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2nd November 2012
Katy Tubb is Director of the World Wide Tea Buying and Blending at Tata Global Beverages and has been described as 'the most senior woman in tea today'. We go behind the scenes to find out what life is like at the top of tea.
You are Director of the World Wide Tea Buying and Blending at Tata Global Beverages. Can you tell me briefly what your job entails?
Well, I look after the team that is responsible for buying and blending all the teas (black and green teas as well as fruit and herbal infusions) that we require for our blends which sell around the world. We pack blends in fifteen factories spread around the globe and these sell in over fifty different countries.
That’s sounds like an awful lot of tea.
Yes. We are the second largest tea packers in the world.
How did you get into this business? Was it something you always wanted to do? Or was it something you fell into accidentally?
It was chance. I did a degree in microbiology and started work as a microbiologist in the food industry. I was looking for a new opportunity within the food sector and saw an advert in a newspaper that said ‘You too could be a tea taster!’ It caught my eye as it sounded very interesting and quite different. I applied and luckily I got the job.
I started as a trainee taster, the training programme is a minimum of 5 years and involves tasting lots of tea from different growing regions and learning all about buying tea and blending tea. I also spent a year in tea growing regions finding out how tea is grown and sold. We still train people today in the same way.
Tea is an agricultural crop and therefore very variable as its growth and quality is dependent on local weather conditions and local environmental conditions, such as the altitude, the soil type etc. Because tea quality varies and because we buy it as a finished product - it isn’t processed any further - it is very important that we taste it before we buy it. To be a tea buyer or tea blender you have to be a tea taster. Tea is bought and traded as a dried leaf but we consume it as a liquid brew. Our job is to provide a beverage that tea drinkers will enjoy and unless we brew it and taste it we wouldn’t know!
How long ago was that, if you don’t mind me asking?
Oh…that was back in 1983. That’s nearly thirty years ago!
As a woman, you are remarkable in that you hold one of the most senior positions in the global tea industry. Has your gender ever been an issue?
Certainly when I joined the tea industry there weren’t many women in it. There are a lot more now. I wouldn’t say gender has been an issue but through the Eighties - probably in common with other women in different jobs - there was a level of trailblazing and we had to prove that we were up to the job.
There are lots of women across the industry today and not just in Europe but across the globe.
What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?
One of the most rewarding things for me is the product itself. Tea is both an exotic drink as well as a homely brew. It’s been around for five millennia and has an amazing history. It is drunk by so many people in so many parts of the world. It is part of many people’s daily lives across the world but how it is consumed in one country is quite different to how it is drunk in another. A cup of tea in China, is very different to one in the UK and completely different again from one drunk in India. And for me that makes it really interesting.
Tea is very much a part of the social fabric of people’s lives. I’m not involved in a job that is saving lives, but drinking a cup of tea enhances lives, it makes life a little better and I think that’s great.
Are there any challenges facing tea today?
Absolutely. A lot of the challenges facing tea growers will be the same challenges that face farmers across the planet. As global populations grow there will more consumers who want to drink tea but there’ll also be pressure on the land where tea grows. One of the great things about humans is that we are quite creative and we like to find solutions to problems. So I’m pretty sure people will be drinking tea in centuries to come.
Is there any one thing that has revolutionised the industry since you have been working in it?
Computers and communication! We all have much better access to computers now, and communication is so fast. I can talk to my team in other parts of the world day or night so easily and to tea growers as well. This has meant that everyone in the chain is much more aware of what’s going on and so much faster. Small farmers now know what prices are at auction because they can get the information on their mobile phones.
Do you have a favourite place where you like to go and have a cup of tea?
Mmmm. No, I don’t but I do love to drink tea when I’m out. There’s always something really nice about having a pot of tea made for you and choosing a cake to go with it.
Even though I get to taste tea nearly every day at work, I still really enjoy the ritual of having a pot of tea and sitting with friends or family and enjoying the moment. I will order tea after meals as well.
One of the challenges when drinking tea out of the home is that the delicate flavour of tea can be ruined if it is not prepared properly. Tea will pick up flavours of other foodstuffs so it needs to be stored properly. If tea is brewed in a pot that has previously contained coffee you can tell! This is a big problem in some hotels where they use vacuum flasks for both tea and coffee. A good cup of tea needs the water to be properly boiled, the quality of the tea should be good and the pot should be used only for tea preparation. Real milk should be available. But when you do get a nice cup of tea when you’re out, it really is a delight.
What is your preferred cup?
I’m drinking a Darjeeling as we speak! But it really depends on the time of day. In the morning I generally need a stronger cup to get me going – something with some guts – so a mainstream blend which includes Assam and Kenyan. But later on in the day I enjoy some of the lighter teas like Darjeelings and Ceylons. Later still I would go for a herbal infusion.
I do drink a lot of tea!
So you must have a lot of teas in your office…
Yes. Every week lots of samples get sent in from tea producers so I’ll usually have a range of different teas to choose from when I want to make myself a pot of tea. It’s one of the great privileges of the job.
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