Tea is always a good idea! Sampling Sri Lanka’s finest with The Tea & Herb Company

At this year’s Hotel Asia Exhibition, The Tea & Herb Company from Sri Lanka held a daily tea-tasting seminar, inviting visitors to sample teas and infusions from throughout the country. Mariyam Athiza Athif went along to learn the art of drinking of tea.

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A pleasant mix of aromas welcomes my nose as soon as I open the door. Inside, an electric kettle boils, and glass jars and cups are being arranged on a long table. I am attending one of the seminars of the Hotel Asia Exhibition and it seems I have arrived a bit early. So, I exchange a few hellos, pick a chair to sit on, and decide to simply give in to the wonderful smells around me.

My fragrant meditation is broken when three men wearing suits and hats introduce themselves, and I am lured by a certain old school charm and showmanship. They are The Tea and Herb Company from Sri Lanka, and they are here to enlighten us about tea.

We watch a short video about tea production, we are told about how Sri Lanka’s different climates, elevations and different leaf sizes produce teas of various colours and strengths, and we are shown how to taste tea properly, like how a real tea taster would. Then, to my delight, they invite us to taste the assortment of tea and herbal infusions lined up on the table.

I put on the cute white apron they give me, and using my own special tasting spoon I begin taking sips from the bowls one by one. I notice the contrast between teas from different elevations, I am introduced to the rare and expensive white silvertip tea made from only the buds of the tea plant, and I develop a fondness for a crimson-coloured herbal infusion that has hibiscus flowers and blueberries. I then decide to participate in their blind tasting test, and soon discover that my taste buds are in need of a lot more education.

 

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At the end of the pleasant presentation while the jars, cups and spoons are being packed up, I find an opportunity to converse with Bimal Fernando, the CEO of The Tea and Herb Company. From him I learn that the company is chaired and owned by Mr. Senaka S Kotagama, a third generation tea planter whose ancestry is entwined with the art of tea. He founded The Tea and Herb Company 16 years ago, and has guided it from its infancy to making it a company that provides tea to all corners of the earth.

While the company mainly exports fresh, unblended, 100% pure Ceylon tea in its virgin state, The Tea and Herb Company has three blends of its own; Thé-Kola, Trinity and Silkenty. All of them come with the company’s brand signature, the Pyramid teabags which are uniquely shaped, biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

“We buy the tea from the Colombo auction, thereafter we blend it, flavour it and pack it based on different people’s, different buyer’s requirements,” says Bimal while explaining to me the company’s main operations. I also learn that the Colombo tea auction is the largest tea auction in the world, one that has been around for more than 150 years.

The Tea and Herb Company also provides a private labelling service where it designs and creates unique tea brands for its customers. The blends for these brands are designed based on the client’s requirements, and then are packaged and exported. “We can do that for the resorts in the Maldives. We call them house brands where each of the resorts can have their own teas,” Bimal adds.

Bimal also tells me about The Colombo Tea & Herb Tour that takes tourists to a factory near Colombo where they can get an insider’s view into the tea journey from gathering, grading to refining. From Bimal I learn that a guided tasting session and a blind tasting test similar to what I had experienced are also included in the tour. The tour also has an interesting segment in which participants can make their own blends by mixing and matching herbs. “They can name their blend and take it home with them,” Bimal explains.

“I would love to take The Colombo Tea & Herb tour to each and every resort in the Maldives and make it an event for their clients. And with the tour we can have add-ons such as the resort’s bartenders can come and start doing tea cocktails with us,” Bimal adds as we end our conversation.

Conversation with a tea taster

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After speaking with Bimal, I meet with Ranjan Yohan Benadic, Manager Special Projects of the Tea and Herb Company. He is an experienced tea taster who has been in the tea industry for the past thirty years. During our brief conversation he shares with me some insights into tea tasting and gives me some tips for making a better cup of tea.

What was it that initially got you interested in tea?

To be very honest it was my late mother’s passion that I become a tea taster, she always wanted me to become a tea taster.

Could you tell us a bit about tea tasting?

It’s an art. The purpose of slurping it is to make sure it hits your upper palate. That’s where your taste buds are located. The moment it hits there is when you get your taste. Of course tasting and identifying the different characteristics of tea has to be developed over a period of time.

Did you receive any training to become a tea taster?

Nothing of that sort. It was just time. Now you would find places which conduct various types of training. At the time when I joined the trade 30 years ago, there was no such thing. So it was from our seniors and various other people that we gathered information and developed the skill on our own.

Since you are an expert on tea, could you tell us how you would brew your perfect cup?

You have to have pure water, preferably distilled water and clean equipment free from any odours or stains or anything like that which might contaminate the tea. Then you put your water to boil. Let it boil and if you are pouring a cup you would have one teaspoon for that cup and one extra. And as soon as the water boils you pour it into the cup, stir it and seep it for 3 to 5 minutes depending on the strength that you want. Less amount of time if you want a light cup of tea and more time if you want a stronger cup. And never use re-boiled water.

And why is that?

Because you’ll lose the oxygen and everything in it. And you will get a stale taste in the tea. That is a very important point. Never use re-boiled water, it has to be fresh water always.

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