The entrance and factory of Bargang Tea Estate

The smell of black tea, memories of Assam, and 'Phil's sniff test'

Canton Tea Club Week 86: Wild Mountain Black

There are some aromas that evoke strong memories. As you might expect, in my case many of these are connected with tea, but perhaps more surprising is that most of them relate to black tea. I came to oolongs and other types very late and they are not really part of my tea memory, which goes back almost 50 years. The pinnacle experiences were probably in the early 1990s in Assam – something that I still draw on today – and much more recently in Fujian. More of that later in the blog.

early days

I am old enough to remember the particular homely smell of Brooke Bond packet tea with a paper bag inside, and the way that carried through to a free card to collect: famous footballers, cricketers, cars, animals, trees etc. The aroma was stale and dusty but somehow comforting, and it was the one that I associated with tea back then. Sadly I suspect that some people still do.

Then there was the smell of leaves in a tea caddy. During my teens, I had a regular summer job in a hotel, and one of the things this involved was serving early morning tea to guests in their bedrooms. This meant setting up a trolley with cups and saucers and a huge aluminium teapot – it wasn’t a smart hotel. I remember the smell when reaching into a big metal tin to scoop out the leaves and pour them into the pot. It then needed focus and organisation to get round the rooms with the tea trolley before the tea got cold – not easy with a hangover, as I found to my cost on a couple of occasions. I must have been like Mrs. Overall’s “two soups?”, if that makes any sense to anyone. There were complaints.

But those are probably my only real memories of tea from that time, and I think I managed to get through university without drinking any. How strange then to find myself travelling up to London in 1979 for an interview at a tea broking house: I had applied for a job with Cadbury’s, but they directed me to one of their subsidiaries, Typhoo Tea, and their buying office in the City. As I have described this in a previous blog, the experience of just walking into the building was intoxicating. There was tea everywhere, in open chests, in sample packets, on long wooden tasting counters. The whole fabric was infused with tea, and the aroma hung on the air. I can still smell it now. Up until that point I didn’t know that I wanted to work in tea, but that did it for me. My reaction must have come through in the interview because I got the job, despite having done no real homework on the product or the industry. In fact looking back they were looking for excitement and enthusiasm rather than knowledge, and I think that’s still the most important factor when looking for people to work in tea.

the Assam Auctions

So I learnt my trade there, at the Meriden Tea Company. We tasted many hundreds of teas every day, in a weekly cycle around the London Auction held every Monday, which in those days was a vital source of tea for the UK (it is long gone). I learnt about the tea seasons, and in particular the arrival of the most important teas of the year, the New Season Assams. The aromas in the tasting room changed, becoming thicker and sweeter, with that distinctive maltiness that Assam teas have, and everything became a bit more serious.

The Second Flush begins during May, the teas were shipped and delivered into the London auction warehouses, and the first catalogues were printed in late August. No holidays allowed. The big guns turned out for these auctions – chief buyers alongside the usual juniors – and the atmosphere was different. There was some pressure, as everyone had to cover what they needed for the year. We sat directly behind the Tetley group, and I can clearly remember the big boss’s neck getting redder and redder as people bid against him. We all knew what his favourite teas were so it was a bit of a game to see how far we could push him. Happy days.

making tea in Assam

We jump forward to 1994, and a new team of Directors at Typhoo. Somehow I had survived the comings and goings of previous years, and found myself with some new colleagues who  wanted to revive the Typhoo brand. Happily, the main focus was investing in the quality of the blend, and I was asked to develop it. This meant finding ten thousand tonnes a year of premium quality tea with a distinctive flavour, not a simple task. It was made possible by the strong connections I had built up in the tea growing countries over previous years, and the ability to work directly with tea gardens. The quality backbone of the blend became Assam, vacuum-packed at source: quite a new technology at that stage, but one that I had been involved in from the early trials. The drive to develop it came from the aroma and taste of Assam tea fresh from the factory dryers, almost too hot to hold in your hand but with a captivating sweet fresh aroma – quite unlike ‘normal’ tea. I have used the analogy of freshly-baked bread before, and it describes it perfectly.

This was only in the blend at something like 15%, but it gave a superb creaminess and aftertaste. It became our signature, and a critical part of the buying. So I ended up spending two weeks in Assam each year, supervising the production and signing off the quality. If it sounds a bit ‘Man from Del Monte’, it really wasn’t – I was with good friends and we enjoyed doing the work together. I stayed with Anand, the Manager of Bargang Tea Estate, and we developed a daily routine. The day’s leaf was withered overnight and manufacture started at about 5.00 AM; we arrived around 6.00, just as the first tea was dried. On earlier visits during the experimental stages, I had got into the habit of covering a hopper full of fresh tea with a plastic sheet, and sticking my head inside to check the aroma. Word had obviously got around, because I found this set up waiting for me in all the factories I visited, and it was described as ‘Phil’s Sniff Test’. It was a bit quirky, but I liked it, and it reinforced the message about quality. I now know that I became quite well known over the years in Assam for these kinds of oddities, but in a nice way.

Once the sniff tests had been done, it was back to the house for breakfast, then a morning tasting, coding invoices and vacuum packing, before lunch and then ‘lie back’. Assam is hot and humid, a draining place to work, and the way people manage this is to start early and rest in the heat of the afternoon – a bit like a siesta I suppose. This is called the lie back, and I found it a great time for writing and reading. After tea and ‘short eats’ we would tour the garden in late afternoon, back to the factory and then home for a quiet evening. Unless that is, it was club night.

Club night meant a half hour drive to the East Boroi Club, to meet with the rest of the local tea community, drink beer, maybe watch a film, and play a little snooker. The remoteness of the gardens meant that this weekly get together was a big deal, and very well-supported. It also meant working out who was the least drunk and most able to steer the car back afterwards. The journey home always took longer, sometimes much longer – the tea garden landscape doesn’t have many landmarks and it’s very easy to get lost, especially if those who know the way are asleep. Sadly the advent of videos and DVDs pretty much killed off club life, with people mostly staying in other than for the occasional special event. The last time I visited the East Boroi Club was in the late 1990s, when I presented a set of snooker balls in memory of many happy nights spent there, but even by then the atmosphere was not how it had been.

and so to China

Up until this point, most of my knowledge of black tea had come from Assam. It was there that I learnt about growing, picking and processing, starting with a two month training stint in 1981, continuing in later visits and especially the two week stays in the 1990s. Everything I saw in Africa and elsewhere was taken in reference to Assam, which I was happy to consider the home of black tea, and where the definitive types were made, both large leaf orthodox and small leaf CTC.

I had come across black teas from China of course, but they were novelties, not relevant to the work I was doing in Typhoo and I didn’t really give them much thought at the time. This changed when I visited China. My first visit was in 2002, and although I didn’t see much black tea production on that trip, the whole experience changed my tea outlook completely and meant I had to reappraise what I had learnt over the previous 20+ years. A single day in Tong Mu tasting Lapsang was enough to make me think differently about black tea, mainly because of the small scale, manual processing.

In 2012 I visited Qimen in Anhui to see ‘Keemun’ being made, and was in Fujian last year to see varieties including Golden Monkey and Tang Yang Gongfu. In all these cases it was the small-scale, the almost artisan-style processing that fascinated me – along with experimenting with new bush varieties and new processing techniques all the time. While Assam was all about large scale, automation and consistency, China was about exactly the opposite.

With that we come to my final black tea aroma moment of this blog. When we were in Fujian we were allowed into a tiny fermenting room, full of steam, shelves lined with small bamboo baskets containing twisted orange-brown leaves. How do I describe the aroma of these leaves? Intense caramel, malt, sweet – all familiar in themselves but magnified out of all proportion to anything I have experienced in India. It was quite a moment, not least because it felt like we were entering a secret magic room.

At the end of writing this, I am surprised myself how strong the memories are. Smells and places are obviously powerful triggers!

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