Interview – Tea tasting trade’s main gate to quality

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Photo by Christine Wehrmeier on Unsplash

Tasting tea is an art embellished over a long period of time and the trade’s main gate to quality control. Tasters spend long hours swilling tea liquor in their mouth to determine the thickness, body and viscosity, judging character and aromas that eventually decide their future.

Deepak Sarma, Head – Tea tasting, blending and buying, Eastern Enterprise (Assam) and Tea Consultant to Walmart India and Hindustan Unilever speaks to Indoasiancommodities.com about the art he’s perfected over decades.

Did the Corona virus-related lockdown influence tea buying for the companies like HUL and Walmart you are associated with?

Yes, the lockdown did take a serious toll on the tea industry.  There has been an abnormal increase in tea prices compounded with a huge shortage of tea to the tune of 150 to 200 million kgs this year.

For the first time ever, tea prices have surged by 40-60 per cent. It is almost a Rs 100 to Rs 150 rise over the previous year. This is a record for the Indian tea industry, and though there is a huge shortfall in tea production, buyer demand has been extremely strong that has pulled up the prices significantly.

Deepak Sarma

When did you start tea tasting and what does it entail?

I started my tea tasting career in 1974 when I joined Lipton and it is continuing even today. I retired from Hindustan Unilever (HUL) in 2004 and started my own company Eastern Enterprise (Assam) in 2015 at the age of 67 years. Nonetheless, as an experienced tea taster, master blender and tea buyer I remain a tea consultant with Walmart India and HUL.

Even today I do about 300-400 tea tastings in a day. As such tea tasting is a skill to differentiate different qualities of tea. The tea liquor is swilled round the mouth to determine the thickness, body and viscosity of the tea. Characters and aromas of different teas are judged for quality selections. It is therefore the trade’s main gate to quality control.

And what does tea blending entail?

Blending is an art.  It can be attained by fixing a standard blend with consistent quality throughout. Since tea is an agricultural crop, terrain and weather play a big role in determining the quality of the tea. A tea expert’s job is to ensure that irrespective of the different teas mixed the blend has to remain consistent for the consumers.

The choice of tea while blending is vital, for as many as twenty different teas go into a single blend, each tea is different, and varied from the composition of the previous blend. Blending requires perfection.

You need to replicate the flavour, colour, size of leaf and quality to the previous blends to the exact same standard. A good blender must love tea and has to be a good taster and a good mixologist. Tea blending needs inspiration and demands perfection. After all, Brooke Bond red label tea for instance can’t be different each time you buy it.

How is tea buying done in bulk?

Buyers select the teas as per demand and requirement of the clients.  As such bulk of the tea buying is done through on line electronic auctions. Around 25 per cent is done through direct seller/buyer contract. Auctioning system has an edge as it is a very transparent process. 

Are tea exports increasing and from which regions are we seeing higher demand?

There has been a marginal increase in exports from India. For the last two years exports were to the tune of 251 million to 256 million kilogram. The Indian tea trade is beginning to get enquiries for black tea from buyers in the US, Britain, Germany and China, however we need to explore new destinations aggressively. 

What has your personal journey spanning 4 decades tell you about the growth of tea industry in the country?

My journey has been an interesting journey and a great learning experience, which continues even today.  Over the course of time I have seen small growers and leaf factories emerge giving livelihood to lot of unemployed youths. Small growers contribute around 50 per cent of the total All India production.

Also I have seen the auction system change drastically from manual to electronic mode, giving more transparency to the system. Pan India auction system allows buyers to buy from any auction centre, which is unique. I have seen the transformation in the retail segment from loose tea to packet tea.

Further, I have seen revolutionary changes in the taste and palate of consumers. Flavoured tea, white tea, silver tea, golden tippy teas etc are all finding space in store shelves. Green tea, because of its many health benefits, has also become very popular among niche and urban areas and e-commerce has made availability of all kinds of teas possible even sitting at home

Shampa Bahadur has been a business journalist for more than two decades. She has written for Business India, PTI Media TransAsia and India Infrastructure Publication Ltd among others. She has also written coffee table books. She can be reached at shampa@indoasiancommodities.in

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