Expert tea taster and blender Matt Greenwood shares his knowledge on all things tea.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate and enthusiastic tea drinker than Matt Greenwood, the Bell Tea Company’s very own expert tea taster and blender. Matt, otherwise known as “the Tea Guy”, has played a significant role in the transformation of the Bell brand, launching three new teas in as many years.
How did you develop a taste for teas?
I read somewhere recently that you can potentially predict how good someone is going to be as a sensory by the number of taste buds that they have but I personally don’t subscribe to that. Before I became a tea taster I wasn’t a big tea drinker.
I have some great memories of my childhood that are associated with tea like in my household for example, my mother and I were always early risers and the first thing I would do is make my mum a cup of tea. We always shared that first cup of tea together and I have other memories like that about tea mainly connected to family. So I was interested in tea and I always thought of it as a drink that pulled people together.
Do you need to have a good sense of taste and smell?
When I was training we would taste thousands of teas a day. Of course you spat them out, otherwise you’d be dreadfully ill. It was still quite hard going. Once your palette is trained you get used to associating words that the senior taster was saying with experiences in your mouth and that principle is the same with whatever you are tasting.
So anyone can be a taster, they just need to be trained.
Anybody can do tasting. I’ve trained lots of people around the world over the years and there were only two people, out of the 20 or 30 that I’ve trained, that couldn’t do it. This was because they were colour blind.
When we interview the one thing we particularly check for are hues of red because when you are looking at teas and you are tasting teas with milk, they will go right across the colour spectrum. And that’s why you blend teas together because the commercial spectrum is somewhere in between that rich, golden colour. So if you are colour blind for red you just wouldn’t be able to do it.
I think (the principles) are the same for wine or coffee or cocoa, you are trained to do it and your palette is trained. What it gives you is the ability to evaluate tea in a critical way and it also gives you a vocabulary and a confidence to talk about other things like wine or food just because you are used to associating what’s in your mouth with what you are saying.
What temperature do the teas need to be when tasting them?
People have different views on that. I personally like to taste tea as hot as I can stand it. My role here in New Zealand has been quite broad – buying and blending and developing new products so I tend to taste more at consumer temperature and consumer strength. As close to how the customer is going to drink it.
How many cups of tea do you drink a day?
About eight. But I drink different types at different times of the day.
Should certain teas be drunk at certain times of the day?
I don’t think there is any should or shouldn’t about it [tea], I think it’s personal preference. One of the great things about tea is that there is something for every time of the day. I tend to follow a routine where I have something strong to get me going in the morning such as Twinings English Breakfast or Kenya Bold and then I drink a lot of green teas in the afternoon and then in the evening, to keep my caffeine intake at a normal level, I drink infusion teas.
Do you get the same amount of goodness from a tea bag that you do with loose leaves?
There’s no reason why you cannot get the same flavour, antioxidants and goodness from tea bags as you get from loose tea – providing that the tea comes from the same plant. What you find with tea bags is that because the leaves are smaller they infuse more quickly so the flavour profile will develop faster and the antioxidants will release slightly quicker. With leaf tea you need to let it brew for longer. We have this saying “great tea take three” and that’s very much true for tea bags but leaf tea takes a bit longer.
What does make the perfect brew?
You need to start with some good quality tea that you like and freshly boiled water. Always start with fresh water. Time is the most important thing in brewing good tea. The average brewing time in New Zealand is probably around 40 seconds up to a minute and one of the things that I’m trying to get across is that in that first minute you essentially get all the colour and most of the caffeine.
To develop the flavour and to release all the antioxidants, you need to brew the tea for at least three minutes up to six minutes. For anybody that likes to drink weak tea, I would recommend that you try brewing your favourite tea for three to five minutes, then diluting it with water and seeing how different that is than brewing your tea for 30 to 40 seconds and throwing away the tea bag. [This allows] the full potential of the tea to develop and you can then dilute it to taste. Time is the most critical.
Are there any rules with adding milk or sugar?
I never advocate adding sugar. If you do want to add sugar there are certain blends and teas that take sugar better than others. Personally, as someone who has devoted their life to tea, I think it ruins the flavour.
If you are making tea in a cup and the bag is in the cup then you want to add milk last to let the tea breathe. If you add the milk below the temperature of the brew then it won’t brew properly. But if you are making tea in a pot then it really doesn’t matter.
When I was being trained as a taster I was told you should put the milk in first and the reason for that was because when the first drops of hot liquid from the teapot go into the cup they hit the milk and they cool down and it blends really nicely, whereas if you do it the other way round, the milk gets scalded. But I don’t believe it and I certainly can’t tell the difference. The reason that ceremonies were developed with milk going in first was that the first porcelain china that the UK made to imitate what was being made in China, was so bad that it used to crack when hot liquid was added to it.
How has tea changed over the years?
It has changed a lot in the five years I’ve been here. New Zealand has moved from gumboot tea and the main brands of Bell and Chocia to a whole new world of different blends and styles.
It struck me when I got here that tea was lagging behind many other food groups in New Zealand. Kiwis are early adopters and they like trying stuff in the way of food and now you have that option with tea also – you’ve got Rooibos from South Africa, Green and white teas China and teas from all over the world. In fact, that’s what I’m happiest about in my role is that we are all about bringing the world’s teas to New Zealand so people can try different tastes.
One of the most ironic things has been the growth of green tea. When you think about it, tea has been around for 5000 years, and for 3000 years it was only ever green tea that was drunk in China and now it’s a new trend or a really fashionable drink, even though they’ve been drinking it for this length of time.
Is green tea the best tea for you?
No. White tea may be the best in terms of antioxidants but then it might not have some of the other things. Green tea and black tea are equally good for you and have the same level of antioxidants in different formats. Consumers think that green tea and black tea are different products. The reality is that they come from the same bush. Any tea tasters in the world can make green or black tea – they are just extensions of the same process. They both have the same potential for health and wellbeing.
How many cups would you need to drink to get the potential antioxidants from tea?
There are some general rules of thumb, a cup of tea, whether black or green has the same amount of antioxidants as two apples. So I think drinking four-six cups of tea a day is very good for antioxidant levels. That’s why brewing your tea for a long amount of time is important. It’s better to have two cups of tea brewed for five minutes than having eight cups brewed for ten seconds.
There are some thoughts that tea is a diuretic, but you’d have to drink about eight cups (a day) before it had that effect. Tea is great because it counts towards your eight glasses of water a day. It is hydrating and this is backed by medical research.
What is Bell’s bestseller?
Overall our classic red box is still the biggest seller. The fastest growing in the Bell portfolio would be the green teas and the Kenyan Bold, which we brought out especially for people that want to get going and want something a bit stronger.
Two more things: When it comes to brewing tea, I’m quite a romantic. Love your tea pot. You will get a huge amount of benefits from the tea if you do so and your body will love you from it also. Secondly, all tea is good for you.