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.
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.