Wed, 30 Apr 2003

Tea tasting, artistic endeavor of its own

Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A woman steeps some tea leaves in boiling water in a small bowl. She uses a spoon to sip some of the liquid, and then quickly spits it out again.

In the moments before she spat out the tea, the woman was able to make an accurate evaluation of it.

The woman is Carlina Susanto, an expert tea taster of PT Gunung Slamet, the company producing Cap Botol, Poci and Super Sosro tea brands.

During the first Jakarta Coffee and Tea Festival held on April 26 and April 27, Carlina demonstrated her expertise in tasting a variety of teas.

Becoming a tea taster takes years and years of very specialized training, and the profession usually comes near the end of a career spent in the tea industry.

Carlina studied chemical science at the Bandung Institute of Technology and graduated in 1972. She had worked for a long time with PT Perkebunan Nusantara VIII in West Java, overseeing quality control of its tea.

"After I retired, I was asked by PT Gunung Slamet to become a consultant tea taster for its Sosro teas," Carlina told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the festival.

A professional tea taster is needed at tea plantations to evaluate the quality of the tea produced, and in tea packaging companies -- such as Lipton, Pickwick, Twinings -- to help decide which teas to buy from producers during tea auctions.

"Tea auctions are conducted every week in England, India and Indonesia. Here it is done every Wednesday through a Joint Marketing Office," Carlina said.

The tea taster uses his or her smell, sight, touch and taste, to form subjective and objective decisions about the tea. He or she has to be able to differentiate between the tastes of various tea varieties, and how to demarcate the good from the bland.

"Cupping" tea -- the term a tea taster uses to describe the process of tea tasting -- is a ritual all on its own. The Tea Man's Tea Talk website at describes the process well.

First, tea samples are brought to the cupping table and organized by number around the table. Kettles of steaming water are kept close at hand, while a tea taster's covered cup and bowl are positioned at each numbered setting.

Dry tea leaves are placed in the bowl and examined carefully. The leaves are then placed in the cup and infused with boiling water for exactly six minutes.

The tea liquid, or tea liquor, is then poured completely from the covered cup back into the bowl. The remaining wet tea leaves are then examined.

The tea taster then examines the tea liquor for color and aromatics. Using a special spoon, the tea taster then sips the tea.

"The slurping sound is caused by the tea being sucked into the mouth at the exact speed of 125 miles per hour. At this speed, the tea explodes at the back of the palate forming minute mist particles. These particles tell a story about the tea in volumes to the tea taster," the Tea Man said on his website.

The tea is not swallowed but spewed out, and the tea taster begins anew with another cup of tea.

When buying tea, one should take note that the tea is well dried otherwise it will deteriorate rapidly. The color of the liquor should glisten like a jewel, and the smell of good tea will have a fresh, pure fragrance.

Indonesia produces 8 percent of the world's tea, with exports comprising 70 percent of its production. According to the Indonesian Tea Association (ATI), the country produced a total of 161,202 tons of tea in 2000, compared to 157,371 tons the previous year.

However, annual domestic consumption is still low at 300 grams per capita compared to the United Kingdom's consumption of 2.3 kilograms per capita per year.