Tea Taster’s Perception Horizon

Nikolai Dolgii is a manager at the Quality and New products department at Orimi, the largest tea company in Russia. His duties include tasting, quality control of the raw materials and finished product, and development of new products. Nikolai is the world champion of 2018 in the TMC Tea Tasting category and a charismatic popularizer of tea and tea tasting, his main tea profession.

Congratulations on your victory in Vietnam, Nikolai! We have no doubt that after your success, parents began to instruct their children with the words “Look, if you study well, you will become a famous tea taster like Nikolai one day”. Let us ask you some questions that will allow readers to learn more about your profession. And, perhaps, follow in your professional footsteps.

Nikolai, have you got any special tea education?

Before taking this job — no.

In the process, I improved my skills, studied sensorics at SCAE, the coffee association. Unfortunately, there was nothing like this in tea, and there is still nothing like that today. Then

I studied Chinese tea at Hunan Agricultural University. Later, in Kenya, I practiced with local tasting professionals. And, currently, I am working with African tea. In general, I have received basic knowledge from my colleagues, and my skills have been acquired over time by constantly tasting tea.

Products of large tea companies, like the one you work for, are not signature ones, that is, they are not associated with specific people — authors. Now we know you. And you are doing something there 🙂 Can you say, pointing at some product, “That’s what I did!” or “In this tea, 30% are mine”? Where can we find your work?

The process of producing tea requires the labor of many people, from the farmer to the seller. When you take any pack of our tea from the shelf, you are most likely to take tea in which my work is invested. Our whole team is working on the creation of the taste of tea, therefore it is difficult to select a specific product and call it my own.

If we talk about the effect of tea on health, then, taking into account your work, you definitely can tell us if you can feel this effect on yourself. Does tea affect tea taster’s health? Is this influence good or bad? Are there limits on the amount of tea you can taste in one day? Are there ways to prevent or remove possible negative consequences? Do you get hazard allowances?

There is no hazard, and therefore there’s no hazard allowance. Tea tasters do not swallow tea, so there is no need to speak about any extra influence on health. As a consumer, I drink tea about two to three times a day. The effect on health is extremely positive. In a normal working day, we can try 60-80 cups of tea, there are no limits. This affects tooth enamel, so we are provided with free professional dental cleaning.

What professional skills and personal qualities are necessary for the work of a tea taster, including non-tea skills?

A tea taster needs good memory, keen sense of smell and attentiveness. Productivity software skills are necessary as well, as they are everywhere these days. Knowledge of languages ​​also helps a lot in the work. English is absolutely necessary. It is desirable to be aware of ​​sanitation and hygiene issues, food production techniques, and to have specific knowledge in botany, physics, chemistry and geography.

“Unlike my fellow tea masters, I didn’t have much to prepare for the champion-ship. I took my spoon and apron. It is more convenient to work with your own spoon, you’re accustomed to the volume of tea that fits in it, the shape is convenient, as well as the weight”. Nikolai Dolgii

In Russian Northern climate, the issue of colds is very relevant; does a cold interfere with the work of the tea taster? If so, what practical advice could you give to your colleagues — novice tea tasters for prevention, as well as for rapid relief of colds to get yourself into working form?

Yes, the issue with colds is quite acute. With a stuffy nose, tasting is virtually senseless. If the cold is not serious and the nose is not clogged, then tasting is generally possible, because when slurping, the retro-nasal route of aroma delivery to the olfactory center is used, i.e. through the mouth, inhaling tea from a spoon. In general, we try not to go to work in case of illness, so as not to infect others. But when it is really necessary, the one who does not feel well always works separately, using separate tea-ware. Unfortunately, tea tasters do not possess a secret technique for the control of diseases. We get ill the same way everyone else does, and as everyone else, we use typical prevention. Personally, I wash my nose and sinuses with seawater, do sports when-ever possible, eat mostly healthy food, get out to sunny beaches once a year. I drink a lot of hot tea. Some of my colleagues, by the way, practice the treatment and prevention by Kuding tea. But I’m not a fan of it.

“I have several aprons and can use any of them. The main characteristics of a good apron for me: functional pockets and loops for spoons, comfortable straps that do not rub the neck and a color that does not show dirt”. Nikolai Dolgii

What drinks (other than tea) do you like?

I like coffee, sometimes I drink rooibos or chamomile as the mood takes me. In the summer I like to make cold brew hibiscus tea.

What are your favorite foods or food-and-drink combinations?

I love traditional food-and-drink combinations that are perfected by national cuisines. They are not necessarily complicated — it is very tasty to wash down a slice of fresh ciabatta dipped in olive oil with some light-bodied Italian wine, or refresh your mouth with green tea after a really hot meal at a Chinese restaurant. But there’s no point in fixing on something, I always want to taste new things, because it expands the horizon of the perception and adds descriptors to my library.

Imagine a young person who wants to work as a tea taster and has a very rosy idea of ​​this work: “tea tastings, trips to warm countries, all this is very pleasant and not burdensome at all” — try to dissuade this person.

We have to keep in our heads a very large amount of information. For the tasting, you need to prepare a lot of tea-ware, weigh out tea; then all this tea-ware will need to be tidied up and washed. You have to work under stress, being in charge of auctions, shipments and finished-product output. On top of that, your wrong decisions can turn into multi-million dollar losses, this is a serious responsibility.

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A contrary stereotyped idea of the tea taster’s job: “one is like a robot, endlessly trying very simple tea, without pleasure, no creativity, a pure set of mechanical actions” — could you contradict this?

You taste the most diverse teas, discover new tastes for yourself and for the consumer, visit manufacturers in different countries, look for new teas, create blends with a unique taste — this is also the work of the tea taster.

What makes you most happy in your work?

Perhaps the opportunity to learn other cultures through tea, it is very interesting. Drinking tea the way this variety is drunk where it was conceived and produced is inspiring.

“The spoon: weighs about 50 g, 19 cm long, holds about 7 ml of tea, stainless steel. I am not really tied to a particular spoon, I have recently switched to an enameled one with a long handle, for example. But the fact is that at the championship it’s just good to be with a spoon which is already familiar to you. In Asian countries, they often use different spoons, similar to Japanese soup ones, with a flat bottom and elongated. I am not very much accustomed to them, especially to their small volume, high edges and a short handle. Therefore, in order not to depend on the organizer, tea tasters often travel with their own spoons”. Nikolai Dolgii

What is common between the TMC Tea Tasting category contest and your work? What is the biggest difference?

Both at work and during the championship I taste tea and describe it, i.e. technically the same thing, I do it every day. But I have other tasks in my work, I need to carry out the tea’s conformity assessment, its quality; during the competition, I need to remember and describe it correctly, for myself, so that later, focusing on the descriptors choose the correct answer. The main differences are rivalry and limited time. Under such pressure, it is very difficult to concentrate. In everyday tasting, everything is more measured and calm.

Thank you, Nikolai. Many tasty tastings to you!

Photo: Christina Chibisova, Natalia Bogdanovska, Nikolai Dolgii.