Tea taster with a tongue worth Dh5 million

Nilanjana Gupta (Senior Web Journalist / Videographer)/Dubai Filed on March 10, 2018
Tea taster with a tongue worth Dh5 million
Sebastian Michaelis, Tetley tea blender and taster, in Dubai. - KT photo by Juidin Bernarrd

Sebastian Michaelis has probably tasted half a million teas in more than a decade working at Tetley

If you have a tongue like that of Sebastian Michaelis, you can have everyone's cup of tea.

No kidding: this master tea taster at Tetley has a tongue so refined, his employer had to get it insured for more than Dh5million (1 million) to protect his taste buds.

One of the master tea blenders at Britain's tea manufacturing company for over 12 years, Michaelis was in Dubai recently, to launch two new Tetley tea blends in the Middle East.

Khaleej Times had a chat over a cup of tea with him. "I have always drank tea all my life. It has definitely been part of the culture, but I didn't really know much about it until I joined Tetley as a tea taster. After studying Philosophy at university, I was sent this job advert by a friend; it said 'Do you have a degree? Do you like tea? Do you like to travel?' I said yes to all of it and was very fortunate to have got the job," Michaelis said.

He tastes several hundred teas everyday and in over the decade at Tetley, he has probably tasted half a million teas.

So what's the right way to taste it? If you're a tea lover, you have probably been doing it wrong all your life.

"How we do it is: we brew it very strong, then I slurp up the tea and spit it out. It's quite a quick process but you get to that speed after years of training. The idea is to be able to taste lots of teas very quickly, get the correct assessment, use the tasting language to describe it and then move to the next one."

Sebastian's job entailed training for about five years that involved tasting thousands of teas every week, learning about different quality varieties from around the world. He travelled to tea estates in India, Africa, Sri Lanka, China and many other places, to learn how it's grown, and also how to pack and ship it, ensuring the quality is kept intact from plant to shop.

"I can now tell the difference not only between tea from different countries, but from various regions in those countries. In our tasting language, we use four parameters to tell the differences. An important one is 'zing' - a way of describing the impact of the flavour when you sip it. Since you're spitting it out, it's about how long that flavour lasts in your mouth. If it's a poor quality tea, that zing or flavour will disappear quickly. If it stays, it's good quality."

To create the perfect blend, Sebastian reveals that flavours should complement each other. "It's not something you can write a rulebook on, but I do use a tasting language that we developed in-house at Tetley - 'Uhuru' - which means 'freedom' in Swahili. It allows me to describe any tea from around the world and the ability to blend them together in such a way that complements each other.


Nilanjana Gupta

As a multimedia journalist, I consider it a privilege to tell the stories of people in the UAE and allow the world to meet the people with whom their paths may never cross. I am a graduate of the Broadcast and Digital Journalism master's programme at Syracuse University in New York. Prior to joining Khaleej Times, I interned with Al Jazeera English in Washington DC and worked as a senior news desk editor with CNN-IBN in Delhi.

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