We take (Tetley) tea with Sebastian Michaelis
Dr David Livingstone. Wilfred Thesiger. Scott of the Antarctic. Indiana Jones. Sebastian Michaelis. Wait, who?
The list of heroic adventurers above are probably all names you’ve heard of, but Sebastian Michaelis? Who? Well, he’s our new unlikely hero. And he’s massive in the tea world.
Tea, that most genteel of drinking pastimes, conjures thoughts of sipping the ubiquitous brew from delicate porcelain. It’s a global ritual, a time of contemplation, and a moment of relaxation.
But Sebastian Michaelis? Well, he’s one of a tiny army of people charged with creating the delicious elixir. For the last 12 years, he’s been a Tetley tea taster. Might not sound too glamourous yet, but let us explain.
A typical week for Michaelis, a British-born philosophy graduate, might involve overseeing tea supply chains, negotiating tea contracts, and managing projects. Over and above that, every couple of months, he travels the globe, tasting teas and finding the best brews. His journeys might involve travelling to some of the world’s most remote and inhospitable places, driving all day on dirt tracks roads, battling for the best deals at auctions, and enduring extreme weather. All for your cuppa.
Interestingly, all tea comes from one plant, camellia sinensis, with the taste variants coming from environmental factors (the terroir, if you will), rain, sunshine and how it is gathered, dried and processed.
Michaelis’ job is to employ all his skills – via a silver spoon – to describe the flavours, be mindful of tea-drinking trends, and ensure top quality. Most of Tetley’s teas are blends, so he musters all his knowledge and training to maintain a similar taste profile.
It took him five years as an apprentice tea taster, at the company which has been scouring the globe for the lovely leaves since 1837, to gain his own engraved spoon and take on the tea taster moniker.
So invested is Tetley in its almost mythologised tea tasters, the company insured Michaelis’ tongue for a million pounds (that’s just north of five million dirhams, and a tad more than singer Rihanna’s legs are insured for) back in 2014.
To date, he’s tasted around 300,000 to 400,000 teas, to make the perfect brew. Yet he admits to drinking coffee occasionally. Perfume and aftershave are banned from the office, as – despite the tongue insurance – the nose is heavily involved in the tasting process.
He won’t eat anything with a strong flavour for half an hour before a tasting, and even speaks a language unique among Tetley’s tea-tasting fraternity, Uhuru, (‘Freedom’ in Swaheli), which allows him to swiftly identify and classify any tea from around the world incredibly precisely, and to be able to communicate with other tasters about tea.
So what’s his favourite tea? “What’s wonderful about tea is that there are so many types,” he enthuses, “I personally love tea from Rwanda in the morning, because it has lots of zing and favour, but prefer something lighter like a green tea in the afternoon.”
And he’s not a purist. While he mostly drinks black tea, he suggests adding milk to a strong tea mellows the flavour and wouldn’t suggest anyone should drink it in a certain way. He also admits he’s partial to green and herbal teas, adding that: “It depends on my mood and what I feel like at the time. The rise of these products [alternative teas] reflects an interest in exploring new flavours and beverages, which I think is terrific.”
The company’s Rainforest Alliance certified teas are bought directly from producers, with contracts running for decades. “It’s incredibly important to us to guarantee we source the best quality, and this is only possible through developing personal relationships with farmers. We are also always on the lookout for new and interesting teas to introduce to our consumers, so I travel to taste both familiar and new types of teas. I don’t limit myself with criteria for new teas, if I try something new and it tastes amazing, then I will try and get it out to our customers as soon as possible.”
He says teas produced in different countries will vary significantly in flavour due to the types of soil, the weather, and the topography, for example: “Even within each country, the characteristics of tea can be very different from region to region. The best teas are actually blends that balance the best flavours from each country, and that’s how I’ve tailored the Tetley blends,” he explains.
When tasting, he will assess it based on four broad parameters: zing, colour, sparkle and body. “The zing denotes the overall flavour impact when I slurp the tea (as tasters do). The colour can vary from deep red (almost purple), through orange and yellow. The sparkle describes the intensity of that colour, i.e. whether it’s very dull and grey, or bright and pure. Finally, the body is assessed as the thickness and weight of tea in the mouth,” he says.
Confronted by aisles heaving with tea at the supermarket, what should we look for?
His advice is simple: “Like many products in the supermarket, don’t go for the cheapest. You get what you pay for. Tetley invests a huge amount in its tea tasters and quality control systems. You pay for quality and assurance that you’re getting the best teas.”
But here in Dubai, where we are possibly more spoilt for choice of brew than in many other places, with everything from premium tea retailers to cheap loose tea from India and Sri Lanka, what does Tetley bring to the (high tea) table?
He suggests simply identifying what you enjoy most is the key factor. “What we bring as Tetley is 180 years of tea blending experience, which is incredibly important to get the right balance of strength and flavour. The new loose-leaf blends that we’ve launched (here in Dubai) have been tailor-made for the Dubai market, using a secret recipe that includes both strong red teas, as well as lighter aromatic long leaf teas. We also have a unique ‘drawstring’ bag which allows you to squeeze the flavour from the bag.”
Tetley Loose Leaf Tea is now available in the GCC in two varieties. Tetley Loose Leaf Gold is a unique blend of longer leaves, for aroma, and shorter leaves for a richer flavour. Tetley Loose Leaf Strong is a powerful blend of longer leaves for aroma and the finest dust for strength.
For more information on Tetley Tea visit www.tetleyarbia.com