by Mai Segawa, ITMA Certified Tea Sommelier Student
In the past 6 months, the World of Tea Blog post “The Problem with Tea Sommeliers” by Jordan G. Hardin gained some traction in the online food and beverage sphere. In fact, if one types in the term “Tea Sommelier” in google search, it is the top 2 search result to come up. Hardin argues that the title of Tea Sommelier cannot be used lightly despite the different official certification programs that exist in the United States. This is because within the realm of Wine, the certification process of becoming a Certified Sommelier is standardized with years of training required and a rigorous examination process (Hardin 2016).
In short, Hardin argues bar is set very high before one can call themselves a Certified Sommelier. For example, for those aspiring the highest qualification of Master Sommelier, issued by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the competition is fierce and only a handful succeed each year. As of today, only 230 people in the world have earned the title of Master Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers 2016). With a less than 1% pass rate, the Master Sommelier title carries an incredible amount of prestige. Hardin therefore raised an important point about ensuring that the title of Sommelier is in fact quite special and cannot be used lightly. The point of his article sharply pointed out to the contrast between someone who can take a course to call themselves a sommelier and those that have to earn the title through years of experience.
So the question becomes, what does it take to become a Tea Sommelier?
As a Certified Tea Sommelier, there is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with that title.
To hold the Tea Sommelier title with pride, I think it comes down to experience, passion, and knowledge.
Without the experience of tasting a variety of different teas and having that conviction to learn more about them throughout your life, I think it will be very difficult to become a living and breathing Tea Sommelier. The ITMA Tea Sommelier Tasting Manual echoes this sentiment by stating, “The number one way to enroll people into your vision of the magnificence of being a tea sommelier is to be able to share the passion of your own personal knowledge and self-discovery. Without that personal experience, without the personal conviction and passion, there may be insufficient enthusiasm behind the vision” (ITMA Handbook). The ITMA uniquely emphasizes how tea is quite a personal experience that ought to be shared with others.
I think the most interesting thing about getting into the tea sommelier field is that it starts with a genuine passion for most people. For example, Domini Hogg is a tea sommelier and graduate of University of Cambridge who started Cambridge’s very first Tea Society through her own passion of loving tea. Her mission was to spread the joy of tea and introduce exotic varieties to those that were interested learning more (Hogg 2015).
From going through this course, I have learned a few intriguing things about the tea community:
Tea is available in most parts of the world and those that enjoy it are from all walks of life and all different age groups. I think this is what makes tea intriguing because the passion for tea can start from a young age unlike wine or sake. In Japan, the popularity for pre-bottled teas are threatening the loose leaf tea industry (Gascoyne 2014). As more and more young people are used to the idea of pre-made bottled tea, the tea makers in Japan hope to spread awareness to the current younger generation about the pure joy that comes from tasting the actual deliciousness of loose leaf tea that can only be enjoyed in loose leaf form.
One of the things that really make tea such a fun, unique, and enjoyable experience is how universal it is yet so unique especially in regards to how it is made and how tea is prepared and brewed in different countries. It would be lovely to go to Pakistan, Istanbul, the U.K, and Russia to experiment their tea rituals in person. I would love to be able to eat the spicy and sweet foods in Pakistan while drinking their tea as the locals do.
I also have some suggestions for future outlooks within the Tea Sommelier field:
Room for Improvement (From a Standardized Perspective)
Hardin points out that increased standardization within the Tea Sommelier field is a necessity. Although Hardin’s point is well articulated, one must question the intention of starting the Tea Sommelier programs. Was it to make the knowledge of tea more accessible to the public? For example, with sake, the London Sake Sommelier Association’s sole mission to is to spread the joy and awareness of sake to the world. I believe that ITMA is fundamentally similar in that regard.
However I do believe that it could be a worthwhile endeavor to have an international tea sommelier competition that include categories of a knowledge test, service skills, tea ceremony performance test, and new tea enjoyment ideas.
The Number One Quality that Makes a Tea Sommelier Cutting Edge
To pinpoint my personal opinion on what it takes to become a Tea Sommelier, I believe that at the core of being a top sommelier is being out on the look-out for new inventions that are becoming trends (sparkling Chai for example), and to form original creations, ideas, and discoveries to share to the world all while having a firm understanding of the history and taste of classical teas. I think that the ability to think out of the box as well as in it is what can distinguish between a good sommelier and an excellent one that brings a special spark.
With that said, I tried to think of ways in which we could enhance the typical at home experience of someone who has a classic stash of black tea bags at home.
My Original Creations
Most black teas sold in the general public come in tea bags. I wanted to experiment with ways in which we can make an ordinary tea bag filled with Black Tea come to life.
How to Best Brew the Black Tea in a Bag the Sommelier Way (Easy Instructions):
First warm your mug by pouring hot water inside. Then, dump the water out. This was just to warm the mug,
Next, pour hot water in the mug again (but this time keep the hot water inside). Insert your tea bag. Then put a plate on top of it for 3 minutes. Pro Tip: This plate on top step is a key step that will enhance the flavor of your tea because the heat will not escape from the mug as easily.
Then, lift the plate, and gently sway your tea bag to the left and right once just to get the color of your tea even. Pro Tip: The key point here is never pulling up the tea bag and dunking it down over and over again as many people do. The reason why we shouldn’t shake our tea bag up and down in an attempt to get that last drop of tea liquor is because by shaking out those “last drops” you are essentially unnecessarily squeezing out the bitter flavors into your tea. The difference between a good cup of tea and a bad one can be in this final step.
Next tip, combining different tea bags (up to 3) can enhance the complexity in a cup. Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon in one is a nice blend that brings depth in a cup and also the variety of flavors spread around your mouth. So the next time you think of brewing just a singular type, you should experiment with combining different types of tea bags.
Best natural additives to enhance the taste of your tea in the most unusual way:
– Black Tea with Acacia Honey (very low iron levels in Acacia round out the taste of the tea).
– Black Tea with a Milk Chocolate Inside the Tea (As it melts inside the cup, it adds a creamy sweetness).
– Black Tea with Herb Liquor (For a twist in taste).
– Black Tea with Brandy (Excellent pairing, brings out the best in each other).
Answer to What it Takes to Become a Tea Sommelier?
Hardin emphasized that true tea sommeliers oftentimes have acquired the tea sommelier title naturally over the years through their extensive experience. I agree with this. I believe that titles are not what matter most. It is the experience. It is truly your life’s experience as a tea farmer, tea producer, tea taster, tea sommelier, or as an at home tea fanatic, if you are someone who really enjoys tea and likes studying and tasting different teas and has the passion to improve others’ understanding of tea, then that is a good foundation for starting as a tea sommelier.
Dornenburg, Andrew, and Karen Page. What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea–even Water–based on Expert Advice from America’s Best Sommeliers. New York: Bulfinch, 2006. 268-72. Print.
Gascoyne, Kevin. “A Short Tasting Guide.” Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Second ed. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly, 2014. N. pag. Print.
Hardin, Jordan G. “The Problem with Tea Sommeliers.” World of Tea. Eggs and Toast Media, 02 May 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
Hogg, Domini. “Tea Sommelier, Domini Hogg, On Tea – Saucy Dressings.” Saucy Dressings. FoodZube, 13 Dec. 2015. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
Lombardi, Gabriella, Fabio Petroni, and Giovanni Ruggieri. Tea Sommelier. Revised ed. Novara, Italy: White Star, 2013. Print.
Yang, Ina. “Tea Sommeliers Are The Hot New Thing In Food Pairing.” NPR. NPR, 21 July 2015. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.