How did your career in tea start?
My passion for tea started 35 years ago in Sri Lanka where I learnt from leaf to cup how to make perfect tea.My training was rigorous.I would wake up every morning at 4.30 am to walk to the muster which was 3 miles away. My first lesson was in picking the perfect tea leaf, where I scoured the bushes looking for the ideal tender leaf from which to brew the perfect cup. At first I was very slow, but eventually it became instinctive.I then learnt how to process the leaf so that it was dried perfectly and ready to be infused with hot water. Following my training and several years of planting experience I became an Executive Director, managing 22 estates and over 22 000 hectares of tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
During this time I would sample more than 200 cups of tea each day, allowing me to develop and finely tune my palate.Today I am the Tea Master at The East India Company where my training, knowledge, experience and close relationships with tea estates is critical to us being able to produce and deliver the finest tea.
Describe an average day for a Tea Master?
I always start my morning with a cup of St. James UVA Ceylon Black Tea.It is strong in colour, strength and flavour and I like to add a splash of milk to enhance the character of the tea.
When I arrive at the office the first thing I do is walk into my tea room and review my tasting schedule. Each day I taste approximately 25 tea samples.Right now I am tasting samples from Darjeeling, Matcha Tea from Japan, Chinese Lung Ching and Taiwanese Oolong. Although most of the tea I sample will never make it into our library, the opportunity to taste the nuances of varying plantations, their processing methods and terroir is invaluable.
We source our tea from 30 of the best plantations crossing India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan, Japan and Hawaii. Each day I make calls to select plantations and discuss their picking methods, drying temperatures and ambient weather conditions.By working directly with those growing our tea, I am able to ensure that every stage of the process is reaching our quality standards. For example, almost all of the tea plantations that The East India Company work with are committed to hand picking, ensuring that they only pick two leaves and a bud or a bud and first succulent leaf, this guarantees the best quality and flavour experience.
Recently I worked closely with one of our plantations to produce the most incredible Darjeeling First Flush Tea for the season. I developed the pruning schedule, picking routines and informed them on how best to whither the leaf.As a result, we’ve produced the most balanced muscatel flavour that I’ve experienced in years.Interestingly, the first tea bushes were first brought to India from China in the 19th century by Robert Fortune, a botanist in the employ of The East India Company.
Part of my day is also dedicated to the exciting and experimental task of developing new blends.I’ve noticed that in the last few years tea has become incredibly popular and that means that people have had the opportunity to taste a great variety of teas. As a result I must work hard to surprise their palates and create new and interesting blends, sometimes I feel like an alchemist mixing the elixir of life.
Do you have a favourite blend?
I have a particular soft spot for our Heart of Persia blend, which I created for the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.I did a lot of research in order to understand the flavours of the region and how best to blend these with tea.I decided to use Saffron as it is the king of spices.I enveloped its characteristic flavour with a blend of strawberry, lotus petal, rose petal and orange peel.A black tea from Sri Lanka was used as the base for the blend as it has the right amount of body and character to balance the flavours used.It has become one of our most popular specialty blends and customers are always intrigued by its unique flavour profile.
We have also created bespoke blends for The Mandarin Oriental London, The Westbury and Flemings and I curated a range of Art Tea exclusively for the National Gallery.
What makes your job so special?
It’s exciting.I started my career in Sri Lanka and became an expert in local tea.Today I taste tea from all over the world.The flavour profiles of China differ so much from Japan, Taiwan and India.It has broadened my palate in the most unbelievable way.
I also get to share my knowledge and experience on a regular basis.I work closely with our store teams to ensure that they have mastery of our tea library and are able to understand the various nuances between the products.Likewise, we host tea tasting events for the public in our stores, it is such a joy to take people on a tea journey from leaf to cup.