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When the US had a Tea Czar: Meet Chief Tea Inspector Robert Dick

“To tea experts in this country, mustiness is something which they all agree. They would throw it out,” said chief tea inspector Robert Dick in a 1984 interview on the history of the FDA. “The Chinese like it and that is where I have a lot of my troubles when they attempt to bring it in.” The “musty” tea in question was most likely pu-erh, a tea processed unlike any other tea; a tea from Yunnan province with a fabled history, legendary health properties and prized, like fine wine,  for its age. Pu-erh, as noted, is in a category by itself and therein lies the tale of teas banned by the US under the Tea Importation Act of 1897.

As detailed in previous post, the Tea Act established standards and protected consumers against adulterated tea. And the man at the forefront for nearly half a century was Robert Dick (above), Chief Tea Inspector. A graduate in chemistry from Duke University,  Dick initially was a seafood inspector, then scrutinized jams and jellies before training to become a tea inspector. In an era when Lipton’s was the lingua franca, Dick was busy tasting black, green and oolongs at the official FDA tea tasting office in Brooklyn in its pre-foodie/hipster incarnation.

In addition to pu-erhs, Dick also rejected teas with “foreign flavors,” famously saying that “we had one case where the tea was shipped with some oranges and it picked up the flavor and was rejected.” Hello Earl Grey! That lasted until the early 1970s.  “We had a letter from the legal people in Washington that we couldn’t reject (flavored teas) because people in this country were flavoring the teas the same way and selling them here on this market,” explained Dick. “They said we were discriminating against the foreign suppliers.”  The response was to allow blended tea, dividing them into “scented” and “spiced” (think chai with cinnamon, cardamon, etc.) But pu-erh tea continued to be rejected, although that didn’t stop determined merchants. “I go down to Chinatown,” said Dick, “and I’ll still see these teas displayed in the store window.”

By 1995, the tea tasting staff was winnowed down to 3-9 employees in Boston, San Francisco and Brooklyn. The routine for Dick and others was the same: Measure tea, put in cups, boil water, add to cups, steep, swish in mouth, taste, and spit. The budget was minuscule (around $200,000) and the rejection rate was less than 1%. While Republican administrations since Nixon had tried to get rid of of the Tea Board, it took  Democrat President Clinton to finally turn the spigot off by repealing the act. And Robert Dick, 81, became the last official tea taster of the US. Dick died in 1997, the same year the Act was repealed.

Fun sip: Because blended teas were rejected until the 1970s, a lot of European teas were unable to reach the US market. Could this be why teas such as  those from the great Georges Cannon of France, whose blended teas are a marvel of balance, subtly, and haunting taste never crossed the pond?


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