January 2018
A matter of taste

Satyani believes that passion, commitment and hard work are the drivers for success as a tea taster.

Satyani believes that passion, commitment and hard work are the
drivers for success as a tea taster.

Over the past century and a half, the Sri Lankan tea industry has traditionally employed mainly women in manual roles, such as tea-picking. Conversely, the industry's white-collar positions have until very recently been male-dominated – despite a very high rate of female literacy in Sri Lanka. Satyani Rajapakse is Finlays Colombo's first female tea taster and tea blender. Here she talks to us about her work.

What is your job?

I am a tea taster and a tea blender at Finlays Colombo Limited. I'm responsible for evaluating tea quality, attending the weekly tea auctions in Colombo to purchase tea according to customer requirements, and blending teas to ensure consistency.

What does a tea taster actually do?

At its simplest level, a tea taster tastes tea 24/7! The skill in this activity lies in combining hundreds of individual teas to match the quality parameters of one established standard. The standard differs from client to client, from market to market. It is my job to ensure continuity in supply for each of our clients and never deviate from their agreed blend recipe.

Where is the tea-tasting held?

There is a special room in the office to carry out all tea-related activities and it is here the magic happens. Many factors – such as natural light, proper ventilation and storage space – need to be taken into account when designing a tea room. The usual equipment for tasting includes a kettle, a cup, a bowl, a lid with a timer to brew the tea – and a great palate also comes in handy!

How many rounds of tea tasting do you get through in one day?

On a weekly basis our team must evaluate around 12,000 samples of tea, to prepare for the weekly auctions. A minimum of 500 cups a day need to be tasted.

Describe some of the challenges your job brings.

The most challenging yet exciting days of the week are auction days – Tuesdays and Wednesdays. These are the days I feel proudest of myself, as the only lady representing Finlays and one of only a handful in the trade, fighting neck and neck with more than 200 men to buy tea – a very satisfying feeling at the end of the day! It gives me a huge sense of achievement to buy my targeted requirement of tea at my targeted price.

Where did your love of tea come from and how did you become a tea taster?

Tea actually found me! I am a Science graduate with a degree in Biotechnology. I applied to Finlays for a different post. However, the senior management felt that this would be a better opportunity and took me onboard in the capacity of a trainee tea taster. I am fortunate to have a senior management team that mentors and guides me and I am now in my tenth year at Finlays. Passion for what I do today is something that grew in me and keeps growing as I continue exploring the truly amazing camellia sinensis – the tea plant.
Tea pluckers ensure the best quality teas are harvested, by hand-picking the most tender leaves.
Tea pluckers ensure the best quality teas are harvested, by hand-picking the most tender leaves.

What makes a superior quality tea?

Now that's a tricky one! Every market and every palate has a different definition of good quality. However, as a taster and blender there is very little I can do if the first step in the supply chain – which is production – is not up to the mark. In other words, the quality of the final cup of tea you and I drink is in the hands of the tea plucker. If she fails to pluck the finest leaves there's very little I can do at this end to get a good quality cup.

So the success of the so-called male dominated industry actually lies in the hands of the woman who climbs the hills to pluck the most succulent, tender tea leaves to give the best quality product!

Can you share with us some tips to help improve tea making at home?

Rule number one: freshly drawn water always.
The water must be heated to boiling point for black tea and little a lower for green tea.

Rule number two: do not over-boil.
When water is over-boiled, the oxygen content is destroyed and this results in poor activation of the aromatic flavours and characteristics of the tea.

My favourite cup of tea would be a bright golden red cup of tea with a hint of ginger and sugar. I also fancy a perfectly balanced tropical flavoured green iced tea to put me in a chirpy mood. When we are in the mood to experiment, we can always create a perfect blend.

SwireNews January 2018 issue
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