50 shades of black: how the work of a professional tea taster works

You have to be a tea maniac to become a teatester. But you can choose the right tea without a long study

If there is a cloudy foam or an oily film on the surface of freshly brewed tea, this is very good: the product is of high quality. A professional tea taster who tastes hundreds of varieties a day talks about the intricacies of taste.

50 shades of black: how a professional tea taster works

Jörg Zakulowski

50 shades of black: how a professional tea taster works

Born in 1959 in Hamburg. He was trained as a sales representative in the field of wholesale and international trade in Bremen. From 1985 to 1989 he worked in the purchasing department of W tea company. B. Michaelsen in Bremen. Since 1989 Tea Taster at the Teekanne factoryin Düsseldorf. Since 1998, he has been combining the duties of the chief taster with the duties of the head of the tea purchase department.
Married, two children. (Biography as of 2016 — Note by Vokrugsveta.ru)

For many years you have been earning by tasting tea. Where is such a pleasant profession taught?

— In Europe  — nowhere but England. In India, major producers train their tasters. But more often than not, they get into the teatester profession by accident, like me. The main condition & nbsp; – you need to be a tea maniac. After all, a taster at a large factory sometimes has to taste several hundred varieties a day. Before joining the Teekanne, I worked for four years in a small company that supplied Chinese tea. There were few employees, they tasted everything. Colleagues noted that I have a clear talent: I distinguish more shades of taste than other people.

Is this talent innate or can such abilities be developed?

– In five or six years of regular tasting, even an ordinary tea drinker can train the receptors so much that he will detect subtle flavors.

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The perfect blend

Your task is to select the best varieties?

“Hurry to get the best tea. First, I taste the samples that the growers send us from the plantations. If the sample is of good quality, we order a batch. After that, we need to make sure that they brought us exactly what we ordered. I'm doing a comparison. Then the most interesting thing begins – the creative process. I mix different varieties to create the perfect drink.

50 shades of black: how does a professional tea taster work

Looks like the work of a perfumer.

– A little. I take a pinch of different varieties and come up with a new taste. But in general, it sounds more romantic than it really is: more often, blends are needed to level the difference in the quality of teas from different plantations, to even out the taste. Not in every store you will find pure tea, most often these are blends. Trying samples, I immediately figure out what mixtures can be made from them, what flavor nuances of one variety will complement another. After compiling the recipe, I send the data to the production department. And when the first samples of new products are brought to me, I try them to see if they match the recipe. For a tea to sell well, it must be interesting.

What interesting teas have you created?

— The first blend I patented — < em>Teefix is a variation on English breakfast, the world's most popular tea blend. There is a classic idea of ​​what English breakfast is(a mixture of Assam, Ceylon and Kenyan teas), but each manufacturer strives to come up with his own recipe. I used some Indonesian tea.

In total, over the years of work, I have created about 120 black tea recipes. But here in Germany (and in general in Europe) they drink more coffee, and tea is perceived as a medicine. Therefore, herbal mixtures are very popular here. I create a variety of blends of teas, fruits and herbs using several hundred natural ingredients. These are the usual & nbsp; – wild rose, thyme, currant, and more rare & nbsp; – black elderberry, blackberry leaves, white hibiscus. We even came up with the idea of ​​spraying the leaves with orange or lemon juice. It is important to make a tea drink special, while preserving the natural taste and aroma.

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Quality mark

Without tasting tea, can you tell how good or bad it is?

50 shades of black: how a professional tea taster works

– When I receive a product sample – a foil bag with 300-400 grams of tea, I first examine it visually and tactilely. Everything is important: the smell, the appearance of tea and how it feels to the touch. Good tea has a dense structure, rich color, beautiful uniform shape of tea leaves. Old or low-quality tea leaves are dull, of different shapes, hard. I rub the tea leaf between my fingers. If it rolls into lumps, then it is underdone. It quickly grinds to powder & nbsp; – bad. I reject this immediately. Good tea does not crumble.

Then I look into the cup: is the color of tea leaves typical for the region of growth? Fresh high-quality tea, when brewed, gives a pronounced pure aroma, the leaves unfold gradually, the color of the drink is rich reddish. In low-quality tea, the smell is muffled, the color is cloudy, a deaf yellow hue. When the tea has been brewed for 4-5 minutes, I lay out the leaves on a saucer and conduct a visual analysis of them. If the veins on the leaf form a bright grid-like pattern, the main vein goes exactly to the tip, there are denticles on the edge of the leaf, then this is a quality tea. In cheap tea, the veins are indistinct, the teeth are uneven.

How does the tasting process go?

— In the tasting room, where in addition to me there are three more junior tea-testers, there is a long table, on it teapots, in front of each a cup and saucer. My assistants pour the finished tea into cups, and put the tea leaves into the saucers. Only soft filtered tap water is used to brew tea samples. A teapot with a volume of 250 milliliters goes three grams of tea.

In the colonial era, a portion of tea was paid with a sixpence coin – they were equalized on the scales. Six pence weighs 2.8 grams. But for simplicity, over time, this amount was rounded up to three grams. Usually about 50 samples participate in one tasting. I taste the drink when it has cooled to a temperature of 50-52 degrees. And I do it quite quickly so that the tea at the end of the row does not get cold.

How much tea do you have to drink during a working day?

– I don't drink it. The tasting process is very similar to gargling. I walk along the rows of teapots and cups, tasting tea after tea and spitting it into the brass urns by the table. I sort of suck tea from a spoon, hold it on my tongue a little, then draw it in a little further and follow my sensations. So I get not only taste signals, but also smell shades.

The fact is that the receptors on the human tongue capture only four basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet and sour. And here the main thing is those shades of taste and aroma that are captured by the receptors of the nose. It happens that fresh tea knits a little in the mouth. After such tart samples, I rest a little. But I don’t rinse my mouth with water, as, for example, wine tasters do. The feeling that tea is good arises spontaneously. If I like tea, I push the cup forward, if in doubt – back. And cups with bad tea remain in the row.

50 shades of black: how does a professional tea taster work

I understand about bad tea, but what happens to “doubtful” tea?

I'm taking a break to think. Perhaps I use this tea as a base tea for creating blends. Sometimes I bargain with the supplier, trying to reduce the price of this variety. But good tea (usually only 8-10% of all samples sent for testing) is sent to the laboratory for chemical analysis, which takes up to 10 days.

Tea is tested for pesticides, degree of fermentation, liquid content – about 60 tests in total. Sometimes improper storage of even very good raw materials can significantly degrade its quality. Traces of mold or fungi can only be found in the laboratory. After the analysis, I either conclude an agreement with the supplier or reject the tea if, for example, traces of pesticides were found.

How many samples of tea do you have to analyze — per day, per year?


— Every year we analyze up to 6000 tea samples from all over the world. And during the harvest season, it happens that we try up to 500 a day. This figure may seem gigantic, but I don’t work alone – in my team, as I said, there are three more tasters. So if someone has a runny nose, others will insure. After all, even a mild cold makes a teatester incapacitated.

One British tea factory insured a taster's receptors for a million pounds … How do you take care of your receptors?

“Something you have to deny yourself. During the working week, rich aromatic foods, spices and spicy dishes are prohibited. Weekends, please. There is also a restriction on smoking, but I do not follow it well, I have been smoking for 25 years and I just can’t quit. But tobacco, unlike, for example, garlic, does not dull the taste sensations. We take several tasting breaks a day to refresh our taste buds a bit.

Do you drink tea just for yourself?

“Well, I’m a passionate lover of him. I start my morning with tea, not coffee. At the end of the working day, I also drink a cup to my pleasure. I prefer pure tea, not tea drinks, not blends. My favorite is Darjeeling.

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The right cup

— < strong>Help the average consumer who, like you, prefers pure black tea, navigate the choice.

– The best and richest black teas are, of course, Indian Darjeeling and Assam, as well as Ceylon. However, tea is like grapes: even harvests from the same plantation can differ from each other depending on weather conditions and the season. For example, the early harvest of Darjeeling – first flush (so-called first spring harvest) and second flush (early summer harvest) have different characteristics. The best tea is this summer, grown in the bright sun. Autumnal flush – autumn collection – not so soft in taste. And the leaves themselves are already less plastic.

50 shades of black: how does a professional tea taster work

— Usually we buy teas from different plantations and mix them. But there are certain rules. For example, it is legally allowed to write “Ceylon tea” on the package only if it is 100% Ceylon tea. In the tea mixture, the content of tea from Ceylon plantations can be reduced to 50%. The buyer should carefully read the packaging.

If the composition of tea is indicated as a percentage, this is already a sign of quality. If the manufacturer writes the name or number of the plantation, then you can be sure: this is tea of ​​a higher quality than the one on the packaging of which such information is not available. Our plantation partners are complaining that several times more Ceylon tea or Darjeeling is sold in the world than is grown on all plantations in general. Unscrupulous manufacturers do not indicate on the packaging that there are other teas in addition to Ceylon tea.

50 shades of black: how does a professional tea taster work

— < strong>And yet, how to understand that you are drinking quality tea, and not a cheap blend?

– A cloudy foam on the surface of freshly brewed tea, contrary to popular belief, is a sign of quality. These are polyphenols and antioxidants, as well as essential oils. Cheap tea doesn't have them. If a kind of “gasoline” film forms on the surface of the cooled drink, oil stains are also good tea. Film – tannin.

I want to refute another common myth: tea bags do not contain dust and waste from the production of loose tea. It cannot be said that large-leaf tea is better than small-leaf tea. Different sizes of tea leaves are obtained in the process of twisting the leaves and subsequent phased sifting. Large pieces of the leaf are separated from those that are smaller. The smallest crumb, or seeding, is packaged in bags. At the same time, the taste of such tea is much more intense, since the contact surface of the fracture with water is larger.

How can one visually distinguish a bad bag from a good one?

You need to pay attention to the filter paper from which the bag is made. Often artificial raw materials, various polymers are added to it. It is easy to distinguish: make sure that the bag is not sealed on top, but is sewn up with a thread or secured with a metal bracket. If the tea is strongly flavored, then most likely it is also of poor quality. It is unprofitable for the manufacturer to buy high-quality tea and add artificial flavors to it. Behind the strong smell, the natural aroma of tea will be lost.

If the water turns dark as soon as you put the tea bag down, chances are it is cheap tea with dyes added. If the water stays clear until you move the bag, then it is a good tea. After one or two minutes of infusion, caffeine is released into the water. Tea, which was brewed for two minutes, is exciting and invigorating. And from the fifth minute it becomes more and more bitter. This is due to the fact that the tea leaf begins to release tannins. This tea is relaxing. It's time to take out the tea bag and enjoy the taste.

50 shades of black: how does a professional tea taster work

Many people like to drink tea with jam, honey, sweets. What best complements the taste of tea?

– Tea does not require that it be supplemented with cakes or other sweets. He deserves respect. Nothing but lemon, sugar and milk, I would not recommend serving with tea. But in order to appreciate the full bouquet of flavors and aromas, tea must be drunk in its pure form.

Photo: Teekanne (x7), Panther Media GmbH/Alamy/Legion Media

Material published in the magazine “Vokrug sveta” No. 1, January 2016, partially updated in March 2023

Daria Karelina

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