note that this article was previously published on April 13th, 2015
Approximately one quarter of the population are considered “Supertasters”, but among those, few have a palate as refined as Sebastian Michaelis- Tetley’s master tea blender- whose tongue is insured for $1.5 million
With more than twice the average number of taste buds, “supertasters” experience flavors much more intensely than most. Sugar tastes sweeter and bitter flavors are sharper. Although the genetic trait is common, affecting about 1 in 4, only a few will join the ranks of professional tasters like Tetley’s top tea blender, Sebastian Michaelis who can taste and grade any of 1500 different tea varieties in just 15 seconds with complete accuracy- a skill so valuable that his tongue has been insured for $1.5 million.
What makes the tongue of a professional taster so unique? As it turns out, it takes a lot more than genetics. Top tea tasters undergo several years of intense training to develop the precise palate skills and expertise needed to discern minute differences in flavor. The ability to quickly identify the country, region, and even the estate from which a single batch of tea originated is essential, as well as the skill to artfully blend the leaves to achieve a consistent cup.
Ironically, tasting talent is often found in people with little interest in food. Sebastian Michaelis did not start out to be a tea blender or taster. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, he answered an advertisement for a trainee tea tester- the initial requirements being a willingness to “travel the world and drink tea”, which he thought sounded nice. He was not a “foodie” by any means, and he had no special interest or knowledge of tea. Still, Tetley selected him from hundreds of heavily screened applicants to begin a five year intensive training program, learning every aspect of tea tasting, growing, manufacturing and marketing. Today he and nine others are part of an elite tasting team at Tetley, entrusted with the tea company’s legacy and a top secret recipe so valuable the team members are not even permitted to fly on the same plane together.
So how much is your tongue worth? If you’re a supertaster by birth, with a willingness to train rigorously for several years and you have a bit of luck, the answer may be “plenty”!