be seen to prefer one blend at the expense of another just because they have some kind of a personal relationship with the supplier.
There are other nuances too: the tea-taster is expected to have perfect olfaction and a flawless ability to detect distinct and separate tastes. That’s why most of the time they avoid salty and spicy food, smoking, alcohol and even using perfume. No external factors should distract them.
Degustation is usually conducted by three tea-tasters, each of them considered an independent expert.
The amount of equipment in a degustation hall is not large: porcelain cups, small teapots, scales for weighing, kettles for boiling water and clocks for timing 5 minutes.
Exactly 3 grams of tea are weighed out. For 5 minutes it is steeped in water of the required temperature. During this period the tea-tasters study the dry tea, its structure, aroma, form, the curl of the leaves. After the brewed tea is poured into the cup, the tea-taster examines the brightness of its colour and the aroma of the drink before appraising the taste. This tea is not meant to be drunk; it should only be kept in the mouth for a few moments before being spat out, just like during a wine tasting.
After each tea blend is tasted by each of the three tea sommeliers, they discuss the results and rate each drink on a 10-point scale. The international tea classifier has 5 points: “high”, “higher than average”, “average”, “lower than average” and “low”. On special occasions some tea-tasters give special grades: “unique” or “outstanding”. This means the tea is unambiguously and unquestionably recognized as a superior quality beverage.
Despite its apparently straightforward nature, the tea-tasting profession is not the easiest one. Not only does it require specific expertise, but you have constantly to monitor the market and track worldwide trends. A tea-taster can try up to 600 teas in a single day.
These professionals give us the perfect product – tasty, fragrant and full-bodied. Just like Richard tea.