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MASTERS OF THEIR ART

All tea drinkers have a relish for life and a willingness to lose themselves in the enjoyment of this most complex of drinks. But there are two people in particular whose lifestyle requires that they live and breathe all things tea-related. They are the tea taster and the tea master - the most important people in the trading, blending and selecting of fine tea. Tea tasters work for tea companies and merchants, helping them to select the best possible products to sell. Tea masters, meanwhile, can be found at top-class hotels, offering advice to guests on the range of teas available.

TEA TASTERS

Tea tasters have to be specialists in flavour. They need to possess an excellent palate, an extraordinary depth of knowledge and a great memory. The tea tasters contribute directly to the success of his or her employer's business. They test the quality of the harvest and assess whether the teas are up to standard. They also consider whether a particular tea is worth the price being asked by the supplier and make a decision about whether to buy it or not.

These experts are familiar with all the tea-growing regions of the world and maintain close contact with tea gardens. They visit them regularly, fostering a relationship with growers and regularly tasting the tea as it is harvested. But the work of the tea taster doesn't end once a batch of tea has been purchased. They also oversee the blending process, in order to ensure that the right mix of flavours is available in a final brew. In consequence, the tea taster needs a comprehensive knowledge of tea, complemented by a sensitive palate that can detect the subtleties of different brews. Over and above all these skills, of course, the tea taster has to love tea. They have to enjoy nothing better than trying different types of tea and discerning the often tiny nuances between them. To get into this line of work, most people start as trainees for major tea companies. Then, once their knowledge of tea has developed and their tastes have tame refined, they can be trained for the important role of tea taster.

TEA TASTING

In an average day, a tea taster may sample more than 300 different varieties of tea. So it's important that he or she enjoys the flavour of tea, and also that they can detect the sometimes subtle differences between varieties.

The standard method of tea tasting is actually defined by international legislation. White porcelain is set out in a room lit by daylight - this is important for determining the colour of the teas. There is one cup with a serrated spout for each type of tea, a lid for the cup and a drinking bowl.

Each cup is given 2.86 grams of tea and filled to the brim with hot water, the time is set for five minutes, which does not always result in the tastiest of brews. But this isn't the point: the tea taster must sample every tea under exactly the same conditions, so as to detect the differences between them. When the brewing time is up, the tea is poured into the drinking bowl, and the cup is turned over so that the leaves fall on the inner side of the lid. This can then be placed on top of the empty cup, with the inside of the lid facing upwards to reveal the leaves.

Now the tea taster has everything under his or her critical gaze: the dried tea leaves lying on a white chute, the hot tea in the bowl and the damp tea leaves on the lid of the cup. They examine the leaves to ascertain their quality, smelling them and assessing their colour in both their wet and dry state. The tea taster also evaluates the aroma and colour of the brewed tea in the bowl. Finally, they take a loud slurp of tea, ensuring it is swilled around the mouth to hit every taste area. The tea is then spat out, so the taster doesn't overdose on caffeine, and an assessment is made.

This process is carried out sample by sample, and every evaluation is written down. If a tea taster's verdict is that a tea is "clean, bright and attractive", then there's a pretty good chance it will be included in his or her employer's next order.