For a man whose family name appears on as many tea bags in a year as there are people on this planet, Stephen Twining is exceptionally understated. But get him talking about tea, and you see him transform into the worthy tenth-generation flag-bearer of a tradition his forefather, Thomas Twining, had started brewing when he opened the world's first tea leaf and coffee shop in a fashionable part of London in 1706.
Twining, who read marketing in college, is the only member of his family in the tea business - his brother and sister love tea but not so much as to join the company, which is now a part of the Euro 11.1-billion (Rs 86,400 crore) conglomerate named Associated British Foods, whose portfolio includes such familiar brand names as Ovaltine and Patak's.
And of course, Twining has many stories to share about the fascinating art of tea blending, which his forefather had mastered before others. At Twinings, nine tea tasters, who double as buyers and blenders, decide what goes into the brand's seven billion tea bags and "somewhere in excess of 200 blends" that get sold every year in 115 countries. Unsurprisingly, they have to be trained for five years before they get elevated to their prized position, which requires them to taste up to 3,000 cups of tea a day.
Their nose and palate ultimately decide how much Assam, for instance, goes into the best-selling English Breakfast Tea - it's a make or break decision because the blend consists of teas sourced from 15-25 estates (the number varies according to the year) in Assam, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
This careful equation is rejigged to account for cultural differences , so you have "English, Indian and Rest of the World versions" of the tea that's been synonymous with the family name since the 1930s. "Soon, we'll have a Russian version," says Twining, as he digs into a bowl of daal with a naan at Spectra, The Leela Kempinski Gurgaon's multi-cuisine restaurant, before a tea tasting for the media.
"We tweak our blends to suit local tastes," Twining continues, giving the example of Darjeeling tea. For the Indian market, the blend has more of the mellow Second Flush, but the Japanese love the more upfront (and pricier) First Flush, so they get a generous amount of it.
Like the alchemists of the past, tea tasters keep juggling blends - and they have quite a formidable task on their hand, for the teas come from 31 countries, including new players such as Brazil (whose brews have a "slightly coconut-y taste").
"Tea bags have an image problem," admits constant blender, who's the director of corporate relations at Twinings (and has worked in every department of it, "except HR, Accounts and IT, because no one really cares about our company's HR policies").
"It's the quality of the wine in a bottle that counts and not that it has a screwcap," says Twining, pointing to a long-lasting debate in the wine business that's now more or less been settled in favour of screwcaps.
"Tea bags are a convenience product and the smaller the leaves the quicker they release flavours," Twining adds, rubbishing the widespread criticism of classicists that bags are packed with 'tea dust' and not 'real tea'.
Before lunch gets over, Twining leaves behind a little nugget of tea wisdom. If you're making tea from a bag, let it brew for three minutes to savour the flavours. Sadly for him, even in the UK, where 85 per cent of tea drinkers use bags, the average brewing time is 30 seconds. At this rate, Thomas Twining's soul can't ever rest in peace.
Courtesy: Mail Today