BEDFORD, United Kingdom
If it weren’t for Nigel Melican, a good deal of the tea made around the world today would not be of such high quality. A passionate botanist and agricultural engineer, he loves a challenge. He has worked on every continent helping tea producers establish new tea growing operations, expand cultivation and production, improve yields and quality, and introduce new processes and products.
Melican never expected or planned a career in tea. “I really wanted to be a marine biologist but I qualified as a botanist and took my first job as an under gardener on a large country estate. But after two years of growing vegetables and flowers in the old walled garden there, and having just got married, I decided I needed a proper job,” he explained with a laugh. He sent off one application after another to almost any job available and, with one stamp left, he sent off a last letter to Unilever who were advertising for a potato geneticist!
He chuckles as he remembers that, “When they called me in for an interview, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about potatoes and, pretty quickly, they obviously realised that too. But, instead of sending me packing, they asked me what I did in my spare time and when I told them I built growth chambers for plants, they said they needed someone to do just that and immediately offered me a job!”
So Melican started a career with Unilever that lasted 27 years. His first role in the company was to carry out sewing and harvesting trials on different crops including peas, oysters, and tea. Tea was not Melican’s main focus because Unilever then moved him into their sanitary wear department and he applied his scientific skills and creative abilities to the development of nappies, continence pads, and other absorbent products. “I even own a patent from those days to prove that I really was involved in working on various ‘secret’ new projects!” In a sort of logical next step, Melican was then moved into arid agriculture and soil products required in dry areas of the world such as Omar and the Unites Arab Emirates.
By now, after years of working in challenging situations, he had built up a reputation for being extremely clever at finding solutions to unusual problems. So, when Unilever – who by now had major interests in tea – were facing a problem with the quality of the crop being grown in Papua New Guinea, Melican was the obvious man for the job and was dispatched to find out what was going wrong. His task was to work out whether quality was being lost in the field or the factory and, not knowing anything at that point about tea manufacture, he invented his now famous miniature tea manufacturing unit to help him understand the process and the problems.
“When you’re trying to work out where things are going wrong, you need to have control of the situation and the little unit gave me at least some control.” (Today, there are 15 Teacraft ECMs installed in factories in various countries around the world, including Japan and Rwanda.)
During this period, Unilever was expanding its tea interests and needed advice and R & D support in its factories in various countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, and Turkey. Who better than Melican to become their tea ‘trouble shooter’? So he spent the next nine years working around the world to optimise the tea processing operation by improving quality and reducing costs.
In 1990, Melican decided that he wanted to work for himself, although he was still not sure which route he would take – the business ideas he was considering being obviously tea but less obviously cheese and sandwiches! But, although tea was actually the third choice on that list, he had begun, during his last few years with Unilever, to see a pattern emerging which put tea in the same position that wine had been in about 20 years earlier.
“I realised,” he explained, “that, just as had happened with new world wines, new tea origins were capable of producing very interesting, high-quality teas. New tea growers – and of course some of the established tea growers too – just needed a little help in selecting the best varietals for the particular conditions in the different regions, the right manufacturing equipment and training, and a clear understanding of consumer trends, packaging options, and potential routes to market.”
Melican felt that he had the technical expertise and the experience to offer the advice and help required and so in 1995 he set up his consultancy company, Teacraft. Since then, he has worked in more than 30 countries and has made tea on every continent except Antarctica “and that’s not likely to happen any time soon”, he jokes!
As he became involved in the development and manufacture of unusual teas from less well-known countries, he decided to set up his other company, Nothing But Tea, with daughter Chrissie in 2002 in order to give those teas a chance on the world market. And so today the online business sells oolong teas from Malawi and Vietnam as well as from the better known areas of Taiwan and China; black teas from Georgia, Vietnam, and Bolivia; and green teas from Darjeeling, Korea, Laos and Vietnam.
New projects are developing all the time and Melican is currently working with a tea garden in Sri Lanka to help them produce quality handmade teas since there is no factory and no machinery available to make more traditional Ceylon teas. And, although he won’t yet say where, he is involved in the US in a state that hasn’t grown tea before.
Melican will be 70 this year but he has absolutely no intention of retiring or stepping back from what he is so good at. He is a born product developer and he simply loves finding solutions, solving problems, being useful!
“I hardly ever say no to requests for help and advice. I like getting involved in new things and I love seeing a product I’ve helped develop actually on the shelf! What I still find totally inspirational is the fact that thousands of different teas can be made from one simple plant and I love trying to help produce some of the best!”