Tea Talk with India’s Top Tea Sommelier- Sangeeta Kichlu

Sangeeta Kichlu, one of India’s leading Tea Tasters & Sommeliers, was born into a family of Tea Planters and married to a renowned Tea Taster. So, it was only natural that she took on this profession, successfully going on to becoming one of the first lady tea tasters in India.

After completing her training in 1979 at Thompson Lloyd & Ewart in London, Sangeeta worked with many leading tea companies in various roles- as a tea taster, trader, exporter, blender, and other tea-related function. Finally, in 2012 she started her own company – SARA Tea Pvt Ltd for consulting and popularising Speciality Teas. Her vast knowledge about tea provides an invaluable insight into this industry.

Here are some interesting snippets from our recent Tea Talk over a leisurely Afternoon Tea at Karma Kettle tearoom.

Sarita: What kinds of tea are available in the Indian market these days?

Sangeeta: India is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of tea, but while the tea drinker in West Bengal is discerning about his/ her teas, being connoisseurs and consumers of the iconic Darjeeling Tea, in other parts of India the ‘variety’ factor is very underplayed. Most tea drinkers in our country prefer the ‘karak doodh wala chai’ made from CTC teas.

What will really drive tea consumption forward and upward, particularly amongst the youth, is educating them and making our ‘fine teas’ (most of which is currently exported to Germany, Japan, France and USA) available to them.

This growth will have to be complemented by ‘tisanes’ (herbal tea or a decoction of herbs, and spices in hot water). Most large companies are adding to this ‘Specialty Teas’ segment to achieve top-line growth.

Sarita: What do you look for in a good Indian tea, appearance-wise?

Sangeeta: CTC teas are plain looking, but must have ‘bloom’ and should be free of brown hairy additions called ‘fibre’. The liquor must flow freely. ‘Specialty Teas’ have an array of exciting appearances and appropriately interesting terms to describe them. The Orthodox long leaf variety with visible ‘Golden Tips’ (the ‘bud’ of the tea leaf) White Tea, Silver Tips, Tea Peony, Gunpowder… and the list goes on…

Sarita: What about the aroma?

Sangeeta: At lower elevations, teas have a deep colour and good strength. The aroma indices are overpowered. Teas grown in the hills have a higher aroma indice. There are a variety of fragrances like ‘muscatel’ and ‘floral’, so selection depends on individual preferences.

Sarita: What about taste?

Sangeeta: For CTC teas drunk with milk, the teas must be strong and ‘milk well’; that is, milk must complement the colour of the teas. Saffron orange colour is generally good quality, but there are selected regions where a reddish cup is preferred.

Sarita: Tell us something about tea tasting.

Sangeeta: Tea tasting involves three senses – sight, smell and taste. The loose tea leaf should look fresh and have good colour, and the brewed tea should also have a desirable colour. The fragrance that emanates when hot water is poured over the dry leaf is the next major determinant. Then comes the taste of the brew. All else may be lost if the taste is not good.

Incidentally, tea tasters sample hundreds of cups of tea in a day, so we cannot drink it all! We taste by swirling the tea liquor around our mouths to determine the many elements of taste and then spit this out (with great elan!) into a tasters ‘spitoon’.

Sarita: What are some of the tea taster’s terms for a good tea, and for bad tea? (Relating to Appearance, Body and Flavour).

Sangeeta: Good teas: Appearance – Stylish, Bloom, Tippy. Body – Strong, Malty, Robust, Full. Flavour – Floral, Muscatel, Lemony, Grassy.

Bad teas: Appearance – Brown and fibrous, Stalky, Untidy. Body – Thin, Skinny. Flavour – Smoky, Burnt, Old, Musty.

Sarita: In your opinion, which are the best Indian teas available nowadays?

Sangeeta: This is totally decided by the consumer. But generally, for liquor, the Darjeeling teas are good, though this category is best bought from the traditional loose tea shops. For tea drunk with milk, the local Gujarat tea packaged and sold by Jivraj, and mostly CTC is very popular. The herbal tea sold by some of the newly launched tea brands has become the preferred choice for consumers.

Sarita: Which tea is your personal favourite?

Sangeeta: As a tea traditionalist I like my strong cup of Assam tea (from Doomur Dulling Tea Estate), with milk, but I also like an occasional cup of Chamong tea.

In my many years of ‘Tea Travels’, I have experienced the most diverse tea cultures across the world, but ultimately, this beverage bonds people across cultures, bringing warmth into their lives.

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