Calloused fingers and Hot Pots: A Brewing & Cupping Tale

Writing about sampling got me thinking about how we prepared teas all those years ago.  As tea trainees back in the mid 1960’s we had to prepare upwards of 600 cups of tea A DAY.  It was a regime that did not allow for any shirking of duties or mistakes.   We had these steel trays that each held six bowls, cups and lids.  Three quarters of the tray was flat, then there was a ridge about half an inch high.   We laid out ten trays, (that’s 60 cups for the math challenged) sitting behind the ridge was the sample can, next came the bowl with the lid sitting in the middle of the bow, then came the empty cup, (actually it looked more like a 12 oz mug with a serrated edge as part of the rim- more on that later)
Tasting is my specialty by training and experience, but cupping is part of the industry by trial, error & tradition
Tasting is my specialty by training and experience, but cupping is part of the industry by trial, error & tradition
We had old fashioned hand held scales (just like the blind justice figure holds out high above the “Old Bailey”…or the Libra scales  for those of  romantic mindset)  in one side of the scale was a ‘twopenny weight‘ the other side had the scoop.  We would move rapidly down the trays, sticking in fingers in the sample cans and lifting out a pinch of tea.  If we lifted out too much the scale would read heavy and we would have to put a pinch back, but we got so good at judging what was a twopenny weight that we would rarely have to adjust the weight more than once.   We would then drop the tea into the empty cup until all 60 cups had the allotted teas in them.
While we were setting up the teas in the trays the two huge copper kettles that we had filled with water were slowly heating on their gas burners and when the hissing sound of steam started we were ready for the next step in the preparation of the tea.  It was at this point that occasionally missteps took place..I remember once that  I was called to the phone just as my kettles were coming to the boil.  The conversation took a couple of minutes, but disaster ensured because when I took the kettles to fill the cups — I RAN OUT OF WATER WITH TWO CUPS LEFT TO FILL!  Horror of Horrors…a partially brewed batch of tea!  Grounds for dismissal in those days…but a fellow trainee bailed me out by letting me use some of his hot water….thus keeping me out of it!
To speed up the filling process and to give ALL THE TEAS THE SAME BREW TIME…We would first pull all the cups on the tray together until they were touching then pour the boiling water about an inch into each cup in one fluid motion.  At the same time we would pick up the lid from the bowl and lodge it over the cup, those ensuring the maximum efficiency of extraction. We went down all the trays doing this until each cup had half an inch of water in them covered by a lid.  We would then walk backwards filling each cup to the top, at the same time moving  back into position opposite its sample tin.
Ceylon is very established as a country of tea - it is the truth
Ceylon is very established as a country of tea - it is the truth
The beautiful leaf - raw and allowing the true aroma
The beautiful leaf - raw and allowing the true aroma

These cups were filled with boiling water, so our fingers became calloused and immune to pain after a while.  But the early days of training were PAINFUL.

When we had finished the last cup we would hit the timer for six minutes and then it “dinged” we would pick up the cup, pour the contents into the bowl, pull the bowl to the front of the tray, tip the cup upside down so that the infused leafs now sat on the inside of the lid, turn the lid upside down and place in on the cup so that we now had the sample visible, the infused leaf visible, and in front the tea ready for tasting in its white porcelain bowl.   Can you imagine the heat from sixty cups of steaming hot tea that we had to flip over?  Trust me..it hurt a lot in the first month of training.
When we finished the last pour, would position the spittoon at the front of the batch then we would walk over to the offices where the Master Tea buyers sat (These men were Godlike figures to us in those days) announce that our batch was ready.   Our “Master” would walk out,  taste the teas, making comments that we trainees had to write down alongside each sample listed in the catalogue.  This would take 10 minutes at the most.  Then the Master would walk off leaving us poor trainee to empty all the teas and trays and do it all over again..10 times a day.
And you know what…?…I loved every minute of it!!  And too this day when I  pick up a steaming cup hot cup of tea I don’t wince in the slightest, I just enjoy the memory of those far off days, when my life revolved around doing nothing more than brewing tea all day long.


2 Responses to “Calloused fingers and Hot Pots: A Brewing & Cupping Tale”

  1. Brady Stump Says:

    Enjoyed the blog post!

  2. Ellen Grinnan-Paine Says:

    Yes, indeed, Barry my fingers did burn as well, as I flipped those steaming porcelain cups for you during my short stint at Lipton. And you know what….I too, loved every minute of it!

    A minor consumer concern with Lipton tea, drew me not only to their website, but into a bit of reminiscing about my time at Lipton. As a result, I googled your name and was delighted to see you and learn of your success.

    Do you remember that we used to laugh about a man’s shoes being an indicator of his success(particularly in regard to Fast Eddie)? Well, old friend, your stunning hat trumps any fine pair of shoes!

    Warm wishes and congratulations to you.

    Ellen Grinnan-Paine

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