Cecil Sips First
Canada’s teataster has the first cup of all the tea you buy—he even drinks it for his supper
WHEN CECIL JASPER BROWNE, the Dominion Government’s official tea examiner, sticks his large aquiline nose down close to a howl of tea and takes a couple of hefty sniffs of the steam and then takes a sip of the amber “liquor,” he can tell not only if the tea is drinkable or undrinkable but often exactly where the leaves were grown. MALAK
He is the best friend you and I and the millions of other Canadian tea drinkers have, for he is the man who makes sure fhat the tea we buy and brew is good tea. No shipment of bulk tea is allowed out of hond at the port before a sample of it has passed over Browne’s educated palate and has been pronounced fit I for entry.
At 55 Browne still has all his hair, which is blond and which he parts on the side and combs hack. He has the genial, tranquil air of a man who works alone and who en joys his work.
He is soft-spoken and sincere, with few violent likes or dislikes, except enthusiasm for tea and a horror of wet feet. Wearing rubbers in damp weather is a must with Browne. If he gets a head cold he can’t taste, and if he can’t taste he can’t work.
Browne’s small combined office and labora-
tory on fhe fifth floor of the Bryson Building in Ottawa is as neat and clean as a well-kept kitchen. The similarity is increased by the two-burner gas stove with the large teakettle on it, the piles of newly washed bowls piled behind the porcelain sink and the metal shelves filled with small, carefully labelled canisters.
Whenever a shipment of bulk tea arrives at Saint John, Montreal, Halifax, or one of the other Canadian ports, a workman bores a hole in one of the chests, inserts a plunger and takes out a three-ounce sample of tea leaves. This is forwarded to Browme for testing.
I stood by while Browne tested about a dozen samples. The only identification on each can was the name of fhe port and a number. Browne took up each can in turn, opened it, smelled the contents, shook the leaves around and examined them with his finger tips. This was to identify the kinds of tea, he explained. To you and me there are possibly two or three different kinds of teas, depending upon the size and color of the
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package. But to Browne there are hundreds.
By looking at the leaves he can tell whether they were grown in Ceylon, India, China, Japan, Java, Sumatra or one of the lesser tea-growing countries. By inspecting the size and shape of the cured leaf he can tell whether it is Wiry Orange Pekoe, Orange Pekoe, Broken Orange Pekoe, Pekoe, Broken Pekoe, Pekoe Souchong or what have you. Pekoe is the Indian word for leaf, and the above are names used to identify the various types.
Browne held up a black, tightly rolled leaf about three quarters of an inch long. “You can see why this is called Wiry Orange Pekoe,” he said. “That ’s the best leaf of the lot. Tasting tea is just part of the job,” he went on. “You’ve got to know teas, so that you can identify them, and you’ve got to know what each one is supposed to taste like.”
Browne maintains that there is no “best” tea . . . for you the best tea is the blend you like best.
“It all depends on the water you are using,” said Browne. “The taste of water differs with localities, depending on the salts and minerals in solution in it. A friend might recommend a blend of tea to you and on using it you might find that it failed to live up to advance notices. This could be due to the water. Through experiment you can find the blend that works best with the water you are using.”
Most packaged teas are blends achieved by mixing different types— Ceylons for flavor and Indias for strength and so on— until just the right taste results. The major tea packaging companies have their own teatasters who do this work.
Water Must Be Boiling
When he had identified each sample he placed the cans in a row on a long marble-topped table and placed a small cup in front of each. Then, quietly whistling “My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown,” he proceeded to “cup” them.
“We’ve got to be careful to get just j the right amount of tea for each I drawing,” he explained. He picked up a small balance scale. In one pan of this he placed an ordinary dime and in the other enough tea to balance it. “You see, we’ve got to measure by weight, because some teas have a lot more bulk than others,” he pointed out.
As soon as his large copper kettle was boiling he poured water on each of the “drawings.” “Very important that the water be fresh and really boiling,” he emphasized. “Can’t get the best out of tea leaves otherwise. Now we’ll let it brew for seven minutes.’
While we were waiting, Browne explained that you can tell considerable about tea from the look and smell of ! the “liquor.” It should be clear . . . clear enough to read newsprint on the bottom of the cup. Scum on the surface ! indicates that the tea has been too long
in storage. “You’ll notice that the liquor of green tea is much lighter than that of black tea. Even some of these blacks are lighter than others,” he pointed out. “That’s why you can’t tell much about a tea by how light or dark it is.”
When the tea had brewed sufficiently, Browne proceeded with the taste test. For this he has an ordinary tablespoon and a bowl of clear boiling water to rinse it in after each test. He placed his nose down almost into the first cup and inhaled a couple of big draughts of the steam. Then he dipped out a spoonful and sipped it. He rolled it around on his tongue, pursed his lips, looked out the window reflectively and then spat the tea into a three-foot-high hourglass-shaped receptacle at his side. He never swallows the tea, because that would spoil his taster for the next sample.
Rarely Reject Shipment
“That,” he said, smacking his lips thoughtfully, “is a very good Ceylon . . . high-grown, I’d say, quite possibly from the Nuwara Eliya or Dimbula district.” He pointed out that the altitude, climate and soil all make a difference.
The higher the altitude the finer the tea. Sometimes it is even possible for a taster to tell exactly the estate the leaves came from . . . just by the taste. That would be something like telling in which district on the prairies wheat was grown by chewing the grain.
We went right down the line, sniffing and sipping. There were no “wrong ones,”a8 Mr. Browne calls a tea not up to Canadian standards, in this lot. When he does find an off-color tea he goes back and retastes it several times to make sure. He also takes up a spoonful of the wet leaves and smells them. If he suspects the presence of other than tea leaves, he will spread the wet leaves out on a blotting paper and examine them individually.
You can always tell tea leaves because of their serrated edges, it seems.
Tea shippers are so careful these days that it is very rarely indeed that a shipment is ever turned back, Browne said. He keeps a careful record of all shipments and can refer back for years to see if a tea was ever rejected. Some of the things that will cause rejections are: foreign bodies; staleness caused by being too long in storage; salt-water damage at sea; mustiness, caused by being stored in a damp place.
Browne claims that once a tea has been damaged by dampness it is absolutely useless. Contact with kerosene or any other oil will spoil a shipment of tea quicker than anything, and, of course, is very easy to detect. One thing he is certain of, no undrinkable tea ever gets into the country.
Tea that tastes bad in your home, Browne assures us, took on its taste either in the grocery store or after you got it home. He tells of one woman who, for some reason, previous to the war had accumulated about 20 pounds of tea. When she came to use it she found it undrinkable and came with blood in
her eye to Browne to have it tested. The taste had him baffled for a while until he spotted it as camphor. She had stored her tea in a cedar chest which formerly had furs stored in it protected by moth balls. The tea, of course, was useless.
Tea should be stored by itself, Browne warns. It quickly picks up tastes from cabbages, onions and other vegetables, and even sugar will affect tea. Above all, don’t store it in the basement or any other dampish place.
Teatasters must be teetotalers. Lips that touch alcohol will never taste tea, because alcohol dulls the sense of taste and makes it impossible to spot the subtle taste differences. Tobacco to a lesser extent has the same effect. And so Browne is strictly a nondrinker and practically—except for a surreptitious cigar after supper on occasion—a nonsmoker. Too much tea tasting sometimes will do the same thing. To keep his taste buds in trim during a 300-cup day Browne eats an occasional orange or an apple.
Browne admits freely that he doesn’t know all there is to know about tea. He believes nobody ever could. But he has had about 37 years’ experience with tea and has picked up a good deal of information. His teacher was his grandfather, Eb Browne, who, his grandson claims, was one of the best tea men in the country. Eb ran a grocery in Bytown in 1870 when most of the groceries came from England and were shipped up the Ottawa in river boats.
Browne, a fourth-generation Canadian, was born in Ottawa, May 12, 1891, and has lived in the capital all his life
Shortly after he went to work for his grandfather at 16 the firm went out of the grocery business and opened up Browne’s Tea Shop on Lisgar Street. They handled tea, coffee and ground spices and catered to the household trade, blending teas just as each customer liked them. When his grandfather died in 1930, Cecil carried on alone.
His tea shop, according to Cecil Browne, sold more tea than all the other Ottawa tea shops put together. They sent teas all over Canada as well as to many points in the U. S.
With the beginning of the war and the rationing of tea and coffee, Browne’s Tea Shop felt the pinch. In 1941, when the Dominion Teataster, Hugh Lamb, died, Browne applied for the position. There were 25 candidates, and the qualifying examination was a test of the sensitivity of the candidates’ palates and their knowledge of tea.
No School for Tasting
Each was given 15 samples in sealed, numbered tins. They were required to tell in which country each sample was grown, the type of leaf, and whether or not it was fit for drinking. So they got their kettles going and went to work. Browne isn’t sure, but he believes that he was the only one to detect the unfit sample which contained a foreign body—tiny insects impossible to see and very difficult to spot by taste.
“There is no school where you can go to learn tea tasting,” Browne declares. “You’ve just got to have a natural liking for tea and enough practical experience.”
Although the job is an extremely specialized one and one that makes exacting demands on its incumbent, the pay is comparatively small . . . about $2,500 per year.
Browne has no hobby except tea. He lives with his wife and son, who was an “asdic” operator in the RCNVR. His second child, a daughter, has gone to Japan as secretary to one of the
executives in the Canadian liaison mission.
When he isn’t tasting tea or keeping his office records, Browne studies tea and its history.
Tea has been drunk for a lot longer than anyone can remember, he says. The Chinese say that it all began back in the year 2737 B. C.—over 4,000 years ago. According to the myth, the Emperor Shên-Nung, a hygiene crank, was boiling some drinking water when a few leaves from the branches he was using for firewood got into the pot. Sure enough it was the wild tea plant.
India has another story that goes back not nearly as far. According to this version, Bodhidharma, a Buddhist, who, if you can believe an old print, looked like Alley Oop, devoted nine years of his life to a sleepless contemplation of Buddha. After three years he slept, and in his anger at his weakness he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground beside him. After a further five years of contemplation he again felt drowsy and began absent-mindedly to chew on the leaves of a nearby bush. This stimulated him so that he was able to complete the nine years. That’s right, it was tea.
But tea didn’t come to Europe until 1610, and wasn’t drunk in England to any extent until about 50 years later.
Drinks It at Home
Mr. Browne isn’t sure just when tea first came to Canada, but he points out that old Hudson’s Bay Company records show that in the year 1716 three canisters of black tea were shipped on the frigate Hudson Bay consigned to Governor James Knight at York Factory.
Although Browne spends his entire day tasting tea, when he goes home to his house on Kenelworth Avenue he drinks tea with his meals. “You couldn’t be a teataster unless you were fond of tea,” he explains. “I usually drink it three or four times a day and two or three cups at a sitting.” He blends his own and prefers Ceylons, Chinas and green tea. He takes milk in his tea, no sugar, and believes that cream in tea detracts from the taste. He is pretty fussy about how his tea is brewed—naturally—and he says his wife brews a wonderful cup of tea.
In case the little woman has been fetching in tea that tastes like essence of DDT, here are some instructions on tea brewing, given out by an expert:
1. The water must be fresh, and it must be boiling—not just steaming or singing, but bubbling like mad.
2. Use an earthenware pot and heat it by putting boiling water into it and leaving it there for some time before making the tea
3. Measure the tea, a teaspoonful for each cup, or if you have a balance scale and want to be extra sure, the weight of one dime for each cup.
4. After you’ve put the boiling water on the tea, allow the brew to steep for seven minutes, not less than five. Keep the pot warm with a cosy or cloth during this time, but don’t heat it. Some teas have a very tightlyrolled leaf and may require 10 or 12 minutes to infuse.
Browne complains it is a pity Canadian housewives don’t take more care in choosing the tea they serve.
He thinks afternoon teas could be improved by serving an oolong, a semifermented tea which is mild and shows little color. After a big meal he likes Ceylon or a blend of Indian and Ceylon.
He admits he’s getting a bit old for it, but Browne’s great ambition still is to visit the tea-growing countries he knows so well but has never seen
“I may make it yet,” he says wistfully. “You never know.” ★