Life with Chai
- April 01 2020
- 16 Comment(s)
Hello and welcome to this blog of Taj Mahal Tea House. Let’s start off by me telling you a bit about how I got into the tea tasting profession in the first place and then I will let you know how I integrate tea into my everyday experience…
A bit about me
After completing my management degree in 1989, I aspired to do a Marketing job & joined Unilever (Brooke Bond India) in the Sales & Marketing Department. To my surprise, at the time of reporting at Bengaluru Corporate office, I was suddenly allocated to the Tea Buying and Tasting division in Kolkata. The other person who joined with me was a Cost accountant in an Insurance Company. Some diversiTEA indeed!
Although I had absolutely no clue about this particular profession, I was curious to understand how the Selectors made that choice without a so called “Tea Tasting “test being conducted. To my surprise, they responded that I had a very “audible voice” which was detected during the group discussion process, and that this attribute, would prove very useful as a Tea Buyer in an auction room.
For your information, in the 80s, Tea was bought and sold in an open outcry auction system where out of approximately 300 buyers assembled in a room, each buyer would have to literally scream his lungs out for the auctioneer to hear his bid. In those days, the Brooke Bond Tea Taster would ALSO buy the tea he tasted, and so, it was imperative that he be “ambidextrously” armed with both robust vocal and tasting skills. I was told that the critical “tea tasting skills” would be acquired during the job and it was a “lifelong learning” process.
I needed to know more about the Tea Tasting Job before committing to take it on. In 1989, there was no Google to get information about a Tea Taster job and one relied only on Business magazines to get any inputs. Unfortunately, there was no current data on this. Further, no one I asked knew of a “Tea Tasting” job, except that one had to give up drinking and smoking (not true, I found out later!) and be sequestered in some far away plantation. Anyway, I decided to give this rather mysterious offer a shot. As I was an avid tea drinker during my student days, it seemed like an exciting prospect to make a living out of.
So, how did I embark on the Tea Tasting process? Well first, I had to understand the “Tea Language” which actually is a list of all possible attributes a tea can have. The basic attributes that describe each tea are the physical tea appearance, visual colour or depth of the infused tea and the taste and flavour profile. The next step would be to actually start tasting the teas and applying the language to categorize teas for the company to buy.
Developing the palate to pick up distinctive tastes takes time and discipline to master and I literally had to taste between 500 to 1500 tea cups a day across all Indian Tea terrains (Mainly Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiris, Kerala) for about 25 years to get a good understanding of tea tasting. Apart from developing the tasting skill, to be more operationally effective, it was important to memorise all the gardens and seasonal quality profiles. So, if you mention the name of a particular garden in say, Tinsukia (Assam) during June, an experienced taster would be able to “visualise” what the cup would look like and “experience” its taste too. Gradually through travel and experiencing teas from other global origins, the tea repository of information got broadened even further.
In today’s age, no learning is complete without consumer insight and customer engagement. During my normal Tea Tasting job, I volunteered to work with company salesman to sell Unilever Tea brands in West India. I would take our brand and competitor brands and have them “liquored” at local Tea shops and served to customers to effectively highlight strong points of our brands. I eventually got an opportunity to independently sell our Unilever Loose tea brands in West India and Overseas markets which enabled me to get even closer to the end consumer and communicate in a language that he knows best. This accumulation of all these skills made me evolve to become a Tea Sommelier.
Now a bit on my life with Chai.
My personal experiences with Tea “were planted” in my childhood when friends who used to visit us in London would gift us picturesque metallic tins of “Ceylon Tea” or Tea from Sri Lanka. Although I was not encouraged to try this tea, I would invariably open the tins and be amazed by the sight of the black, long, twisted and wiry tea leaves that gave off a peculiar flavour when brewed. Obviously, my curiosiTEA was kindled off by this instance.
Although I grew up mostly on milk as a child, I became a fanatic tea drinker as I “bloomed” into my teen years. Hanging out at “Chai Walla’s” was considered the “in thing” when I entered college in Delhi and I would drink masala chai during my class intervals. The warm tea in the trade mark “Yera” glass would immediately sooth my jagged nerves and give me an instant sense of peace. My mind would become blank and my senses would only be focussed on the soothing aroma and captivating spicy tea taste. To prolong this experience, I would have 4 to 5 more glasses and would escape to my peaceful world beyond the highly convoluted ‘Mean Value theorems, Triple integrals and Complex Analysis”.
When I started working in Brooke Bond, I was immediately inundated with tasting over 1000 cups per day. However, after a gruelling 10 hour per day schedule of tasting teas at work, it is ONLY TEA that would help me calm down and mindfully engage me with its aroma, warmth and flavour. For that moment, all my worries and problems would simply dissipate away.
At home I prefer to make my tea myself. Through the learnings gained on the job, I have begun to “enjoy” tea in all its aspects. I mindfully look at the dry leaves and feel the texture, inhale the aroma when boiled or brewed, watch the colour of the decoction change and finally, take that delightfully refreshing sip. The selection of tea leaves, spices, Tulsi or turmeric, crushing of spices and brewing the concoction is also extremely meditative process and hence a great stress buster. In the mornings, actually preparing a cup of tea and then drinking it has been my perfect “ZEN” moment to start every day.
I don’t have any personal favourites and I like to “appreciate” all types of teas. Being in Unilever, I had the opportunity of working for long durations at many places which enabled me to get deeply immersed into local cuisines as well. In Assam, I used to drink the “Lal Sa “or simply Assam tea without milk. In Kerala, I would love having the South Indian powdery milky dust tea. In Kolkata, it would be a mix of Assam CTC tea and Darjeeling tea. I also experimented with Green tea mixed with a dash of lemon and honey. For about 2 years at a stretch I relished Kenyan tea which I procured from visits to Pakistan. In Delhi, particularly in the current winters, I relish the thick milky masala chai. Further, depending on my mood, occasion and location, I select a tea that will maximise my enjoyment for that moment.
Having been infused with so much tea before my working life and during it, I feel like I have always been specially connected to it and evolved into an “Old Tea Soul”.
So, what is your tea story and how do you integrate this amazing drink into your life? Looking ahead to hearing your side.