The Total Tea Man - An interview with Nigel Melican
With 38 years of experience, Nigel Melican is one of the most accomplished tea professionals. With expertise in both the science and agricultural aspects of tea making to the technicalities of production, he has been a part of tea-related projects in 28 countries. He educates and trains, troubleshoots and designs. We are thrilled to be working with Nigel as the lead instructor for the India Tea Tour – an annual spring trip to the heart of the Indian tea industry designed for tea professionals.
How did you end up in the tea business? What is one of the world’s most renowned tea professional’s favorite tea? We asked that question and a few more to Nigel before he launched on the upcoming tour. Here is what he had to say:
Like many others - by complete accident. Forty years ago I was food product developer with Unilever but with a crop science background. Product developers solve problems - if you can do that in one discipline then with a bit of savvy you can do it in any. I had never worked in tea but was sent to Papua New Guinea to solve an agronomic problem with a tea company selling tea to Lipton. It turned out not to be an agricultural problem but in the factory instead. We were told to stay and fix it (despite never having been in a tea factory before) - six months later we had solved the problem and eventually it saved Lipton a lot of money. Having discovered the complexities of tea growing and processing I never wanted to work with anything else.
What is your favorite part about working in the tea industry?
There is so much left to discover - and some of the nicest people in the world work in tea.
How have you seen the tea industry change over the years?
Intensification of production. Now, to be profitable in tea an acre of tea has to yield more than double what was expected from it 40 years ago. That has involved some major changes - not all of them good.
Do you have a particular project that was most memorable? For example - one that was the most fun, and one that was the most challenging?
My favorite generally tends to be the one I am currently working on. Solving problems and creating new things is what gets me up in the morning. I guess the greatest challenge was introducing tea growing into Pakistan where the conditions for tea growing are totally unsuitable. Soil, water, climate, farming culture - all were wrong. My Unilever management made the mistake of telling me it couldn't be done - but it could. It took 17 years but we planted out 1,500 acres, built a factory, and trained a thousand small farmers. That was both challenging and fun.
What are the biggest challenges the tea industry faces today?
That would be embracing technology intelligently. The challenge is to bring the traditional labor based industry into the mechanized age without losing too much of the essential craft and the skill of tea making. That, and climate change, land competition, cost of production, commoditization of the product, diminishing non-renewable inputs, and urban drift.
What is your favorite tea - and why?
Despite having a specialty tea company, Nothing But Tea, which sells 200 orthodox loose leaf teas, my favorite tea is Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Gold with milk - a CTC tea with a lot of Rwandan tea in the blend. Now I have moved Teacraft to Ireland I am switching allegiance to Barry's Classic Blend. But when traveling (as I often do) I always take Autumnal Flush Darjeeling from Okayti Tea Estate as this is a very flexible tea in all water types and drinks well; without milk.
It is a very great pleasure to be returning to India with the Tea Tour in 2019. I look forward to helping attendees to understand better and appreciate the workings of the vast Indian tea industry.
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Want to have interaction and learning experience with the legend.
— Amit singh