One of the things I enjoy most about my work is being able to give our customers some behind-the-scenes peeks into what goes into creating the teas that you enjoy. One of the most important aspects of our tea production is the tasting room. While tasting teas all day may sound like a dream job, there’s actually a lot to it – it’s not all sip the tea, nibble a scone, sip the tea, have a cucumber sandwich, sip the tea.
So come with me to the Harney tasting room, where all kinds of work goes on to make sure the tea that arrives at your door makes you smile!
To begin with…the tasting room is the realm of Elvira Cardenas. She is our buyer, and the rest of the staff report to her. I work closely with her, and every day we taste teas and herbs that might be bought, blends to be considered, daily receipts of teas, daily blends and teas that are in production. Needless to say, there are a lot of cups! Both Elvira and I do tastings when we are around, which is 99% of the time. We both are self-taught and passionate about this. We also get a few people who like to taste teas as well.
Teas and herbs come into the tasting room at many stages – exploration, purchase, receipt, blending and production. We do have an idea of what we want teas to taste like. I would think that I defined it and passed that editorial bias to Elvira. We do like teas that make you smile, teas that have a natural sweetness, and blends that are pleasant to drink.
Years ago when I started, I researched many different teas and came up with the ideal for many teas. That was codified in my 2008 book Harney & Sons Guide to Tea. We look for the expected body, briskness and aroma from each type of tea. If we find the tea has all the expected qualities and the price is reasonable, we would buy that tea.
Sometimes we do take a tea that is very different, just so we cover the waterfront for our customers. However, just like you expect a certain type of scarf from Hermes, you should expect a certain type of tea from Harney & Sons. (You see how I lumped us in with Chanel. It was no accident!)
As I mentioned, there are lots of cups in the tasting room at any given time, with any number of different teas. To give you an idea: as I write this, today we tasted products from the blending rooms and the various teas produced both in the morning and the afternoon. This is part of our quality control process. Then we tasted various herbs that Elvira needed to buy: safflower, lemongrass, liquorice, orange peel, nutmeg and pepper. Not sure if you have tasted liquid pepper, but it is very memorable; we do it last so it does not mess up the taste buds too much. Also, someone had sent a sample of the new season of Lung Ching, so that was exciting. We hold that and compare it against some that we bought. I see that we have a few First Flush Darjeelings and oolongs from Taiwan (seems early in the season for them) for tomorrow.
In case you were wondering, we don’t create new blends in the tasting room. New blends are made in the head and the soul before they happen in the tasting room. When we make blends for ourselves, there is an itch that needs to be scratched. An opportunity that needs to be achieved. So then we go to the tasting room and solve it. We know many of the variables, so after several tries, we usually make a delicious new tea or herbal blend. Sometimes we are commissioned to make a new blend, so then we try to guess what the customer wants and send it out. Honestly, it does not always work out.
That’s about new stuff. When it comes to tasting tried-and-true, established Harney blends, they get tasted as well. We taste Hot Cinnamon Spice about 10 times a day: every 300-pound batch that is blended, and we blend almost 2,000 pounds each and every day. So our most popular tea gets lots of attention. Earl Grey Supreme is made less often, but still it is our third most popular tea (after HCS and Paris), so it does get some love too.
One question I get asked is how we taste the tea. Do we actually swallow it, do we cleanse our palates like wine tasters and so on. First, I will say this: those wine tasters are a lucky bunch of people: wine, cheese and crackers! When it comes to tasting tea, most of the time, we do not have palate cleansers. Sometimes there is a little piece of cake, especially if there are lots of CTC Assams on the table. The briskness does a number on the tongue.
On the swallowing question: most times, we do not swallow but rather spit into a bucket. It is a lot of caffeine and more importantly, a lot of water to be dealt with. Remember, we are trying to take a liquid (tea) and make it into a gas (so we can smell it). So drinking the actual tea is not necessary. Check out my son Emeric demonstrating the proper way to taste tea in the video below. You’ll soon understand that the tasting room is a noisy place with slurping and spitting and all manner of things one would not find at a proper afternoon tea!
Finally, if you want to know what a tea has to have to make the Harney cut? It always comes back to this very important factor: it has to be a tea that makes you smile!