Did you know that you could make a living tasting tea? It's an uncommon career path, but it does exist, and it's a lot of work. And if you're good at it, you may even be able to have your tongue insured — just ask Sebastian Michaelis, master tea blender at Tata Global Beverages.
We asked Michaelis all about what it's like to taste and blend tea for a living. Here's what he shared.
Business News Daily: What do you do?
Sebastian Michaelis: I am a professional tea taster, buyer and blender. I source teas from farms around the world, and blend them together in such a way to ensure Tetley tea always tastes the same.
BND: What made you want to pursue the industry you're in?
Michaelis: Unsurprisingly, I didn't grow up dreaming of being a tea taster; I hadn't even heard of this as a career. A friend sent me the advertisement for a trainee tea taster. The ad asked for a candidate who loved tea, has a university degree and is happy to travel. I didn't need much encouragement to apply.
BND: How did you get into your job?
Michaelis: Tetley is one of the few companies who train up tea tasters from scratch, and most of our tasters joined as graduates. Like an apprenticeship, you work under a senior buyer and blender, tasting hundreds of teas every day to be capable of recognizing the thousands of flavors, characteristics and fine notes of tea. I taste 36 teas in a row, slurping off a dessert spoon as loudly as I can — it helps bring out the flavor — and then spit it out into a spittoon. The slurping sounds pretty horrendous if you've not heard it before, but you soon get used to it. As part of my education in tea, I was sent to live in several tea-producing countries for a year. Most of my time was spent in Kenya and India, visiting farms to understand how tea is grown, cultivated and produced, and also buying tea by the container load in the old-fashioned auction rooms. There's a very strong tradition in our company of ensuring our tasters are experts in all aspects of tea, from how it's grown all the way to packing it in a teabag.
BND: What do you like about your job?
Michaelis: Thankfully, I do love the tea-tasting part! As the second-largest tea company, Tetley is spoilt with the number and variety of tea we have access to. We have an historical tasting room with old wooden drawers full of amazing teas for me to experiment with. I also spend a lot of my time on farms in quite remote and wild places. I live in and work in foggy London, so escaping the city to a remote mountain in southern Tanzania is a big perk of the job.
BND: What challenges do you face at your job?
Michaelis: Droughts, port strikes, thefts, flooding and Somali pirates! Getting tea from a rural location in Africa to our factory in England can be a real challenge, and we're constantly finding ourselves in tricky situations. We have an in-house tasting language called Uhuru, which means ‘freedom' in Swahili. The language allows us to very precisely grade teas, and to blend different ones together to achieve the same taste that consumers have come to expect … so if we have a problem with Rwanda, we can substitute with tea from Burundi, for instance.
BND: What's something people don't know about your job?
Michaelis: That it exists! Understandably, most people aren't aware of the complexity of making sure your tea tastes the same every time. I know I'm not saving any lives, but it's satisfying to see [our tea] in a store and knowing how much hard work went behind it. I'm evangelical about tea and want more people to try the real stuff.
BND: What's the most interesting thing you've ever done at your job?
Michaelis: Last year my company insured my taste buds for 1 million British pounds ($1.5 million). They've invested a lot of money in my tongue, so they wanted to protect their assets — thankfully, I'm still allowed to eat curries. There was a lot of media attention in the U.K. when it first happened, and I was invited as a guest judge on MasterChef, which was a dream, as I love cooking.
BND: Do you have any advice for others pursuing a similar career path?
Michaelis: It's a small industry, with only a few hundred professional tasters around the world. I would advise writing to a local tea company and applying for work experience. Graduate trainee positions do come up, but they're few and far between. The job isn't just tasting. We work on new product development, buying and negotiations, logistics, finance and project management — as well as the travel, of course — so you have to be a jack-of-all-trades.