tea science and technology with nigel melican of tea craft

Over 20 years ago Teacraft started out as a company supplying machinery for the tea making process; and have developed into a world-wide beverage consultancy, providing training, specialist contract research and development.  They cover all phases of tea production from the initial setting up of new ventures, growing tea under marginal conditions, specialized field husbandry and harvesting, through black and green tea primary manufacture, to the design and production and international marketing of value added tea products.

Nigel Melican was kind enough to explain a little about what they do, about tea science, how he’s seen the realm of tea production change over the last 20 years and how tea bags aren’t necessarily evil, after all – it really is what’s inside that counts.

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Can you give me a brief overview of what Teacraft does, and how you came to be involved in the tea industry.

The companies (Teacraft and Nothing but Tea) were both started by me, I set up Teacraft in 1990 after 27 years with Unilever Research where I did a lot of things in the coffee and tea sectors.

I got into working with tea straight from Arid Agriculture with Unilever in 1980, sent to solve a field problem on a Papua New Guinea tea estate.  I didn’t have any tea experience but I knew how to take a team overseas and bring them back without losing anyone and I had field experience – however the problem turned out to be in the factory, so we had six months to learn tea processing and solve it.  We succeeded and saved the company a lot of money – so I got sent out to Africa next time.

We are a family business – Helga my wife runs Teacraft when I am overseas doing consultancy, and Chrissie my daughter runs Nothing But Tea.

tea processing in turkey - photo creative commons by nurettin mert aydin

How have you seen tea production change over the last 20 years, have you seen improvements that you previously never thought possible, or have you seen old time skills lost.

  1. Higher yields – a most impressive improvement has been the increase in yield probably on average doubled in 30 years,  due to better understanding of the crop and better field management.
  2. Added value teas – the development of interest in and a market for specialty teas in the past decade, initially in the USA and now all around the developed world has been breath taking, with the retail market for teas in the USA putting on an additional US$ billion a year.
  3. The phenomenal growth of World Tea Expo has mirrored the specialty tea explosion.  I presented at the very first specialty tea event in 2002 that developed into the WTE, and have presented at almost every one since.  2002 was also the year we started Nothing But Tea and by then the global specialty trend was obvious.
  4. Excellent white teas from bushes bred for black tea, specifically in Africa & Turkey.  We work with tea manufacturers all round the world (in 26 countries to date).  Ten years ago, as a tea scientist, I would never have believed that I could take fresh green leaf off a tea bush bred to produce commodity black tea selling at US$1 per lb and with some clever techniques process that same leaf into specialty white tea selling at US$200 per lb – that still amazes me.

I haven’t specifically seen skills lost, more so it’s been attitude that has been lost.  The tea business 30 years ago was very much based on trust and gentlemanly behavior, on the old fashioned business of a handshake.  I have witnessed progressive loss of honesty and integrity among newcomers into the business; it’s a great pity.

tea leaves being dried, stirred in a hot tank bu hand - photo creative commons by romain guy

Without giving away any trade secrets, are the any particular countries or companies that you think are really doing innovative things with tea and tea production.

Sri Lanka spearhead the move away from bulk tea sold at auction to added value production.  This resulted in better quality, pre-packed tea, teabags, branded exports and instant teas

This value addition commenced from the 1980s and it is still doing well with slower countries still wondering how to get in on the act.
Japan has been truly innovative in tea bag machinery (silk pyramid bags) and in mechanical harvesting  Satemwa in Malawi has pioneered handmade African white teas in the past 5 years but some other as yet little known specialty teas are coming out of Africa – Kenya orthodox black teas and oolongs, Tanzanian artisanal teas, Rwandan orthodox black green and oolong, South Africa is producing low caffeine green teas also

Seeing that tea is such an old product, and that in many parts of the world it is still processed by hand, what do you think is really important to hold onto in the tea producing process.

All true tea relies on what comes off the bush and the skill of the tea maker to produce a staggering array of different types and tastes without any additives.

Tea is probably the only processed food that has absolutely nothing added to it and only water taken away.  Despite one or two attempts to introduce “process aid” by some of the larger multinationals these have not caught on and, as consumers become increasingly more aware of naturalness I think that we should endeavor to keep additives completely out of the picture.

tea processing, africa - photo creative commons by shared interest

Are there particular styles of tea that you’ve found are often processed incorrectly, and as a result the tea drinker doesn’t get the optimal product – if so, are there easy ways to overcome this.

Yes, the standard tea bag of the type most commonly consumed is ironically the poorest quality.  Supermarket own label tea is particularly at fault, but any tea sold for “value” rather than for quality will yield an inferior cup.  This is so much so that it is the teabag that gets the blame rather than the contents.

It is perfectly possible to put decent tea in a teabag and get a good cup of tea – I often drink teabag tea myself – and pay high prices for them, but I certainly would not purchase the swill bags on cheap offer.

The next question is who is to blame – the packers or the customers?  I leave that one to you, but the old rule that “you get what you pay for” still holds true.

The photos in this post came directly from Flickr and not from Tea Craft directly.

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