I’ve always been fascinated by tea, and perhaps more so here in Dubai than anywhere else. My dear old grandfather always used to claim (and vehemently so) that tea was the perfect drink for any temperature and clime – it warms you up in cold weather and (supposedly) cools you down when it’s hot. Beyond a personal conviction on the subject, scientific evidence to support this seems to be sparse. Yet still, it is a superstition that prevails.
Tea also plays an important part in the lives of the communities here in Dubai. The British, and people from the Indian subcontinent, are two of the most predominant groups in Dubai, as well as two groups that are most commonly stereotyped as being dedicated tea drinkers. Moreover, in local Arabic culture, taking tea is a popular pastime and an important custom for displaying hospitality or friendship. Consequently, it is of no great surprise that we have our own tea factory here in Dubai – the Lipton Tea factory based in Jebel Ali – which opens a new wing this month. So, on the hunt, as always, for a lovely cup of tea, we made our way down to Jebel Ali to find out exactly what happens to our tea before it’s ready to be blended with hot water.
Connoisseurs will tell you, the perfect cup of tea is all in the preparation. It certainly felt that way, with all the preparation we went through before finally setting foot onto the factory floor. First it was the access – putting together all the necessary papers and waiting anxiously at the check points in the industrial hinterland that is Jebel Ali. Next it was the anticipation-building waiting, and excitement-building safety brief once we were at last inside the factory. Then finally – the best part of the preparation – it was the dressing up. With the whirring and buzzing of the factory floor stifled behind heavy glass doors, we layered up with all the necessary safety gear – hefty black shoes, thick socks, a baggy white jacket (a cross between a cut-off lab coat and chefs’ whites), a high-vis tabard, a hairnet, a hard hat and ear plugs. And then we were ready.
As Larry and Essam, our factory guides for the day, pushed open the doors to the factory, the noise (even with my ears protected) and the heat (especially with all those extra layers on), hit me as oppressive and overwhelming. It was a wonder how the red-suited Lipton factory workers looked so cool, calm and collected as they packed the gold bars of Yellow Label tea into boxes.
But first things first, Larry and Essam took us to see the huge sacks of tea from a variety of countries around the world – including Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Kenya – lying on the factory floor waiting to be blended. Tea, Larry explained, is a complicated recipe. ‘If you make a chocolate cake, perhaps you have a recipe that is generations old and that never changes. You will always use the same ingredients in the same quantities, and will always get the same chocolate cake.’ Not so with commercial tea brands, Larry says.
The outcome – the final look, taste and smell of the tea – must always be the same and at Lipton, they use the acronym TIM, referring to the tea’s ‘taste, intensity and mouthfeel’, to describe this. However, since tea is a natural crop that is susceptible to changeable growing conditions such as weather, the crop that comes in from the same plantation can be remarkably different each time. As a result, companies like Lipton will take in shipments of tea from a variety of tea plantations from around the world. Each will provide, but to varying degrees, the characteristics that the company requires to produce a standard and reliable final product. The characteristics of this final product, Larry explains, are like the chocolate cake, the outcome must always be the same. However, the ingredients and the quantities will be different for every blend.
Typically, for example, Lipton uses a blend of 16 different teas (sometimes as many as 17) and always in varying mixtures, to create what we see in the tea bag, and might perceive to be one tea. However, premium teas such as Darjeeling, Larry explains, are effectively like ‘a blend in itself’. That is to say, they can be relied upon in taste and aroma, without being mixed, but they are also premium because they are expensive, which means they are not suitable for using in blended teas.
Approximately 33,000 tonnes of tea arrive each week at the factory in Jebel Ali from plantations around the world. Each time this occurs, samples are sent to tea taster Kurush, who will test each tea for its TIM characteristics, giving each one a numerical score, which is then calculated to produce the recipe for this shipment’s blend. This recipe is then dictated from on high to the factory floor, who mix the blend up on a larger scale. Essam (phonetically, a wonderful name for a tea professional) explains that since tea is ‘an agricultural product’, it must be carefully sorted before blending, to remove any debris such as a twigs. This is done simply via an (industrial-scale) vibrating sieve and I’m surprised to learn that this is the only process of treatment that the tea undergoes. As tea taster Kurush asserts, tea is an entirely natural and also stable product that does not require much interference.
A fresh, yet woody and damp smell, like cut grass, hits us as we pass into the room where the tea is blended and stored in huge silos. Again, as we approach the area where the flavoured teas are blended, an exotic barrage of vanilla, cinnamon and lemon wafts through the air from the tiny temperature controlled room at that back. Here, the process is less ‘all natural’, and the temperature must be kept low to prevent the added flavourings from becoming ‘sticky’.
Once the tea is blended it is ready to be packed and fed directly from these silos into an unassuming looking machine, whose insides contain an ultra-complex, and convoluted series of leavers and wheels (worthy of Wallace and Gromit), which Larry slows down manually to illustrate just how complicated the system is. The loose mixture of tea, muslin sheeting, cotton thread and those little yellow labels are fed into this machine, and in seven steps, performed in an anti-clockwise movement (and realised in a blink of the eye), these components are pushed out of the other side as a neat row of teabags, already boxed together in groups of 25. The boxes are later sheaved in gold-coloured foil for freshness. This leads to the Lipton lingo, Larry says, where the quantity of tea in each box is measured in ‘gold bars’.
The gold bars whiz off around the factory floor, to their various destinations and packaging destinies, pushed via air pressure through a serious of tracks that speed and buzz and spiral everywhere you look, like the most complicated game of dominos you ever saw, taking place on a Scalextric track. Among the other fun-looking games on the factory floor were the surprising inclusion of toy cars and a cuddly looking monkey. Honestly. Inspired by a Japanese management technique, these are used as less intimidating visual signifiers to illustrate issues that will slow down production (such as a jam), instead of glaringly, flashing warning lights. The Japanese have long had a hand in the perfection of tea, with chado (or ‘the art of tea’), but this is not quite the Japanese influence I would have expected to find.
It was a pleasure to take tea (metaphorically) with Larry and Essam. Their passion about the product was inspiring. But even just observing the factory in action was thirsty work. In fact, I could have murdered a cup of tea.
Tea – the facts!
• Tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis.
• Tea is thought to have originated from China, over 5,000 years ago.
• The first book about tea was written in 800 AD by Lu Yu.
• Tea was first brought to Europe by Portuguese Jesuit priest Jasper de Cruz in 1560.
• In 18th-century Britain, tea was so expensive and considered such a luxury that it was routinely locked away in boxes called tea caddies.
• Health benefits from tea include prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
• Tea is a natural source of fluoride, so it’s good for your teeth and gums too.
• In India, tea is the second largest industry, after tourism.
• The most expensive tea bag was made by famour tea company PG Tips for its 75th anniversary.
• It contained 280 diamonds and premium tea leaves and cost Dhs42,900.