Wednesday, 11 September 2013

60 SECOND INTERVIEW: Ben Hitchcock

BEN Hitchcock has, arguably, one of the most unusual jobs in Dorset as one of just a handful of master tea tasters, or to give him his correct title -  Tea Sourcing Manager. He is responsible for Dorset Tea, a ‘robust and smooth’ blend which is named after the county where it is selected, blended and packaged – the tea itself coming from Kenya, India and Ceylon. Ben, 50 this year, works for Spicers, now based in Wimborne who have been involved in the tea trade since 1934. It is a company which has its roots in Dorchester where 14-year-old Keith Spicer began his career in tea, joining the local business AG Tizard & Sons, tea specialists of South Street, Dorchester in 1923. Eleven years later he started his own business blending teas from the family home - spending the mornings making up the blends and then in the afternoon setting off on an old butchers bike to sell and deliver the tea within the local area. Later he bought his first motor vehicle with money left to him by his grandfather enabling him to reach customers all over Dorset and from there the business grew.

WHEN did you join the company?
I came to Dorset around 23 years ago having trained at Twinnings as an apprenctice.

WHAT made you decide on such an unusual career?
Well, probably because it was unusual. I saw the job advertised as a trainee tea taster and thought ‘why not?’. I suppose in the back of my mind there was something nostalgic about it with relatives in the past who had worked abroad in copper and rubber. It felt quite good to, in a way, be following in their footsteps.

AND what did you make of Dorset when you moved here ?
I had lived in Hampshire so Dorset was the place where the motorway ran out, but it’s much more beautiful and I was knocked out by the coastline.

HOW well do you know the county?
Pretty well now. I’m a keen cyclist and I get out about once a week with my wife, or friends. We usually do a 35-40 mile route. I also run and like to walk, especially on the coast.

TELL us about Dorset Tea – why did the company choose to name itself after Dorset?
Dorset has a well-established food and drink heritage, there’s a lot of well-known manufacturers here now. We felt that people would immediately recognise the name and the quality associated with it. The company is also very-much founded in Dorset and we’re proud of that heritage. It’s actually a blend of teas from three areas – predominantly Kenyan Highland which has some of the best quality teas, from the eastern Rift Valley; from Assam in Northern India and Sri Lanka.

SO DO you get to travel quite a bit?
Yes, it’s important to visit and establish a relationship with the producers and get involved with the care they take to get their tea to the market. Travelling is the best way to do that. Between myself and colleagues we probably get out about four times a year.

DO YOU have to protect your taste buds by avoiding certain things?
When I was learning the older tea tasters used to tell me to avoid all sorts of things. There was a lot of quite specific instructions about that and what you could and couldn’t eat... especially curry, but how they managed not to eat curry when travelling I don’t  know. I will obviously be careful about not having anything with a strong taste before embarking on a tasting. For instance you wouldn’t want an onion sandwich!

SO COULD anyone be a tea taster?
Everyone really has a palate, the taste buds and olfactory system, there’s very few people who don’t – and most people could be trained to do it. But it does take quite a time to learn about the system of tasting and be able to work out the subtle differences we might be looking for. I spent years just listening to people who really did know what they were talking about and trying to pick up on what they were telling me.

WITH a developed palate does that ability affect what foods and other drinks you might like? Do you have any particular favourites?
I have always loved beer and wine and good foods, but I would never buy the same wine twice. I like trying out different ones. I wouldn’t even ‘hang my hat’ on a particular grape, or even grain. It’s the same with food, I just like exploring different tastes. But we’re very fortunate in Dorset because of the sea and I love fish, especially those which are locally caught. Many people do stick to the same thing and I can understand that, but I would encourage people to try different things, especially with tea. It’s so cheap really that if you try something new and you don’t like it, there’s little to be lost, which is why we’ve been holding a ‘tea amnesty’ to persuade people to trade in their usual tea and try Dorset Tea.

IF YOU didn’t do what you now do – would there be anything else you might like to try?
I’ve been in tea for almost 30 years now and I still love it. I love the tastings and the evaluation and giving feedback, it’s really great; but if I was forced to look for something else it would be nice to be involved in sport in some way.

WHEN you relax, what interests you, other than sport?
I love restaurants and trying different foods and theatre is quite important to me. I like all types of theatre from the serious West End play to new plays which I can go to, and enjoy, with my children. I don’t really read enough, but when I do I tend to go for shorter novels, interesting biographies or occasionally even short stories. Often I’ll go back again to the classic novels of the past.

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