Josna Rege

77. The Tea Tasting

In 1980s, Food, Stories, United States on October 3, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I must admit that I felt rather pleased with myself when I was invited to the tea tasting. I make a bit of a fetish of my love of tea, and pride myself on my discernment in that department. No tea bags for me, strictly whole-leaf Darjeeling if you please; and not just any old Darjeeling tea, but only the real thing, from the Lopchu Tea Estate. So I took the invitation as confirmation of my near-sommelier status, and set out with my friend Ann with some excitement; we had both given birth recently, and this was one of my first outings without the baby.

The tea-tasting was being organized by two co-workers, buyers at the Northeast Federation of Food Cooperatives who were in the early stages of starting a business selling fair trade products which was soon to become Equal Exchange. They were assessing a number of different teas from small worker-controlled cooperatives, and, being coffee specialists themselves, were seeking some outside input.

Equal Exchange

I had never been to a tea tasting before, and soon found that it was nothing like I had expected. First of all, the teas were served in little paper cups, uncomfortably similar to those used for urine samples at one’s annual medical check-up; second, it was served without milk, which made perfect sense, but rendered the whole experience distasteful to me. I take no pleasure in drinking black tea without milk, and didn’t feel equipped to evaluate it as such. I immediately started to feel like an impostor, for I had no idea on what basis I was expected to make my judgement. I knew what I liked, and it was not remotely like any of these clinical samples I was being offered in quick succession.

Nevertheless, I kept up a brave front and made my rounds of the unlabeled samples, trying not to wince while sipping dutifully from each paper cup, clearing my palate with a sip of water, and tentatively jotting down my impressions on blank slips of paper. It is a well-known fact that milk in tea helps to neutralize the tannins and is much gentler on the stomach, and I was soon starting to feel rather queasy. I was also starting to feel the call of my infant son, never having been away from him for this long.

All the teas, to varying degrees, tasted weak and acidic, some with a faintly bitter principle, others pleasantly flowery but still decidedly unsatisfying. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever enjoy a nice cup of tea again after this experience, when I came to a sample that was different. My taste buds perked up and my face brightened; finally I was on solid ground: this was something to write home about. With my confidence in myself as a connoisseur restored, I scribbled an evaluation that was much more enthusiastic and self-assured than all the others:

This is a full-bodied blend that achieves an excellent balance between robustness and taste. Strong without being too bitter and flavorful without being too flowery, it is just the thing to get one started in the morning. Two thumbs up!

With the job done, Ann and I were both anxious to get home to our babies. As the results were read out, we learned that most of the samples were from a small worker-controlled plantation in Sri Lanka. I waited eagerly for the identity of my favorite to be revealed, feeling sure that it would be adopted without reservation and go on to become the new company’s top-selling tea.

But when the time came, I could not have been more wrong, and surely could not have been more embarrassed. My favorite, that perfect blend of robustness and flavor, turned out to be none other than a Lipton tea bag. So much for my expertise and discernment! I mumbled something about needing to get  home to the baby and bowed out unceremoniously.

Despite my input that day, Equal Exchange has gone on to become a highly successful fair trade cooperative business. And I have continued to enjoy a nice cup of tea—with milk, thank you very much. I still prefer Lopchu Darjeeling when I’m at home and can get it, but when I’m desperate, I won’t turn up my nose at a good old Lipton’s tea bag in a takeaway cup.




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  1. Josna, Wish my Dad could read this. 🙂 As I had told you once, he was a Tea Taster of the vintage breed – and he would be thrilled to bits that this now almost arcane, occupation has made it to your blog! He used to recommend it steep for more than 4 minutes, in hot water that had been boiled for ten! Drunk black, or with x ml of milk. Oh, and now that I am more than tepid, nice and warm, Assam tea,please, pinkish gold, with a drop of milk that diffuses like twilight in a cup.

    • Dear Urmi, I love your description of the Assam tea, with milk “diffusing like twilight” in it. ! In the best of all worlds, Assam is actually my favorite tea for the morning, and Darjeeling for the afternoon. This piece doesn’t do justice to your father’s tea wisdom, I’m sure. Sometime I would love to hear more about him, what his work meant to him, and how he performed his high priest-like duties. Despite the self-deprecating humor in this story, tea and tea drinking actually plays a critical role in my life, which I must explore again in a more serious vein. Its ritual unites all my disparate selves. In a very real way I find my home in it, and perhaps that’s why I make such a fuss about it. So many tea stories to tell! Thank you for writing. x J

  2. Oh what a fun post.
    Both my mother and my best friend from college have always insisted that Lipton tea is best. Both are irritable when asked to drink anything else. Recently, my college friend’s boyfriend (who emigrated to the States from China) told her that Lipton is nothing more than the floor sweepings from the tea factory. “The worst tea leaf scraps and maybe some dust and lint!” he said. But my friend — undeterred by this criticism, or maybe strengthened by it — still claims Lipton as her favorite tea. I can’t deny a warm association with Lipton’s yellow and red box, since I associate it so strongly with two of my favorite women.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if most tea bags are filled with the dust that sinks to the bottom and the sweepings. But people’s tea loyalties are only partially based on the actual taste and quality of the tea, and to a great extent on their personal associations. People swear by their favorite brands of tea, and practically go to war over their preparation rituals: whether the milk is put in before or after the tea, for example, is akin to the conflict between the Big-enders and Little-enders in Gulliver’s Travels. My mother buys Red Rose teabags, and collects the little ceramic figurines that come in each box. My mother-in-law, along with many other Russians in the U.S., would drink Swee-Touch-Nee (meaning “flowery” in Russian tea, pronouncing its name with a special affection. I’ll drink just about anything in a pinch, but Lopchu is still my favorite, also for personal and historical reasons. It has a blue and a pink label, and I prefer the blue, though I will drink whatever’s available.

      • Josna, I always have felt highly honored when invited for tea with you, and, after reading this entry, I have a special appreciation for your tea aficionado status!!!

        • Yeah right, Anna! But seriously, we’re way overdue for an afternoon of tea and scones. Let’s make a date soon. x J

  3. I had a similar tea experience once and was surprised by how delicious a cup of Lipton’s tea was.
    I have thought about this long and hard because as you well know, I think Darjeeling Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe is the very best in the world. I came up with a plausible explanation which is that it depends greatly on how old the particular box of tea is, how long it has been sitting on some grocers
    shelf, etc. Also, I discovered that the tea served in Canada – even the common English Breakfast, tastes so much better and fresher than any in the U.S. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the big tea companies know that Canadians, like the British, won’t put up with the old “dust” tea bags kind of tea, whereas Americans generally do not know the difference unless they have grown up in another
    tea drinking society. Of course, anyone who knows about black tea, knows that tea leaves are far superior to tea bag tea, however, the age factor has to be remembered!

    So, there you have my considered opinion! I should mention that the new tea being made in Meghalaya from new tea gardens using Darjeeling root stock, is quite wonderful! It was brought over by some family members last year and I wish we could get it here, also!

    • Dear Marianne, I know what you mean about the freshness of even the teabags in tea-drinking countries. Even though black tea is fermented, like any other herb, it eventually starts to taste like dust. Since you’ve mentioned the ageing plants of Darjeeling plantations, I am on the lookout for Darjeeling (“Darjes”, as my friend Cylla calls it) from new plantations. Perhaps the Equal Exchange whole-leaf Darjeeling is good–I will check it out and let you know.
      But more important than the quality of the tea itself is the making and the drinking of the tea in the company of a dear friend. Love, J

  4. Great story! I’ve had my parallel moments of discovering that my much-vaunted expertise in some area or another wasn’t quite what I’d thought it was.

    My maternal grandmother moved from England to Canada when she was 12 and the paternal one was Irish-Canadian, so I realized only as an adult that I had a very British tea-type upbringing. I remember the Red Rose, although I liked whatever it was that had little sayings on the label, like fortune cookies. In my teens, my mother and I had tea in the afternoon, especially after we moved to England and added Eccles cakes or Digestive biscuits to the ritual. My mother became annoyed that anytime we had a workman to the house (a plumber, electrician, anything), he expected tea. She just wanted him to do the work and get out! I’m careful about ordering tea at a restaurant here, as half the time you get a cup of warm water with a teabag resting on the saucer.

    • Sarah, Have you had King Cole tea from Canada? Our friend Jim brings it back for me every time he goes to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. When we visited him there a couple of years ago I had such fun in the Canadian supermarkets—a large selection of different teas, and—equally thrilling—quite a lot of English sweets that you can’t get in the States, like Maynard’s wine gums and Quality Street chocolates. And yes, it’s horrible getting luke-warm water; can’t drink tea unless it’s piping hot. That’s another thing about Canada: staying hotels for conference in Canada, I found that they kept the tea water on the boil—what a difference! Someday I’d like to write a story about my experiences over the years asking for tea tea at truck stops on cross-country roadtrips. I can sympathize with your mother, just wanting to have her tea in peace; at the same time, I like the camaraderie with workmen that I’ve seen in England. My Auntie Bette would enjoy their visits, always ply them with tea and sandwiches, and relish the opportunity to talk about her gas cooker when the repair man came. If you’ve seen the movie My Cousin Vinny, Auntie Bette can talk about gas stoves the way Marissa Tomei’s character talked about transmissions!

  5. Josna,

    The milk in tea certainly moderates the tannins in a strong cuppa but it was originally adopted by the British lower classes as a fluid filler for their pots of weak tea because tea, at the time, was a very expensive commodity. Over time, drinking tea with milk became traditional, especially as tea became more affordable and could be brewed stronger. It is this tradition that makes the drinking of black tea without milk unthinkable. The British, of course, weren’t the first to mix milk in with tea, this honor belongs to the Mongolians who would brew brick tea with goat, sheep or horse milk and salt.

    What I find interesting is that you drink Darjeelings, considered the Champagne of teas due to its muscatel flavor, with milk. Darjeelings are plucked in three flushes during the year. The first flush yields a light, lively liquor and the second flush a darker, fruitier liquor. These teas are devoutly consumed by aficionados around the world. I would never think to add milk to them. Now, a large Assam or a dark Ceylon would certainly merit some milk but I find the potent tannins quite enjoyable and drink them for that. Or I would temper it with honey. My favorite combo has been to pair an Irish Breakfast with Buckwheat honey.

    Any tea drinker with knowledge of loose leaf tea would avoid Lipton as an anathema. Tea bags were developed in the United States to close the growing gap between tea and instant coffee. In order to brew a quicker cup, the tea manufacturers began to use fannings which contain broken tea leaves and tea dust. The added “benefit” of using fannings is that blends can be made to produce a consistent flavor profile of the tea. This homogenization denies the subtle and changing characteristics of whole, loose leaf teas which are subject to the vicissitudes of weather and the experience and technique of the growers.

    It is good to know that people are moving away from the static and certain profiles of mass produced teas and searching for unique flavor experiences. This accords well with the reality of our dynamic world. But if a cup of tradition and comfort is what you’re looking for, milk in tea is exactly the place to find it.

    • Sweet of you to comment on my humble post, O noble tea sommelier! You are absolutely right that a Lipton tea bag should be anathema to any discerning tea drinker, which is why I was so mortified to find out what I had rated highest at the tasting session! And you are right that many tea aficionados would eschew milk in their flowery Darjeelings. But none of my Darjeeling-loving friends, those who went to school there with me, even those who grew up there, would think of drinking it without milk. What I do avoid like the plague is the Indian CTC (crush tear curl), which comes in horribly uniform pelletized granules. Most of the tea in tea bags is dust, sweepings from the factory floor. “Fannings” is an apt name, somehow. I always go for whole-leaf tea when I can get it. But when I can’t, I have no pride—any port in a storm. I don’t usually put honey in tea unless I’m sick, but I love the sound of your Irish Breakfast with buckwheat honey; I will try it.
      You are also right that people love what they are used to, and that drinking tea is a ritual that is part culture, part tradition, and part pure comfort. For me, with an Indian father and an English mother, tea is doubly a carrier of culture, and I delight in the differing and hybrid tea-drinking histories and practices in the different strands of my family and heritage. Finally, I have had Tibetan tea with butter and salt in Darjeeling, and it is most definitely an acquired taste! Next time we can, let’s share a taste of each other’s favorite teas. In the meantime, I will enjoy reading your blog.

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