“Tea is as important to us as each other,” Dilhan Fernando.
Many of us have consumed our fair share of tea. Taking the time to enjoy a cuppa is a welcome break from our busy lives, while sharing a cup of tea with friends and family is a popular bonding ritual.
Like many families across the world, a mutual love of tea is something that unites the Fernando family. While you might not have heard of the Fernandos you’ve probably heard of Dilmah, the tea empire established by Merrill J. Fernando in 1988.
Now a household name, Dilmah prides itself on providing Australians with authentic Sri Lankan tea, sharing its passion for the lovely leaf with consumers across the world and teaching people to appreciate the beauty and goodness of tea.
We recently sat down with Merrill’s son and Dilmah Director Dilhan Fernando, who was in Australia to host the Dilmah School of Tea, to find out more about the benefits of tea, what it takes to become a tea taster and how you can pair food and tea.
Tell us a little about your story. I know your dad started the business, how did he become involved with tea?
In the 1950s Sri Lankans weren’t allowed to have anything to do with tea because Colonial masters – the British, dominated the whole industry. Whilst we had gained independence in 1948, the industry continued to be dominated by the British and what they said was “Sri Lankans eat too much curry so they’re not allowed into the industry!”
My father was among the first batch of people chosen to go across to London for training in tea tasting. At that time there was a clear separation of the trades, so the grower was in Sri Lanka and then the product was taken to London where it was auctioned. This was not necessary but simply done so the British could monopolise the benefits.
So when my father went across for tasting and saw all the teas being mixed, he realised that Sri Lankans did all the work – from the hand picking to the tasting. The country was being deprived of income because the tea was taken across to London (and so it was until 1986) and in the process all the benefits were accruing to the third party companies, not to the workers so our industry never had a chance to develop.
So my father said okay, I have to start my own brand and at this time, this was not done in coffee, chocolate, tea, in any category. Eventually, in 1988, Dilmah was born and my father became the first producer of commodity products from the former colonies. He had the opportunity to sell direct to the consumer and it started right here in Australia.
He had a big dream; it was a huge dream because at the time it was not done and it was not condoned.
His philosophy of making business a matter of human service is logical, but that’s because the market and the consumer have changed but when he established Dilmah this was a very radical thing. Many people believed and still do believe that a business’ main goal is to profit. But you can’t separate business values and life – it’s people that make a business. That was my father’s basic principle. He wanted to bring the pleasure of tea to consumers; he wanted them to know the goodness, but he also wanted to help the workers. So it was about integrity and pleasure.
So those founding principles still underlie the company today?
Absolutely and if either were not present, I don’t think my brother or I or any other generations would be involved. My son started tasting when he was three years old; he’s now 15 and that happens because as a family, the values are built in. Tea is as important to us as each other.
You, your brother and even your kids are now involved in the business. What do you personally love about tea?
I love the pleasure, natural antioxidants and goodness of tea – it’s incredible. My father is 87 years old and still does pretty much a full days work. Two weeks ago he went to Boston and before that he had to go to Darjeeling. He travels around the world all the time and I think that’s because he drinks so much tea. It’s also wonderful to work with nature and supply people with something so good for them.
You mentioned your own kids might go on to become tea tasters like their father and grandfather before them, what does the process of becoming a tea taster involve?
It’s tasting 20 to 30,000 times because when you taste you need to be able to pick the texture, flavour variations; you need to be able to identify any harshness and be able to determine if that harshness is because of soil, sunshine, heat or a mistake in the manufacturing process. There’s lots of subtly and unfortunately being able to determine these elements only comes from repetitive tasting.
I also tell my kids that when they taste different types of foods, they need to analyse the food in their mind and build a taste profile. They need to think about what tea would pair with that food and what tea you could add to it.
I didn’t realise that tea and food pair so well, much like wine and food. What’s the most unique flavour combination you’ve experienced?
The most unique would probably be also the most disgusting… I hate durian – durian is an Asian fruit that should be banned. Some people describe it as putrefying flesh! I mean, you either love it or you hate it. Anyway I was judging once in China (as a judge you have to taste everything that is put in front of you by the contestant) and I had to taste this durian inspired dessert and actually it was incredible. The tea fabulously balanced out the putrid taste of the durian and brought out the top note before resetting the palate. It was fantastic and so unusual because you’ve got this really awful ingredient – I mean I’m one of the haters so I dislike it, but for me the tea brought out the good elements of the dish.
If you could give one tip to help people improve their tea making at home, what would it be?
Definitely the brewing method – make sure you extract the most from your tea. Essentially brewing is the reverse of the manufacturing process. What we do at Dilmah is nurture and protect what nature has done so what you need to do is extract that. It would be a terrible pity if tea drinkers weren’t able to access the goodness in tea. If you’re going to improve your tea making – of course, I would love if you were to fix the water temperature and purity and so on, but if you could change one thing, I’d say get the goodness out of the tea. Brew it right and make sure you enjoy those antioxidants.
Originally published as Behind the Scenes with: Dilhan Fernando with Dilmah Tea.