Graeme Burgess has a confession to make: he didn’t used to drink much tea. And if he did, it came with a spoonful or two of sugar.
Now he drinks anything between 300-400 cups a day.
‘Drink’ may be pushing it, though. Little actually makes it past his mouth, save for the three to four cups – minus the sugar – he now consumes for pleasure, his favourite blend being Ringtons Kenyan Gold.
Mostly the 45-year-old slurps tea (in a very impolite manner) at lightning speed through his teeth, savouring it for a split second before expelling it in an impressive amber arc into a spittoon.
Graeme is a tea taster for Newcastle-based Ringtons. He is to tea what Robert Parker, former US lawyer, is to blind wine tasting (he’s the world’s most powerful critic of the drink).
Ringtons’ head of tea buying and blending, with 27 years’ experience under his belt, he is one of three tasters currently employed at the family-run business on Algernon Road, Byker.
But it seems a fourth will soon be joining them.
An opportunity has arisen for an enthusiastic, passionate and ambitious person to land what is probably one of the best – and rarest – jobs going.
Ringtons is looking to take on a trainee tea buyer and blender.
The new recruit, whoever he or she may be, will work with the team to help ensure the nation is kept well supplied with its favourite brew.
It’s a dream job spec. The successful candidate will have a passion for tea (tick); get to taste countless samples from across the globe (yes please); be trained and supported to become an expert taster (how hard can that be?); and have the chance to travel the world from India to Sri Lanka, Africa and China (hand me my passport).
It’s a role that has my name written all over it.
I am a lifelong tea fan. I spend a fortune on different blends to suit my every mood and I consume countless mugs of the stuff every day – at least one for breakfast, another when I settle down to work, a mid-morning pick-me-up, lunchtime quencher, afternoon reviver, teatime relaxer and bedtime wind down.
That’s not to mention the extra cups that creep in to help get me through interminable meetings.
That’s a lot of tea. Enough, surely, to make me an expert? Jobs a good ’un, as they say. Ringtons, here I come. To misquote Lionel Ritchie: ‘Hello, it is me you’ve been looking for.”
Before you can say “Earl Grey”, I find myself at Ringtons getting a lesson in tea tasting from Graeme.
It is here in the tasting room that Ringtons’ tea blends are rigorously checked for consistency. The 110-year-old firm’s reputation relies on quality and uniformity being maintained at all times.
Ringtons produces an astounding 600 tea products from bags to loose leaf – and including decorative gift caddies – made from around 250 blends.
Tea is like wine. Everything from the soil it’s grown in to the landscape, the weather and pests can change the chemistry, taste and quality of the end product.
Apart from its ‘own brand’ products, sold door-to-door to 260,000 customers between Edinburgh and Norfolk and via its online shop, Ringtons currently supplies three premium UK supermarkets with superior ‘own labe’l teas.
The firm is not at liberty to say who those top-drawer customers are but, suffice to say, they demand the very best without fail.
Hence the need for seasoned tea tasters like Graeme.
Technology may be increasingly ruling our lives, but there are some areas where the human touch will always remain sacrosanct. And no machine will ever be able to compete with the 10,000 sensitive microscopic taste buds present on the average person’s tongue.
Graeme explains that buying tea from the same place every time doesn’t mean it won’t change, so Ringtons can’t just take it and keep adding it to a particular blend.
“The customer can always tell the difference. Our job is to taste the teas and blend them together so consistency is maintained.”
In short, if you pick up a packet of Ringtons Breakfast Tea Bags today and then another next week, what’s inside might be different but they will taste exactly the same.
Ringtons’ tasting room resembles a science lab. In front of Graeme is a row of white tasting bowls and a lidded pot containing the strained leaves from which the liquid was prepared.
Every sample sent in has its own numbered tin box. The tasters record the details of each new blend, the results of the tastings and whether it has reached the same high standards as the last batch.
The teas we’re tasting have been brewed to double strength and we sample both, with and without milk.
I’ve only got six to try but Graeme will rattle through 24 at a time in a matter of seconds.
He shows me how to stir up the varnish-coloured liquor with a soup spoon, slurp the tea purposefully into my mouth and spit out in one seamless motion.
I try to follow his example and not rinse the tea around too much. It is, Graeme says, as you spit out that you really taste the flavour.
I suck up as if I’m drinking through a straw, hold the tea too long in my mouth and end up inelegantly dribbling it out into the spittoon.
I induce a coughing fit with the next one, and by the end of the line the only taste I can detect is of overpoweringly strong builder’s tea. My mouth feels surprisingly dry and as if I’ve been licking sand paper (not, I hasten to add, that I ever have).
Quickly, I realise I am a tea boor. I may drink the stuff by the bucket load, but at heart I know little about what I am really consuming or if it’s any good.
My dream of joining the Ringtons tea tasting team would appear to be rapidly evaporating.
Luckily, it’s not a job most people are immediately suited for. But it is one you can learn. The apprenticeship will take between five and seven years, and probably involve putting the huge 12 pint copper kettles they use on to boil a lot in the first few months.
But gradually you will be taught to taste and blend.
James Jobling, Ringtons’ head of tea, is a good example of someone who fell into the job by chance. The 37-year-old was destined for a job in the petrochemical industry. “I was sat in an interview looking over this vast area of pipes with not a human in sight and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this’.
“I came home and decided to have a broader look at what was out there. Amongst the things I came across was an advert for a trainee tea buyer at Ringtons. I thought, ‘I can do that’. I got an interview and was offered the job.
“I’ve never looked back. I’ve been here 15 years now and feel very passionate and privileged about what I do.
“Ringtons was founded on tea and it remains the cornerstone of our business. We have the pleasure of working with a wonderful product in tea, which is so important to so many people.
“We are very proud of the quality and diversity of teas we source and what we do is held in extremely high regard by our colleagues and customers.
“Tea tasting and buying is a continuous process for us, and each tea is tasted multiple times by our tasters before it reaches the customer to ensure quality and consistency every time.
“The trainee vacancy offers a rare opportunity to join a passionate and proud North East business in what can become one of the company’s most fulfilling roles.
“The trainee tea buyer and blender role is an excellent opportunity for an ambitious individual looking to progress within the company and carve out a unique career.
“However, in reality tea is so fascinating that you never really stop learning. The person we are looking for has to be committed, passionate about tea, organised and dedicated to helping us continue to source our teas to the very highest standard.”
Graeme and James claim there is no-one who couldn’t be taught to taste properly.
As I leave, my mouth numb with slurping and my head buzzing with the heady aroma of hundreds of blends crammed into one small room, I wonder if, after all, there could be hope for me yet.
The closing date for the trainee tea buyer and blender applications is May 26. Applicants are asked to send a covering letter and CV to Daniel Smith, Freepost, Ringtons Ltd, or email:
Interested in North East jobs? Find job vacancy listings across a range of sectors here.
- The UK consumes around 165m cups of tea every day.
- This equates to around 2000 cups consumed every second.
- It takes at least five years to become a fully-fledged tea taster.
- Every single Ringtons tea is tasted at least five times for quality and consistency by the tea tasting team.
- Ringtons’ team tastes hundreds of blends every week including black, green and white tea, as well as herbal infusions – up to 400 teas per day.
- The Ringtons tea tasting team has 98 years of tasting experience between them.
- Tea tasters are advised not to have strong tasting food, such as a curry, ahead of tasting.
- Tea tasted by Ringtons is made at double strength to allow the full flavours to be indentified.
- All of Ringtons tea is shipped via the Port of Tyne.