John Taylor’s art of reading tea leaves explained

7 min read
09 Aug 2017
7 min read
1620 words
From the Archive (May, 2016): John Taylor’s tea-tasting abilities are highly sought-after by tea companies in Nepal. He provides the litmus test for their quality
John Taylor’s tea-tasting abilities are highly sought after by tea companies in Nepal. He provides the litmus test for their quality

When you get talking to John, he comes across as a genial man of few words. But get him talking about tea, and he’ll be more than ready to expatiate at length the intricacies and complexities that go into the process of making and of tasting tea.

“It is really an art form,” he says. The way he sets up the test and the way he conducts the tasting ritual bear testament to his claim. He takes a batch of tea and lays it out on a piece of paper, inspecting the contents as they pour out from the packet. He then takes a pinch out of the heap and measures its weight using a small brass scale.

“It should weigh exactly 2.5 grams,” he explains. After carefully confirming the weight, he puts the leaves into a white ceramic cup with grooves on the mouth. Then he heats the water to 100 degree Celsius and pours it into the cup. He then takes out his watch and sets the timer, saying, “The steeping time is exactly five minutes. No less. No more.”

As soon as the second-hand strikes 12 at the five-minute mark, he lays the cup horizontally on the ceramic bowl, and the grooved mouth filters the leaves from the liquid. The liquids, or liquors, are of many striking hues of orange, yellow and brown. Some are a darker orange while some are lighter and more yellow. The graduation of colours are reminiscent of a sky coloured by the setting sun’s rays. A tasting session befitting the complexity of the preparation then follows.

John will now study the liquid’s appearance, aroma, infusions (the appearance of tea leaves after the brewing process) and clarity, among others, before he decides whether the sample is good.

“The best teas are often those with two leaves and a bud,” he says. ‘Two leaves and a bud’ refer to the youngest leaves, with unopened buds, which sprout at the extremities of a tea bush. “You have to pluck them a certain way,” he says, delicately picking up a sample that he has just brewed. He then picks up a cup in which the leaves have settled, and he swirls the tea before sniffing it.

“As soon as you smell it, you know what you're in for,” he says, offering me a whiff. Some teas smell like seaweed, while others like freshly cut grass. Then comes the actual tasting part. For this, he delicately picks up the cup and slurp the liquid, making a loud hoovering sound.

“Slurping it this way infuses the tea with the oxygen, oxidising it. This enriches the taste,” he says. Some teas are astringent, while some are less so. The subtleties are hard to distinguish for a layman, but for a seasoned taster like John, it's child's play. John spent most of his childhood in a tea garden in Kurseong, in the Darjeeling district. By the time he was six, he was already immersed in the tea business; he would follow his grandfather around the Gopaldhara Tea Estate, in north Kurseong, as his grandfather went about his rounds. Groomed by his grandfather—an Englishman who fell in love with Darjeeling’s tea—and then his father, John quickly became adept at distinguishing bad tea from good.

“I used to observe very keenly how my father tasted tea at Margaret’s Hope Tea Estate, where he was the manager. Minute details of how he did it got embedded in my mind over the years,” says John.

Tea runs through John’s veins and the roots of his family tree. Even his two brothers are now in the tea business. “Now, the technique has become mostly muscle memory—all that guidance I received from my father and grandfather. Since Darjeeling has arguably the best tea in the world, I have a good reference point for judging teas,” he says.

Darjeeling tea, considered the champagne of teas, gives off a slightly musky sweetness combined with fruity, citrusy notes. It's fresh. It's complex, with lots of layered flavours. The Darjeeling taste makes for a good benchmark test for any tea.

Besides being a tea taster, John also acts as the marketing manager for the Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative (HIMCOOP)—a consortium of Nepali tea producers. He helps Nepali tea companies sell their product all around the world—from the US to the Czech Republic. John has also been entrusted by HIMCOOP with the job of finding markets in the third world. He attends various exhibitions around the world on the cooperative’s behalf, showcasing samples from companies such as Everest, Guranse and Mai Tea. These companies also often ask him to review their teas and set their price according to their taste. In the same way that he analyses tea, he meticulously studies the market to find prospective buyers for Nepali tea companies. He knows his buyers and producers well. He knows that the Chinese, who comprise a rapidly growing target group, prefer teas with little or no astringency or bitterness, while the Germans, who make for 90 per cent of his clientele, like a bitterness and pungency in their tea.

Tea is a cash crop that fares well in many markets. And because the tea shrub yields leaves that are ready to be plucked every seven to 15 days days, growers and manufacturers don’t have to wait too long to get their hands on the next batch. “But the manufacturers have to be careful not to underestimate the little details that go into making a perfect batch of tea,” says John, checking the amount of brown in the infusion of the orthodox tea leaves, like he were a scientist looking for abnormalities in a cell.

He is working on a sample of orthodox tea that was grown and processed in Ilam. Orthodox tea is whole-leaf tea made by the withering, rolling, fermenting and drying of tea leaves. The sample John is working with has an astringent aroma. Green tea has a grassy freshness to it. White tea, a specialty tea, is not bitter at all, even though it has a strong body. Manufacturers must be able to retain these particular flavours. Orthodox tea leaves have little patches of brown; the brown is a marker for fermentation having taken place. Green tea shouldn't be  fermented.

A perfect cup of tea has a subtlety to it, but it must also announce itself to someone’s palate. It has to have a discernible body and aftertaste

“Green tea lovers inspect the leaves, and if they see even a hint of brown, they reject the tea,” says John. “When you brew tea—white, green, red—the liquid must be clear. The clarity shows how good the tea is,” he adds. A perfect cup of tea has a subtlety to it, but it must also announce itself to someone's palate. It has to have a discernible body and an aftertaste that lingers after each sip. Not all these particulars, however, are in the control of manufacturers and tasters; a tea’s character depends on the environment it has grown in as well. The seasons play a huge role. There is no tea production during winter, for example. In early March, the first batch springs to life. This is called the first flush. The second flush is produced around late April. Then during monsoon and autumn, the third and the fourth flush follow.

“Tea from the first two flushes have the best taste, appearance and aroma. The third, or monsoon, flush is not good due to the huge amount of water content in the leaves,” explains John, as the tea-tasting session comes to a close. Session done, he looks up from the testing table, nods his head and lets his clear eyes communicate that the test has turned out pretty well. He has arranged the tea bowls in such a manner that the good samples have been separated from the bad ones. The good ones  go near the cup while the bad ones are pulled away from the cup. After he puts the extra leaves back into the bag they came from, he views his work and the cups, from afar, with a satisfied look. With the look of an artist.