Slurp, swish, spit. During the few seconds it takes to do that, tea-taster Krishan Katyal draws on his extensive palette memory. He can tell you the peachy from the musky, or the baky from the burnt. “No two cups are ever the same,” he says, after spitting some of the golden-hued liquid into a spittoon. In his 31 years as a professional taster, he claims never to have had a slip between the cup and the lip. “After all, it’s someone else’s money... And it’s a much busier job than ever before,” says Katyal, director at auctioneers J Thomas & Co and a well-known taster.
The job of tea tasting had a charm in the colonial set-up. The taster married the need of the buyer with the produce with his art. Swaraj ‘Raja’ Banerjee, taster and owner of the Makaibari estates, talks about the changes in the job necessitated by vast changes in the way tea is marketed: “You could say the profile has become more refined and sophisticated. At the auctions, the origin of the tea was never explained earlier; now even region specifics are ensured.” Some, like Marina Varghese, senior export manager at the Ambootia Estate, claims the trained taster is in demand today for choosing exotic blends.
But the industry recession, too, has hit hard. Says taster Anoop Chaudhary, “Many of my contemporaries have lost their jobs, or, like me, have been transferred to the Kolkata office.” For Chaudhary, it wasn’t really worth it. “A taster’s job is hard enough — no smoking, no drinking, and a cold would mean salary cuts,” he mails from Nigeria, where he now works as a coffee blender.
Shambhu De Sarkar, Ambootia’s 70-year-old taster, has the last word: “Glamour? There’s none of it. It’s a damn difficult job to sell tea.”