Kochi: Scientists at the government’s Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) have developed a mechanized ‘nose’ that can detect complex odours and potentially help lead to better quality teas. The instrument uses sensors to detect and discriminate complex odours. An odour stimulus generates a characteristic fingerprint or pattern, and based on these patterns the teas can be classified, identified and graded as odour lends flavour to tea.
Tea tasters who manually taste teas by sipping it, rolling it on their tongue and inhaling the smell could potentially see their jobs being done with this ‘nose’ that can also act as a tongue. The computing system of the instrument is capable of sensing compounds of tea and predicting the scores that are otherwise manually calculated by tea tasters.
At the auction centres, professional tea tasters of major brokerage firms taste the teas manually before fixing their grades. All this can now be avoided if the teas come with the score cards done by a machine whose ratings are widely accepted.
A few tea tasters here say it is too early to say if the new nose is any better.
Taste matters: The tool has the potential to take over the job of professional tea tasters, who taste tea by sipping it and inhaling the smell.
J.K. Thomas, president of the tea growers’ body United Planters Association of South India and vice-president of the government tea trade promotion body, Tea Board, says this prototype, made to suit the needs of the industry, was demonstrated recently during a workshop organized by the board’s National Tea Research Foundation in Kolkata.
Quality issues with Indian tea were highlighted in 2001 when Libya rejected Indian tea and banned its import. After prolonged negotiations, when Libya finally agreed to import tea from India in 2004, the new tea shipped out failed to meet quality parameters, forcing the Tea Board to impose strict quality norms for both export and import of tea. The export of inferior quality tea had affected the image of tea from the south as this region accounts for over 50% of India’s exports, Thomas said.
South India contributed 23 million kg to India’s export of 44 million kg during the first three months of calendar year 2007, and had 117 million kg to India’s export of 204 million kg in 2006. Though the region produces cheaper varieties of tea compared to the north, in the Libyan issue, it was sub-standard, inferior imported tea that could not have been sold, which found its way to Libya from the south. The Tea Board in 2005 introduced the tea marketing control order to ensure a quality level for teas.
After the Libyan saga, the tea committee of the United Planters mooted the idea of importing electronic equipment to test the quality of teas, which costs around Rs30 lakh each. The Tea Research Foundation of the association then took up the issue with the Tea Board more than two years ago, which, in turn, asked its research wing, National Tea Research Foundation, to identify an organization to work on developing such an equipment indigenously.
CDAC was identified for the project and during a recent workshop of the foundation in Kolkata, scientists of the centre displayed a working model of the tea ‘nose’, says Thomas.
Scientists at the centre who developed this equipment said it is only a model and modifications are needed to meet the industry’s requirement. They declined to comment on the potential costs of such an instrument. Thomas says if it is available to the growers at a price of around Rs50,000, the equipment could revolutionize the industry and remarkably help improve quality.
The instrument can also be used to monitor volatile emission patterns during the tea fermentation process in the factories, now done manually, when the plucked tea leaves are used to manufacture teas.