Neetu Sarin- tea sommelier- talks to MBRB about the art of making a perfect cuppa , and how she’s turned her love for tea into a vocation for life
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial -George Orwell
Neetu Sarin’s fascination with tea began at an early age. With her mother insisting that tea is meant only for grown ups in the house, a cuppa achieved some kind of mythical status for her. She was particularly impressed by the entire ritual of tea drinking – the sitting down together, the conversations, the entire ceremony behind it. And when she had her first cup of tea, it was everything she’d dreamed up and more.
Today, Neetu has carved a niche for herself as a tea-sommelier and she sells her unique blends under the brand name Tea of Life. She also conducts tea tasting and tea appreciation workshops all over the world.
Neetu, from one tea lover to another, when did you know that tea was a vocation for you?
I learnt to appreciate fine teas in Belgium – a coffee drinking place if ever there is one! Soon after marriage, when stationed in the country, I ended up working for the Tea Board of India. At that stage we weren’t even looking to sell tea to the Belgians, but just to promote the culture and flavour of the drink. I often found myself standing with a samovar of Indian teas in conventions and events, handing out free cups which were met with suspicion by most!
Then, I became friends with someone who blended her own green teas with different natural ingredients, and it opened up a whole new world for me! A few years later when I returned to India, I just couldn’t find the kind of natural teas that I craved for in the supermarkets. And before you know it, I was sourcing and building my own blends.
Ohh, so that’s how Tea of Life began! Do you source most of your tea from India?
I do, I source almost all of my tea from Darjeeling in fact! I think there’s something special about the place’s soil. And the sencha from there is really quite special. Most of my blends are based on the sencha, a delicate green tea, but I also do a few oolong based blend, and now a couple of black leaves based blends as well.
Where can one buy Tea of Life blends?
As of now I mostly retail through a couple of exclusive tie-ups. In Mumbai you can buy my tea at the Home Collective stores, and also the JW Marriott. I also do a lot of bespoke corporate gifting packages, and of late have also done a couple of wedding gifts to go with the invite. Apart from the blends, I also get a few custom made tea accessories built, such as some really pretty tea-infusers, teapots and kettles.
I am curious about the entire blending process. Is it like an industrial process, or does some kind of a chemical equation go into it?
Haha! I am tempted to say that it’s more of an art than a science. I start with an idea on paper and then personally blend every single one of my flavours. Not everything turns out nice at one go- and its amazing how many blends I’ve had to throw away! But more often than not, its about finding the right mix of 100% natural ingredients and tea-leaves that go together. I am also a great believer in the subtlety of flavours, so my natural additives will never overpower the native taste of the tea-leaf itself.
It’s interesting that so many of your blends use green tea as the main ingredient. I’d assume that the masala blends still remain most people’s chai-time favourites.
You know it’s funny you say that. In the beginning, I was a little hesitant and my first blend was called the Spice Root, with cinnamon and other flavours similar to the traditional chai. But the flavour that’s done best for me is a very delicate one called La Vie En Rose, which is green tea with a hint of fragrant rose petals.
In my tea appreciation courses, I’ve had so many people come to me and say that they dislike the flavour of green tea, but they still force a cup on themselves everyday for its purported health benefits. The problem with most mass-produced green tea is that it tastes quite terrible and has a slight bitter after taste to it. So when people are faced with an option like my blends, with their mild flavour and great taste, they are very accepting of it.
Finally Neetu, do you have any advice on how we should have our tea?
My one suggestion is to not boil the leaves too much, whatever blend you use. Not only are you killing the taste, but also so many of the health benefits!
I’d also recommend a cup of nice oolong with the next decadent chocolate dessert you have. It acts as an excellent palate cleanser. Take a sip after every bite, and every spoon will taste like the first spoon to you!
Neetu is currently excited about her upcoming visit to Japan- pretty much the Holy Grail of tea-culture, and we wish her a great trip! If you’d like to order Tea of Life teas you can reach her at email@example.com
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