In February I was given the opportunity to spend a week on work experience with the Taylors of Harrogate tea buying team. This blog post will discuss everything I learned, including the time I spent trying the numerous teas.
A former agent at a tea company in London, Charles Taylor, established C.E. Taylor & Sons in 1886, a regional wholesaler of imported tea and coffee blended in Leeds. Charles Taylor was the first to understand the significance of different waters that can affect the quality and taste of brewed tea or coffee because of the interaction between the compounds in tea and the calcium carbonate in hard water that creates a scum. Owing to this problem, Charles began carefully buying and blending teas to suit the local water, creating Yorkshire Tea in 1886. He established a reputation for quality and won a gold medal at the London Grocery Exhibition in 1896.
The company also opened a four-storey café in Harrogate, known as Café Imperial, which served a variety of exotic teas, plus a number of ‘kiosk’ coffee shops in other Yorkshire towns. However, by the 1960s it had become increasingly difficult for merchants to keep the larger cafés open and Taylors were purchased by the owners of its competitor, Bettys Café Tea Rooms, at the same time acquiring their cafés. The newly formed company moved to Harrogate in the 1970s.
Now more than 10 million cups of Yorkshire Tea are consumed every day in the UK.
Taylors have specially trained master tea buyers, who can train for five years before becoming fully qualified. They taste hundreds of different teas each day, searching for distinct flavours, characters, balance and colour that they will fit into their unique blends. These tea buyers also travel to the different tea estates in order to keep the relationships with their growers close, as well as create contracts with new growers in the region.
During my time in Harrogate, several days were spent on the shop floor where all the tea is tasted and graded. Some of my responsibilities included measuring the tea, sorting the tea samples collected from the auctions into the desired order, as well as trying a large amount of tea for myself.
The CTC (curt, tear, curled) black tea will be carefully measured in order to keep the strength the same throughout the different origin teas, before being brewed in hard water for more than double the length of time required so that any impurities are apparent. Then the tea is drained of the leaves and milk is added, because the majority of English people have their tea with milk. After the tea is decanted, the mug is inverted so that the leaves land on the lid, which enables the tasters to observe the wet leaves. It is now ready for tasting.
When tasting the tea you fill a deep spoon with the tea liquid, then slurp. It is not ladylike by any stretch of the imagination, but if you manage to get some air with the tea and allow it to roll on the tongue, the flavour impact is stronger than if you simply sip it. Once you have gained a feel for the tea you spit it into a spittoon (a big bucket). This step can be repeated again and again until an accurate picture of all aspects of the tea is achieved.
Whilst at Taylors of Harrogate, the list of teas I was given the opportunity to taste was immense, and I was even able to tell the difference. The difference between bad and good quality teas became more obvious as the week progressed; for example, I tried burnt tea, which tasted like bitter chocolate, case hardened (green on the inside) tea that was a bit like chewing on a leaf, and some tea where moisture had got into the tea packet – this just tasted very weak in comparison to the other teas. The teas tasted came from multiple origins (such as Sri Lanka, Assam, and East and Western Rift Africa), from tea production, batch testing to make sure the quality is consistent, as well as tasting against competing brands.
Near the end of my stay, I spent all too short an amount of time with the Taylors Coffee Department. All the coffee is imported for roasting in the factory in Harrogate; this ensures that the temperature and duration of heat can be more thoroughly controlled. A sample of each of the raw beans is collected from all incoming supplies and is then roasted in a smaller version of the oven in the factory. This gives the tasters an idea of how each batch of coffee will taste. If there are any irregularities that batch is re-run and if the irregularities persist then the batch is taken off the line.
During my time with the department, I was allowed to taste some of the coffee, which is done in the same way as for tea. The two coffee origins I tasted were Brazilian and Columbian. For the first time in a while, I found a coffee that I actually enjoyed!
Bettys Tea Room
Whilst on my work experience I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a meal at Bettys Tea Room in Harrogate, so midweek I went there for dinner. This was my first time going to one of the Bettys Tea Rooms and I was immensely impressed. As I went on a midweek evening, it was relatively quiet, so I was taken to a table almost as soon as I walked down the steps. There was delightful piano-playing in the background, which gave the tea room a lovely ambience. The staff were brilliant; when I couldn’t choose between two dishes they were happy to give me more information than what was on the menu, as well as telling me of their personal food preferences.
Don’t forget to have some tea on me.