Calloused fingers and Hot Pots: A Brewing & Cupping Tale

March 29th, 2011

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 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.

Tea Sampling: With an Aura of Integrity

March 24th, 2011

One of the best methods of selling anything is to get the potential buyer to “try it out.”  In the world of tea this often involves being intercepted by folks in supermarkets and being offered a small cup of a new beverage.  One taste and you have an opinion! and if the product development department and the marketing department have done their job well you are “hooked” or at the very least you are willing to give the new product a try.

But in the world of tea there is another aspect to “sampling” and it involves millions of dollars, every day.  When I was a tea trainee in London back in the mid 1960’s

Oh youth
Oh youth

my life revolved around the London tea auctions held in Mincing Lane and the thousands of samples we had to taste each week to determine which teas we should bid on in the weekly auctions.  First there would be the “offer” samples these would be drawn from the teas just arrived at the port and represented the teas coming up for sale.  The sample would be about 8 oz.  After the sales we would receive the “Purchase” sample.  This represented the tea we had bought and we had to taste it against the “offer” sample to make sure the offer sample and the “purchase” sample was correct.  This “Purchase” sample was at least 2 lbs.  Once we approved the match the tea would be shipped into our warehouse.  From the lot in the warehouse an “outturn” sample would be taken and sent up to the tasting room so that we could compare all three samples to make sure that what we first tasted, then purchased was actually delivered to us, and was of the quality that we had first tasted.We were also in a constant state of filling and emptying small offer cans, larger purchase cans and even larger outturn cans.

It was a never ending task, involving hundreds of cans each week.

One trainne would empty the old sample out into a drum, a second trainee would  sling the new sample across the room from the huge pile of sample tea (that was the fun job and woe betide the trainee who did not catch the thrown sample and let it fall to the ground and explode in a mess of tea leafs, for that meant it could never be tasted!!)

This was all achieved in the space of a week - or at the most ten days so you can imagine the amount of tasting we had to do just to keep up.  Sometimes there would be a “break” of only ten chests (A “break” refers to the “lot” from which the tea is sourced) and sometimes the “break” would be 60 chests (we liked those! It meant less work!…a smaller break meant we had to taste more samples in order to find lots that were substantially equivalent)

Those were the “good old days” of course when auctions were held in London.  But essentially the same process is going on today but at origin in Colombo, Calcutta, Mombasa and all the other major auctions sites around the world.

The other fascinating aspect to the tea trade is the offer sample that is sent by express to your office from overseas.  It is generally no more than 6 oz or less and yet can represent over 40,000lbs of tea.  On this one little sample alone you make a purchasing decision, and then have to wait for upwards of eight weeks as the tea is shipped across the world, cleared through customs, and shipped onto your warehouse where you can draw your “outturn” sample and check it against your tiny offer sample.

This “system” of sampling has been in effect for hundreds of years and speaks well of our trade that we still use it to this day and trust the “offer” sample and those who send it to us.  If we didn’t our trade would fall into disarray.

So the next time you lift a cup of tea to your lips, consider the sampling that has taken place to ensure quality and the trust that has surrounded the transaction that imbues your cup with an aura of integrity….your cup of tea represents business at its finest…….don’t you think?