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The tea taster: getting the most out of your leaves

The tea taster: getting the most out of your leaves

by Great British Chefs 19 November 2018

As a professional tea taster, Tom Price tastes more teas on a weekly basis than most people do in their entire lives. Find out how he goes about sourcing the best leaves in the world, why knowing how to make tea properly is so important and how a tea’s origins can have such an impact on its flavour.

While thousands of styles of tea are produced and enjoyed in places such as China, Japan and India, the UK has a rather different relationship with these very special leaves. The black tea most of us drink is a commodity, sourced from Africa where it’s grown and produced in the cheapest way possible with no real thought for the actual flavour. We know about green tea, although most of us only experience the harsh, bitter styles, and our knowledge of the other styles of tea (white, yellow, pu erh and oolong) is virtually non-existent when compared to the average person in Asia.

This is in part down to the attitudes we have developed towards tea over the years. We don’t necessarily think about the flavour of the tea we drink – instead, we’re more concerned about the strength and the colour it turns once we add milk. But if you look beyond the mass-produced black or green teas sold in the supermarkets and at the upper end of the market instead, it soon becomes clear that tea isn’t just something to drink throughout the day as a pick-me-up; it’s an ancient, fascinating, cultural experience which offers all the variety and complexity of wine.

Tom Price knows this all too well. As the person responsible for sourcing and tasting tea at Jing, which supplies the best restaurants in the world with their leaves, he’s dedicated most of his adult life to the drink. And it all started after he visited China during his gap year.

‘I experienced some incredible tea during my time over there which completely changed my perception of what tea could be, but when I came back to the UK I couldn’t get anything like it,’ he explains. ‘I found a small shop in London that stocked Dragon Well – one of my favourite green teas – but it was very stale and pretty uninspiring. Eventually I stumbled across Jing, which was selling tea as fresh and as good as anything than you can get in China – if not better.’

Tom soon joined Jing so he could combine his love for tea with a career. Over the years, he has tasted enough teas to become a professional tea taster, and now travels the world collaborating with producers and seeking out the very best growers for the business. What he doesn’t know about tea isn’t worth knowing, and now he and Jing’s founder Ed Eisler sell the highest quality tea to restaurants and tea-lovers all over the world. But while being able to offer top-quality tea is one part of the puzzle, the other is spreading awareness on how tea is produced, the correct way to prepare it and how to taste it.

‘We put a lot of emphasis on education in the hope that people will move away from the idea that tea is brick-red with milk and two sugars, which is at the bottom end of the market in terms of quality,’ Tom explains. ‘Once people are aware of and value high-quality tea it tends to completely change their perceptions of it, so we spend time training staff in the restaurants that serve our tea and make sure our online shop has plenty of information for people buying from us direct.’

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It is the oxidisation of tea that turns it from green to black, but some of the most interesting varieties are only partly oxidised – a category known as oolong
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The way fresh tea leaves are processed has a huge impact on how they taste once brewed, and many tea producers have centuries of tradition and experience to call upon

Of course, tea of this quality fetches a higher price than your standard teabag, so once someone has purchased some of Jing’s tea it’s important to know how to brew it properly. Everything from the temperature and quality of the water to the steeping time has a huge effect on how it will taste, and it needs to be stored in an airtight container without being exposed to light to prevent it turning stale and losing flavour. ‘Storing and making tea is a vital part of the process,’ says Tom. ‘If it’s not brewed in the right way or left to go stale, then the cup isn’t going to taste good. To demonstrate this, we often make one of our green teas using boiling water, then brew the same tea again with water at 70°C. It makes such a difference and really highlights how important it is to pay attention to how a cup of tea is made.’

Armed with a bag of high-quality tea and the knowledge of how to brew it correctly means anyone can experience tea the way it’s meant to be – and one sip is often all it takes to convince people to never go back to commoditised teabags again. But there are some things you can do to enhance the enjoyment of drinking it. One is to source the right equipment, or ‘teaware’. Brewing tea in a big teapot is akin to cooking something on a large scale – it’s possible, but much harder to eke out the nuanced flavours of a dish than if you were cooking it in a smaller quantity. That’s why Jing developed the ‘Tea-iere’ – small glass cafetieres that not only allow for greater control when brewing, but also means you can watch the leaves slowly unfurl and rehydrate as they infuse in the hot water.

How you actually drink the tea can improve the flavour as well. Much like wine, slurping or sucking air through the tea as you sip it makes its flavour more pronounced, and rolling it around your mouth allows you to pick up on its texture; different teas can make water feel creamy or even syrupy depending on the variety, which can be just as interesting as its actual flavour.

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Top-quality tea should taste of the area it's grown and harvested in; a characteristic Jing always ensures is prominent in the teas it sources
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It takes five years of tasting tea before you can call yourself a professional tea taster – but by using a few tricks of the trade you can identify the complex flavours with ease at home

From the source

The reason Tom needs to be so knowledgeable about tea is because he’s in charge of sourcing the best leaves for Jing. This means travelling to China, Japan, Taiwan and India to visit producers and taste their teas at the source. ‘It’s an important part of my job, as you use the experience and memory of drinking tea in the place it’s from as an example of what that tea should taste like,’ he says. ‘We’re big believers in tea tasting of the place it’s grown and processed in, but of course it takes a while to build up a bank of those experiences. They say it takes at least five years of tasting tea to become an expert, and that would be for a relatively limited variety of tea. Anyone who works at Jing for any length of time will experience more types of tea than at any other tea company because we source from all over the world and don’t focus on a specific category or style.’

Now that Jing has established its reputation, Tom and Ed don’t need to spend as much time seeking out new producers. Instead, it’s about making sure they have access to the best of the best. ‘At this point the producers know about us so we’re often approached by them, but these high-end artisans aren’t necessarily eager to get new customers – a lot of them even have waiting lists for people wanting to buy their tea. It becomes more about good working relationships than money, as in China good tea has always commanded high prices. It’s as far away from the commoditised black teas grown in Africa that go into standard teabags as you can imagine.’

An example of how closely Tom works alongside producers can be found in Red Dragon – one of his favourite black teas from Yunnan in China. He collaborated with and assisted the grower of this unique variety to make it the very best it can be. ‘The producer took tea bushes from Taiwan usually used to make oolong tea, transported them to Yunnan, planted them on top of a mountain and made black tea from the leaves. The result is a tea which has the tropical fruit flavours of a Taiwanese oolong but because it’s fully oxidised you get these red fruit notes coming through as well.’

Few people will ever reach the knowledge and understanding Tom has of tea – but that’s not what he and the rest of the team at Jing are aiming for. What they do want to do is make people in the UK aware that the black tea they normally buy is a poor example of just how incredibly rich and complex this drink can be. By offering the finest leaves, designing equipment specifically designed to get the best out of them, sharing information on how to properly store, brew and taste tea and even closely collaborating with producers to enhance and improve on what’s already out there, this is a company that’s truly pushing the boundaries of a product that’s seriously misunderstood in the West. Just think – if you love a cup of standard tea that’s made with the lowest quality leaves you can think of, then spending a little bit more on some artisanally produced leaves and taking the time to understand and appreciate them will result in something so much more enjoyable. When Tom discovered the sort of tea that’s enjoyed in China, he loved it so much he made it into his career – while that might not happen to all of us, if you’re a daily tea drinker it’s certainly worth exploring what good quality leaves can offer.

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