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Meet the Man With the $1.5 Million Dollar Tongue

Sebastian Michaelis is Tetley’s tea sommelier.

Shutterstock/vilicreates

It’s no secret that famous celebrity body parts are sometimes insured for millions of dollars—from superstar backsides to supermodel legs. But when a talented tongue gets a whopping $1.5 million insurance policy, it would be understandable for one to think Gene Simmons before Sebastian Michaelis.

And that’s exactly the case for Michaelis, a tea sommelier and one of 10 master blenders for widely accessible British tea brand Tetley, the powerhouse tea manufacturer headquartered in London and the second largest teabag brand worldwide.

Photo courtesy of Tetley.

Over the last 10 years, Michaelis estimates that he’s tried 300,000 teas from around the globe. As a master blender, he often tastes hundreds of teas a day—sharply slurping each brew with a dessert spoon before spitting into a spittoon, all at a rapid-fire pace. Michaelis can taste, assess, and record the grade of each tea in about five seconds. A rare ability, even for the most skilled tea experts. His key to tasting superiority? Sucking the tea in as loudly as possible. "The more noise you make while slurping means maximum air pushes into your mouth, which oxygenates the tea so you can experience the full flavor," Michaelis explains.

Michaelis’ palate is so refined that Tetley took out a $1.5 million insurance policy on it about a year ago, launched him to rockstar status in the industry. Joining the ranks of the rich and famous with their money-making assets is "quite flattering," he says. "It’s a trip when people recognize you, I haven’t gotten used to it yet."

His big ticket contract with Tetley is contingent on annual reviews and, surprisingly, doesn’t include any behavior restrictionssuch as drinking alcohol, eating spicy foods, or smokingwhich may impair his sense of taste. But he notes that having a cold makes it nearly impossible to perform properly, as a huge amount of tasting is done with the nose.

... Michaelis estimates that he’s tried 300,000 teas from around the globe.

After water, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, and a multi-billion dollar global industry. And blending tea is considered a fine art, much like making whisky or Champagne. First, Michaelis examines and grades the color, size, and density of a given leaf. Then he assesses the brew's sparkle (purity of color), body (weight of the tea in the mouth), and zing (the overall liveliness on the palate). Tetley sources teas from farmers across the globe, and Michaelis’s experience enables him to identify subtle differences in quality and find the right balance of flavors from each country to deliver unique blends.

Tea was an institution in Michaelis’ household growing up in the UK, and he drank at least five cups a day for as long as he can remember. After graduating University, he came across an ad for a taster for Tetley. The position required a tea lover who was open to travel. "How could I resist?" he queries. And the rest is steeped in history.

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