By William I. Lengeman III
To many of us tea-lovers, tea-taster might seem like the ultimate profession, a vocation as desirable as the fabled mattress tester. Tea tasting may conjure images of a crackling fire, a plate of delicacies and bottomless wells of fine tea, but in reality tasting tea for a living is hard work.
According to Twinings of London, a tea taster is “an expert judge of the beverage” and “a person who uses organoleptic means to discern various characteristics and qualities of tea.” In 1870, a New York Times writer was even more colorful, “We must give the palm of delicate gustatory power to the tea-taster. He must essentially be a pure-mouthed man. That organ must be virgin of cigars or quids. Even a Jersey sausage or a fried onion for breakfast may throw him out for the day. A cold in the head makes him as useless as a blind man in a color shop.”
There’s no way to be sure when the profession of tea taster came about, but the job of sorting good tea from bad was important enough that in 1897 the United States created a Board of Tea Experts, overseen by a Federal Tea-taster. The board was in existence for almost a century.
If you’d like to drink tea for a living, keep in mind that tea tasters typically spit out the tea they’re passing judgment on. Which is understandable, since they might sample as many as 500 cups a day.
Factors tasters judge are appearance of the dry leaf, color of the infused leaf and the color of the liquor and characteristics of the cup. The tasting process is far from glamorous, as the aforementioned New York Times article noted, “We cannot say this is a pleasing exhibition…Simply he sucks it in, like a fire-engine, and then spits it out, like the exhaust of a Mississippi steam-boat, and ejects the fluid into a very ugly spittoon made for the purpose.”
The reason for this impolite method, according to a Twinings Master Blender, is that “spraying or atomising the tea across the palate…releases the flavour and aroma and enables us to judge the mouth feel in terms of strength, thickness and briskness of the liquor.”
There’s no clearly defined career path for aspiring tea-taster, but most agree that their expertise is only gained after years of refining the palate and other senses. Would-be tasters might like to know that just a few years ago the Indian press reported that the tea industry there was running short of qualified tasters.
Check out William’s blog, Tea Guy Speaks, for more interesting tea-info!