Official tea taster employed by the US government. Notice the spittoon close at hand.

The country’s seven most important tea drinkers met on February 18, 1939, to tabulate what they thought of samples of the beverage they savored during five days of official tasting. They were chosen by Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace to select samples of teas which will serve as minimum standards for admittance to the United States between May 1, 1939, and May 1, 1940. 


Basic samples of ten types of tea, below which imports will be excluded, were tested for flavor, body, purity, and color. The law requiring minimum standards for tea was passed in 1897. That law lasted exactly 100 years and the official tea tasting panel was abolished in 1997 by President Bill Clinton.


Official tea taster photograph dated 1924.




Pu-er teas would not pass the exam and made their way into the United States during the first 50 years of the law because pu-er teas would have been considered contaminated by bacteria. 


Tea importers do their own testing for purity today. I spoke a few years ago with one of America’s major packagers who related the story of disposing of an entire ocean freight container of tea which didn’t pass their pesticide standards. Ouch!



Read more about tea’s impact upon culture, commerce and politics in A Social History of Tea Benjamin Press.



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