While some might scoff at the idea of a tea sommelier, it’s really not so different from being an expert in any other kind of enterprise, including that of camel handler and tea purveyor in the Sahara desert.
It was in my carefree twenties that my husband and I found ourselves in a remote part of Morocco with a nomad and a camel. The Berber who led our small expedition into the Sahara desert looked like he was heading back into the Old Testament. He hid his chiselled features behind a voluminous head scarf, or cheche, turbaned around his head and had the distinguishing casualness of nomadic tribes. The adolescent camel was less attractive and much more forthright.
When settled into our remote camp under the stars, our Berber lifted up a teapot and poured out long, thin, unerring streams of heavily sugared mint tea into small glasses on a silver tray. Had I been a romance novelist, I would have been tempted at this point to “swoon” (or drop in a dead faint). Fortunately I am not, for I would have missed that feeling of amazement which arises when one is incapable of imagining anything that could surpass a defined moment in time.
It wasn’t until some months later, while drafting an article about our desert expedition, I learned of the charming designation given to the Berber nomads, chamelier (or camel handler) and decided that in a life beyond my twenty-something years, the appendage of chamelier would become mine. That New Zealand has no camels was a mere detail.
The Tea Sommeliers
Fast forward fifteen years, the tea sommeliers are making their presence felt in the world; myself included.
While the French could easily argue the differences in semantics between chamelier and sommelier; to me, they are essentially the same. Let me explain. A somier (Old French for “pack animal”) was watched over by a sommerier. A sommerier’s responsibility included the animals and their cargo. Sommerier mutated into soumelier, and the meaning slightly shifted – a soumelier was responsible for transporting supplies. The spelling and meaning slightly shifted again – a sommelier was someone in charge of a specific type of cargo. Today, this term refers exclusively to beverages – such as wine…or tea!
In case you haven’t noticed, tea has gotten exceptionally popular over the last decade. The tea section at the local supermarket has exploded, and more people are drinking more different types of tea than ever before, due to its increased availability.
Like a wine expert, a tea sommelier is a person who has training and expertise about how teas are cultivated and processed, how they should be brewed, and what their potential effects are on the body and mind. Oh, and they know about flavour, too; a well-trained tea sommelier should be able to recommend a tea to someone who doesn’t know much about the subject, based on what other foods and drinks they enjoy, and what kind of caffeinating effect they want.
“A tea sommelier can talk you about how to create tea cocktails, tea-and food pairing, cooking with tea, as well as creating the perfect tea menu,” says Australian Tea Masters founder, Sharyn Johnston.
But it’s not a quick and easy process: “You cannot become a tea expert overnight. It takes years of tasting, training, knowledge, sharing, and learning to call oneself an expert in tea. Most experts – or tea masters – come from families who have been in the tea industry for generations and have made it their lifelong journey.”
Training Programmes for Tea Sommeliers
But one has to start somewhere. If you’re interested in dipping your toes into this world, you could start with a short free course online (www.teaclass.com). TeaClass offers self-paced education with lessons ranging from basics like what tea is to more advanced topics like how to intelligently talk about it. It also includes overviews of many types of teas, and the characteristics of teas sourced from specific tea-producing countries (such as, China and Japan). It’s an easy, accessible, and free way to enhance your knowledge of tea.
Longer courses available through tea institutes around the world, including Melbourne-based, Australian Tea Masters (www.australianteamasters.com.au).
With a three-day on-site primer and a 14-week online course via Skype, potential tea sommeliers learn everything they could ever want to know about tea: proper preparation and taste-testing, various tea ceremonies and serving styles, tea evaluations, tea pairings with food, the health benefits of tea, etc.
However, the intense and rigorous training is not for the faint of heart, or the light in wallet.
Of course, in addition to countless online resources for tea education, one could always learn the old-fashioned way by picking up a book, such as James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury.
Pratt’s book not only provides an extremely in-depth history of tea and its significant influence on developing worlds and empires, but also information about specific types of tea and their preparation. This book is more comprehensive a resource than anything that can be found online, which probably has a lot to do with why it is the most notable and respected work about tea in recent times.
Introducing the Tea Sommeliers in the Southern Hemisphere
Benjamin McManus, Langham, Auckland
Q: You have a deep passion for tea. What drew you in? And what excites you about tea?
My interest in tea is driven by history and tradition, as one of the oldest beverages in the world. Artisans around the world are continuously perfecting the age old techniques of tea production…in many cases, they are tending to the same tea plants of their ancestors.
Q: In your words, what makes a great tea sommelier?
It is important to listen carefully to a guest’s needs and guide them in their experience of tea. By asking simple questions, a tea sommelier can suggest a tea that matches their mood, lifts their energy, revitalise and refresh, or pair with their choice of food.
Q: What teas are most requested by your patrons? And why?
Many guests today enjoy the tradition of Afternoon Tea. So a classic English tea is commonly requested. Our Langham Blends (such as English Flower featuring chamomile, rose petals, elderflowers, heather flowers, lavender and cornflowers) are also popular. Where possible, guests are encouraged to try artisan loose leaf teas – such as Nuwara Eliya or White Forest Darjeeling (biodynamic) and are seldom disappointed.
Q: Can tea really hold its own in a cocktail?
Mixing any ingredient with tea requires a careful marriage of flavours and balance. One has to remember to keep tea as a main ingredient. Jasmine Green works well with Vodka or Gin and Lapsang Souchong complements Bourbon. A new tea inspired cocktail menu will be launched at the Palm Court (Langham Auckland) in February.
Sarah De Witt, Impala & Peacock, Melbourne
Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your journey to become a tea sommelier?
The varieties, flavours, and aromas of the world of tea is so expansive. It’s a continuous journey of discovery about how fascinating and unique this beverage can be.
Q: How do you convince devoted ‘tea-bag’ customers to try premium loose-leaf teas?
It’s an educative process. Once people understand (and taste) the difference between fannings that are swept up and placed in bleached tea bags versus the deliberate pluck and care that goes into premium loose leaf tea production, people often come to their own realisations about which is best!
Q: You have created a number of blended teas, what knowledge do you need to bring to the blending table?
Tea (Camellia sinensis) is the building block to creating a blend and so to be able to know what herbs and spices will work with it you need to understand the region where it’s grown, the brewing parameters, and the flavour profile (taste, aroma) of the tea leaf itself and in combination with other flavours.
Q: What is your favourite tea and food pairing?
Blue Cheese and Tung Ting (Dong Ding) Taiwanese Oolong. The combination is creamy, milky, sweet, and salty. It’s sensational.
Benjamin & Sarah
Snigdha Manchanda, The Tea Trunk, Goa
Q: When did you first become inspired to become a tea sommelier?
Tea has been a ritual for over a decade – even before I formally studied tea it was a big part of my life as my father was posted in Assam. In the early 90s, he bought me a packet of green tea that opened up my world. At one point, I owned over 100 rare and exotic teas from China, Japan, Taiwan, Russia, England, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Kenya but I knew little about the humble leaf. After a while I wanted to learn and know more about tea. That’s when the decision to study came about.
Q: What is your favourite tea to serve?
Marigold and Lemon Grass green tea is my current favourite when entertaining.
Q: What are some popular misconceptions about brewing or drinking tea?
Of all the myths associated with tea, the most common are associated with green tea. It’s such a fad to drink green tea. People gulp green tea for anti-oxidants. Of course, it is rich in anti-oxidants, but black tea has anti-oxidants as well as traces of vitamins and catechins. Many tea drinkers are also unaware green and black tea is obtained from the same plant – the teas refer to different stages in the oxidation process.
Julie Wang, Australian Tea Masters, Singapore
Q: Why did you study to become a tea sommelier?
Being a self-professed tea junkie working in the food and beverage industry, I noticed a lack of emphasis on tea in the menu. So I set out to become a tea specialist. It is my vision to help educate fellow professionals in the industry about the potential that lies in specialty tea, and raise the tea service standards for customers.
Q: What keeps your passion for tea alive?
Tea, to me, is a never ending discovery journey. The diverse varieties of tea alone floors me. But I most enjoy introducing specialty tea to customers: seeing their eyes light up as their taste buds awake to the myriad of flavours from the humble tea plant is my greatest joy.
Q: Do you have a special technique or formula for preparing tea?
Where possible, I prepare my tea “gongfu-cha” style as I believe this is the best method to draw out and maximise the flavours of the tea. It’s not a special technique, rather, it’s taking the effort to know the leaves. Whether they work best with a certain temperature, type of water, brewing vessel or infusion time.
Q: What is the most creative use of tea you have experienced?
Tea has such versatility as illustrated by the ingenious and skillful interpretation of Gyokuro at the Peace Oriental Teahouse in Bangkok. Their three-course Gyokuro starts with an eight-minute cold-brew that has such intense umami flavour. The same leaves are then steeped hot to extract those fresh vegetal notes. Lastly, the remaining leaves are served as an appetising cold dish infused with Yuzu. Not only are the leaves well-utilized, each course brings out a different dimension that allows the customer to truly appreciate the depth of the tea.
Snidgha & Julie
(c) Felicia Stewart, 2016