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Mon 18 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Taste of the day

The popularity of tea in the Middle East is on the rise, but in order to provide the perfect cuppa, understanding the process of choosing quality tea leaves is essential, says Giles Hilton, product director and master tea blender, Whittard of Chelsea.

The popularity of tea in the Middle East is on the rise, but in order to provide the perfect cuppa, understanding the process of choosing quality tea leaves is essential, says Giles Hilton, product director and master tea blender, Whittard of Chelsea.

The biggest problem with tea tasting is that each day's production can taste different.

Consider that most crops: wheat, apples and carrots, for example, have an annual harvesting cycle, so the year's weather will dictate their taste.

Engage brain before opening mouth applies to many things in life, no doubt, but it’s essential for tasting tea.

Tea is picked daily, come rain or shine, and the weather on that day will severely affect the taste of the finished product.

I have been tasting and blending tea for over 30 years at Whittard of Chelsea - a London-based tea company established in 1886 - so I drink quite a few cups of tea during my working day.

There are two main aspects of tasting. Most important is guaranteeing stability in the house blends, which often contain eight or more different teas, but should always deliver the same style and taste. Secondly there is the ongoing search for something new.

This is not so much the sudden appearance of a new tea growing area, but rather a change of production methods in existing estates, brought on perhaps by climate changes or the experiments by some of the bright younger managers who are taking over, particularly in Sri Lanka and India.

A tasting session at one of the tea brokers will often involve 200 different teas all picked during the preceding week, each listed by name of the estate and the lot number of the day's picking.

Tea processing of the picked leaves only takes one day, and it is up to the estate manager to create the best quality he can from every picker's basket of tea.

Consider the effects of rain or morning mist. It will certainly stimulate growth, but also dampens and softens the leaves. This will create a softer, lighter style with less dry tannin taste.

A few days of sunshine after the rain will promote excellent new shoots, full of energy and flavour. This will certainly be the best, most intense flavoured tea, full of natural leaf-sweetness and clean well-defined character.

It will fetch double the price at the tea auction and be much demanded as a self drinker, or an ingredient in a quality blend.

If that same beneficial sunny spell turns into a drought, the bushes begin to dry out and the leaves become brittle. Picking will continue, because the picking is in effect very efficient pruning, which promotes new growth.

However, the leaves lacking moisture will taste harder, more brittle with a more tannin, slightly dry after-taste.

One of the most exciting changes that I experienced was brought on by enterprising tea estate managers in Darjeeling. In the early 1980s they started treating the early season pruning and preparation of the bush for the main summer harvest as a serious picking season.

So, ‘first flush' Darjeeling was born, and this pale, delicate, near-green tea is totally different from the all important ‘second flush' main crop.

Since those early experimental days the spring first flush has become a winner; always in demand, especially in Japan, Germany and the UK, and sometimes gaining double the price of the main crop.

Sri Lanka, the world's biggest tea exporter, has never stood still with regard to its development of new-style teas.
It is a relative newcomer to tea production, because coffee planted by the Dutch thrived for 200 years before the English introduced tea in the 1890s.

Most Ceylon is small leaf Broken Orange Pekoe, perfect for that traditional, strong ‘English cuppa', drunk with sugar and milk.

However the discovery that some gardens can produce beautiful long twists of dark leafed Orange Pekoe changed the whole market in the late 1980s.

Trade with the Middle East was expanded as Sri Lankan exporters offered their large leaf teas in a market suddenly deprived of all its tea stock following the Chernobyl disaster, which in an instant ruined vast areas of tea production in Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Orange Pekoe suits the Middle Eastern palate perfectly, when one remembers the tea rule ‘the smaller the leaf, the stronger the tea'.

Large leaf Orange Pekoe is smooth, clean tasting, freshly defined and does not stew or over-brew if left in the pot, and topped up regularly with water.

‘Engage brain before opening mouth' applies to many things in life, no doubt, but it's essential for tasting tea.

Think about what you hope to experience in the best quality product. Tea, coffee, wine - they should all have a perfect balance of flavour, style and overall a character of their own that makes them stand out.

Tea is brewed at full strength for tasting, using at least three grams of leaves, carefully measured into a tasting cup. It is brewed for a full five minutes, before being poured into a bowl.

The colour of the brew shows up very well in a bowl, and with the best teas there will be a halo of clear copper-brown colour around the edge.

Just like wine, it's a sip-and-spit situation. No one wants to take all that tannin into their stomach.

Tea is sipped from the bowl with a spoon and sucked into the mouth with plenty of air, so that the vapour sprays over all the sensory areas of the mouth - then spit! It took me some time to perfect that ability, and it was a couple of years before my teacher, Dick Whittard, stopped wearing Wellington boots at tasting sessions.

What is the perfect brew? Again like wine and coffee, appearance is everything. The clarity of the liquor and the colour must look appealing and not cloudy or dull.

Initial taste must impress; mouthfeel, tannin and dryness should make a statement, and not just slip over the tongue into oblivion.

Detailed analysis would refer to the real qualities of the tea: sweetness, fruitiness and the clarity of its real character.

Finally comes balance - does one aspect dominate or is there perfectly acceptable balance of all these points?

Al Madani Group operates the license for Whittard of Chelsea in the Middle East, and Whittard's new F&B concept in Dubai Festival City.

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