Tea Tasting Tales

Tony Peries (2008)

(first appeared in “The Ceylankan " -- the Journal of The Ceylon Society of Australia)

Tea-tasting as an occupation has always intrigued people whose reactions vary from thinking it an easy way to make a living, to the slightly incredulous, or the comment, “You must have a fantastic palate”. Having been a tea taster for 21 years from 1952 to 1973, I feel a little de-mystification is desirable.

Prior to World War II, tea traders in Sri Lanka were almost exclusively British, as they dominated commerce anyway and the tea firms like Lipton and Brooke Bond employed no Sri Lankans at the tea-taster/executive level. There were some small local firms like M.S. Heptulabhoy & Co. who traded in tea very early (late 19th century) though that organization was owned and run by Borahs whose families had been domiciled for generations but were not ethnically Lankans.

By the end of the 40’s a few British firms had seen the necessity (post independence) to employ local executives and among the first of those were Errol de Fonseka and Mahinda Wijesekera at Forbes and Walker, and Bartleets respectively, both firms of brokers, and Austin Perera at the export firm English and Scottish Joint Cooperative Wholesale Society.

Tea Tasters fell into three broad categories – buyers like Liptons and the like, brokers, as just mentioned, and sellers like George Steuart & Co, Ltd. or Gordon Frazers, who were real estate agents and employed tea tasters to check the quality of tea produced on the plantations. To be a senior buyer for a big firm was a quite complex task and a taster at George Steuart & Co., as I was, had a much simpler life.

Tea is tasted in a standard sized white china handle-less cup and brewed in a standard pot, which looks like a straight-sided cup, with a lid. The quantity of tea used is also standard, weighed out on special scales with a weight affixed to one pan- it is said that weight was equivalent to the old English silver sixpence. Water for tasting was boiled in large whistling kettles and no more than a certain number of cups were brewed from one kettle as once it went off the full boil the leaf did not brew to its full potential. An over boiled kettle brewed flat tasting the tea, readily discernible by tasters.

A “tea boy” was the weigher and brewer. In Sri Lanka, a tea boy’s job was a highly responsible one and the head tea boy in a big firm was almost always an elderly man. Young men on the way to executive rank who learnt their trade in London had to start at the tea boy level, brewing tea for tasting: running around with the enormous kettles and burning their fingers or spilling boiling water on their toes!

Fortunately, social categorisation in Lanka spared us this aspect of training. In the 1950’s tea was sold at auctions held on Monday and part of Tuesday in the Chamber of Commerce building in the Fort. Up to about 2750 lots of tea were sold weekly and the major buyers got an ounce sample of every lot from the selling brokers. Even allowing for two or three tastings, an enormous quantity of sample tea was left over from which firms gave their staff a free allowance and the remainder was a “perk” of the head tea boy, who enjoyed a lucrative trade!

Each time an estate made an “invoice” of tea, samples of each grade were sent to the agent: some owners had no agents and sent samples to the broker. Steuarts had, in their heyday, over a hundred estates of which I think about eighty were tea and the firm handled about 12% of the island’s tea crop. At Steuarts, we tasted between 60-80 cups on most days but the quantity rose and fell with the seasons. The dry leaf was laid out on sheets of stiff white paper, on a long wooden counter and behind the leaf samples was a tray holding six cups of tea – behind each cup was its pot, with the “infused” leaf held in its upturned lid. We examined the dry leaf first, for size, colour, etc., and checked it for dust or excessive “stalk and fibre”, which originated from the coarse green leaf. Next, we looked at the infused leaf which ideally had a bright, even, copper colour. Finally, we tasted the tea; a stenographer followed us around and took down a report (on each of the three aspects mentioned above) which was mailed to the estate.

My mentor was an Englishman: George Savage, who had been at Steuarts since before the war. He was an excellent teacher: he was, however, a very lazy man who had therefore seen some of his juniors promoted to director level, which doubtless contributed to his lugubrious aspect and manner. To taste a tea properly, it is important to get the right sized mouthful, which is not as easy a task as it sounds, so learners are often given a spoon, as I was. A discriminating palate can, I believe, be cultivated but the intelligent observation is significant as is a good memory so that one can recall tastes associated with the technical terms like greenness, flavour, pungency and the like. A test for learners was to be given three different teas, each brewed twice so that one was confronted with six cups and asked to “match the pairs”.

Steuart’s had a lot of very good estates and Savage was supposed to ensure they produced tea which was at least on a par with neighbouring properties: prices fetched were, of course, the best check of this. Because he was so idle, Savage took the line of least resistance and almost never initiated changes in manufacturing till something went wrong. We were supposed to be manufacturing advisors and within my first eighteen months of employment, I spent three months on an upcountry estate, learning some of what “creepers” do but concentrating on the factory, where I passed days and some nights, understudying the tea maker. At the end of three years, I was a reasonably competent tea taster and acted as department head while Savage was on overseas leave. The final stage of my training (finishing school, as it were) was some seven or eight months working at a London Tea Brokers.

The London Tea Trade was very much of a closed shop and the brokers particularly sometimes had three generations of one family (the owners’ families) working in one firm. The sale of tea there was beset with practices which were little other than rorts, perpetuated over decades, such as the use of selling and buying brokers, or sampling allowances of one pound a chest whereas in Colombo it was eight pounds a lot irrespective of the number of clients. The business itself was very leisurely with senior staff mostly starting around 10 a.m. and finishing at 4 p.m. I did not have to work on Fridays and hardly ever after lunch so my work experience was wholly delightful.

Brokers were the intermediary between seller and buyer: their staff went round to sellers’ warehouses, drew samples, distributed them to buyers, printed sale catalogues and valued the teas coming up for sale. The broker called on all the buyers to “spruik” his catalogue and the sellers to check if they had any instructions. Finally, the broker auctioned his catalogue, often at the rate of 5 lots a minute in Colombo, so it was a job for quick minds and cool heads. Junior brokers started by selling small lots and “off grades”, disposed of at separate auction, mostly attended by junior buyers so the entire proceeding was low key.

The buyers, particularly the senior ones, had the hardest job of all. Firstly, they had to taste most of what was due to be sold, decide what they wanted and how much they could pay. The major buyers purchased tea mostly, but not entirely, for their own wholesale and/or retail organisations overseas, from whom they received orders: some big companies had standards which changed regularly as seasonal variations affected offerings at auction. Most businesses purchased some tea for “trade”, hoping to sell at a profit. Quite apart from taste, a buyer also had to keep a sharp eye open for leaf size: in the fifties, most tea was sold in the U.K. in quarter pound packets. These were pformed in a machine, for subsequent automatic filling and if the leaf size varied too much, the pack held less or more than the quarter pound. Also, smaller leaf or dust in the mix gave a stronger brew which the consumer did not necessarily welcome. A company which sold a standard pack had to ensure its contents tasted much the same at all times, for consumers were remarkably acute as well as quick to complain.

The Colombo auction took most of Monday, often ending at 7.p.m. or later, in the 50’s (I can’t recall after) and the first broker selling after 6 p.m. served whisky/beer at their expense to all in the room. Tea for sale was packed in multiples of six chests, being supposedly, the blenders unit. At the auction, buyers were allowed to divide a lot into, two, three, or four, so if buyer “A” yelled out his bid first, several others would ask, “Can I have some?” and the first buyer would say “halves” or quarters”, naming those he was sharing with and sometimes adding “against you X”. The bidder had to decide who best to share with and who to exclude as the least likely to raise the price. With lots being sold every 10 or 15 seconds, a major buyer who often had two or three others with him (so that they “spelled” each other) had to make split-second decisions. In the fifties, there were no faxes or email and overseas phone calls had to be booked in advance: major traders had telex and some had phone calls booked for auction days. Cablegrams were used extensively for notifying purchasers overseas what had been bought for them.

Lest readers think I had an easy life tasting a few teas and idling many hours away, Steuarts sold other products, notably rubber and there was extensive correspondence with estates on a variety of topics covering the quality and handling of their crops. I visited the company warehouses daily and was responsible for their maintenance, supervising the head storekeeper who directly watched over a constant flow of in and outgoing consignments, and the labour force.

Up to 1956, when the first M.E.P. (S.L.F.P., L.S.S.P. etc coalition) Government assumed office, the Colombo tea world was fairly stress-free especially as the largely expatriates executives all had six months “home leave” every three years so firms carried more than a minimum of staff. Many senior expatriates, especially those approaching retirement took fright after “56 and left Sri Lanka, their replacements often being locals who then had to contend with frequent labour trouble, especially in the Port of Colombo. This led to logistical nightmares with tea exports, culminating in Trincomalee being opened up as a tea export centre in 1958. Nevertheless, “tea people” had good working relationships in which insurmountable problems were almost unknown – in fact, the whole trade had a “clubby” atmosphere and I for one was very handsomely entertained by overseas contacts many of whom had nothing to gain commercially. They could, of course, count on generous reciprocity in Sri Lanka. The lavish hospitality shown to tea folk from all over the world, in 1966, when a Tea Convention was held in Sri Lanka to mark 100 years of tea, is still remembered, one north England buyer dropped dead on arrival at home!


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