Every day, the federal government pays Robert H. Dick to sit in his Brooklyn office and quietly sip tea, undisturbed, except for the whistling of his kettles in waiting.
Dick, you see, is the government's tea epicurean, one of the Food and Drug Administration's two full-time tea tasters who are responsible for deciding when tea is good enough to be imported into this country.
Now, that may sound like a breeze of job, the 68-year-old federal employe admits, but it actually is hard work, not everyone's cup of tea, you might say.
Last year, for example, American tea companies imported 189.3 million pounds of tea. Every load of it had to be sampled either by Dick or his tea tasting colleague in New Orleans, James Barnett.
Since there is only one way to judge tea, by tasting it, the two federal tea tasters had to sip and spit their way through an average of 150 cups of tea per day last year to ensure the imported tea was up to standard.
"We call it slurping," says Dick, "because tasting a tea involves more than just your taste buds. You also have to judge the aroma and sometimes we get some real stinkers in here."
Dick and Barnett rejected 500,000 pounds of tea last year. Tea companies can appeal the two men's decisions to an appeals board, but they rarely do.
Dick didn't start out to be a tea tipper. FDA hired him to monitor maple syrup standards, but the tea tasting branch needed some help and Dick volunteered. That was 28 years ago.
He begins each day at a round table that contains 40 porcelain tea cups, each with a sample of tea. As the top of the table slowly revolves, Dick goes into action, slurping as many as 200 cups in a day.
He compares the taste with the national tea standard, which is set each year by the Board of Tea Experts, a seven-member panel appointed by the FDA commissioner. Last week, the board met in Dick's office.
Stopping only long enough to let the kettles boil, the board tasted more than 200 types of teas before selecting eight teas that they considered the lowest quality that would be allowed in the country. Dick is the only federal employe on the tea board. The other members are professional tea testers from private companies.
FDA used to have four tea testing offices, but budget cuts forced it to close down the other two last year. The program never has been popular with budget-cutters. There is just something about the image of Dick sitting in his office, sipping tea, that bothers them. "They think we goof off," he says.
In 1970, President Nixon fired Dick and abolished the tea board. It took Dick a month to get that mess straighten out and return to his kettles. Then, President Carter came along and did the same thing.
"What they didn't understand," explains Dick, "is that the tea board was created by the Tea Act of 1897 and Congress would have to amend or repeal the Tea Act to do away with us."
Before the government set its tea standard, Dick warns, "it got so bad that consumers wouldn't buy tea because they didn't know what they were getting."
The tea testers are supported, in part, by a tea tax: 3.5 cents per 100 pounds. Last year, the tax generated about $60,000 of the tea-tasting program's $200,000 budget.
Dick, however, says he is not worried about budget-cutters as much as finding future tea tasters. "It's hard," says Dick, "to find someone to train. People think its boring."