random thoughts · travel

A tea tasting experience


I have no idea what is going to happen to my dream about getting the goddamned book published. But it was a funny experience (it felt nice, though ;-)) to be introduced as an aspiring writer. Thanks to Charles Nathan of De-Rock Living, Coonoor, I was introduced to Mr. Noor Mohamed, Director of a large tea marketing company at Coimbatore. On the way back to Chennai, via Coimbatore, I had the pleasure of meeting Noor.

Well, there is a lot of complexity in the tea industry and the myriad varieties of tea along with the tea tasting art make this a fascinating world. Noor was kind enough to take me through the entire process of how the tea industry works. A memorable opportunity to do some tea tasting was the icing on the cake.

Here are some pictures of the different teas I got to taste along with a snap of Mr. Noor as well. He is an expert in this field with exactly 25 years of experience in that art. It was one of those rare days (I realized later) that I was quietly listening without giving my own gyan, soaking in the wealth of information that he shared. Watching him taste the teas and make comments on each one of them was like watching Saurav Ganguly play the off side drives or Tendulkar hit the trademark straight drives. All I witnessed was sheer skill, experience and complete control – a rare and very welcome sight, any day.


Now, on to the experience itself:

The liquor was neatly poured in bowls or cups and I was told that the brewing process involves about 5 minutes of boiling the tea leaves and that the residue is called Infusion. Based on the colours of the infusion, Noor could rattle off characteristics of the tea.

Parallel thought: There is a scene in Annamalai (a Rajni classic) where he talks about being able to determine one’s horoscope only on the basis of how that person breathes! Of course Rajnikanth can do anything across all facets of life (now imagine trademark Rajni laugh …. Hua hua ha haa haaa!!!!). But I tell you, with years of experience, Noor had attained that level too …. He could break down the tea’s jaathagam (kundali / horoscope) and narrate its history (how old the tea was), geography (area where the tea was from), chemistry (how smoky, aromatic, flaky was the tea) and other characteristics of the tea.

When I looked at the tasting cups, I was quietly wondering how I could drink so much of tea … was this a good idea at all? Then I saw 2 spoons, one for Noor and one for me. Somebody brought a huge spittoon and I was again hoping that it wouldn’t look disrespectful if I spat in front of my expert host. Within seconds, Noor set off, first warming up and making simple observations on the quality of the teas. Which one was ok, which one was bad etc.
Let me share the process now. Take a spoon, dip it in the tasting cup and bring it close to the lips. Suck the tea by making a huge slurping sound and swirl the tea in your mouth. It seemed he had the tea in his mouth and apart from the slurping he was actually able to smell it too. I tried to imitate his actions and got as far as making half the slurping sound from a decibel level angle. When I tried to inhale the smell with the tea inside me, I obviously made a fool of myself. By then I had forgotten to spit the tea out and had swallowed half the spoonful. Telling myself that I could do better if I focused better, I tried and was absolutely sure that this was a great tea. It tasted good and strong and all I wanted to do was to add some ginger and have a full cup. Noor informed me that it was not good but actually a bad tea because the infusion was dark. Also, it tasted smoky because they must have over fired it. I suddenly felt he was right. How could I have missed the pathetic taste of that muddy feeling in my mouth? Embarrassed at my lack of learning skills, and determined to do better with the next cup, I asked Noor for his observations before slurping and spitting. Then I was trying to map his observations to the sensations I felt. Grandmaster Noor realized that the temporary disciple was just trying too hard. Then, he spoke about how he was when he had started and encouragingly shared a statistic that it would take about 6-8 months to get some decent hold on the art of tea tasting. He said there are days when tea tasters at some companies taste about 500 or even 800 tea types. My jaws dropped because every now and then I kept swallowing tea liquor and most of them were strong in their flavour. I couldn’t imagine that professional tea tasting could get so taxing.
Then, Noor took a much smaller spoon and added milk to each of the cups with tea liquor. He said that colour after addition of milk was also a factor that shows the tea quality. Then Noor grew impatient, I think. He now slurped from one cup, spat it out, slurped another, and repeated the process 7 times. Then, he began to talk about each type of tea starting from the first cup. How could he relive the taste, I asked? “Hmm … Well, that’s what I do for a living, so I need to know, no?” was his seemingly obvious answer. Again I only nodded in agreement.

From what I could gather, this is a pretty difficult industry as prices are not going northwards at the rate with which costs are going up. Labourers and their children are slowly and steadily looking at different professions. Getting labour is not easy. And sadly, even the profession of tea tasting is not as popular. Not many young men are taking up this profession like they used to in the years gone by and of course, this could be due to the effects of the IT and ITes industry promise from a long term career option angle. One could say that many in the profession, especially in the labour category are turning over a new leaf. Unfortunately that new leaf has got nothing to do with tea leaf!

I thanked Noor profusely and also his colleague, Mr. Ayub. What a fantastic 1 hour it was, a peep into their world, completely different from what I do for a living. Of course, some of my friends at HUL might have got exposed to this but to me this was memorable. I sure look forward to another tea tasting experience at Darjeeling or some other place … at least one should know more about what one drinks every day. But should we really care? 2 days ago my answer would have been ‘Maybe, maybe not’ but today the answer is a definite Yes!!

All this was made possible thanks to the ever helpful Charles Nathan. I promise more on that trip and experience in a separate post. Here is a sincere thanks to Charles and Noor for a fantastic and fabulous experience of a lifetime!

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4 thoughts on “A tea tasting experience

  1. What did you have for your drink today ?

    A decent cup of excellently made Tea anytime will definitely encourage a would be writer to type out another excellent blog post !!!

    Any generation normally would be inclined to do full-time ‘un-professional’ wine tasting 🙂

    Guess ‘Noor’ must have highly developed taste buds enriched with experience all these years !!!

    Thanks

    R
    Ranga: In fact wine tasting is quite similar to tea tasting, it seems. Wonder what will happen to wine tasters if they were to taste 100 types of wine a day … for the true wine lover, i am sure this is one profession one wouldnt whine about 😉

  2. I didn’t know there were so many nuances to tea-tasting – the whole tea drinking, rolling in tongue and spitting it out reminds me of Frasier!
    So, how was the writing experience if I may ask?

    Ranga: Yes, it is a pretty complex art. The writing experience was not where I wanted to it to be in terms of completion % but did make good progress and have the skeleton ready. research areas have been identified and i see a lot of work required to get this done. it is definitely a lot more complex than what i thought, almost like running a company of sorts 😦

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