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?

Classic Tasting Set Up

March 23rd, 2010

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

The classic tasting set up. It never ceases to amaze me that no matter where I go to in the world, whenever I enter a tea tasting room I am faced with the exact same set of bowls, cups, and lids. This is not a standard that came into being because the UN or the ISO (International Standards Organization) arranged it. It came into being over hundreds of years of teas being tasted and tasters travelling back and forth across the world with their cups and bowls so that eventually all tasters ended up using the same equipment. It’s actually a pretty amazing story…