A big heated debate is currently running through the tea industry – what is a tea sommelier and how can these people compare themselves to highly skilled wine sommeliers?
As I am on the path to become a tea sommelier myself I thought it might be a good moment to add my five cents to this discussion.
In ancient times, the job of a sommelier (derived from the middle French “saumalier”) was to keep the provisions (food and drinks) of a royal house well-stocked. It also included tasting and taking sips of wine to ensure they are edible and not poisoned.
Now this is probably the most common type of tea and most people in the world and mostly in the western world are used to some sort of black tea. Known as red tea in China, it can range quite a bit in quality – from the stuff that makes it into the tea bag up to a high quality loose leaf tea.
Enter the amazing world of Oolong teas. Oolong teas are semi oxidized in a wide range from low (20%) to high (80%). This type of tea means “little dragon,” due to its twisted shape of the tea leaf, a leaf shape you find for some Chinese Oolong teas.
This tea type is normally not just for the quick cuppa. It has the amazing ability to be infused many times and that is part of the journey with this tea. The aroma and flavor with each infusion is changing slightly with different balances on the flavor scale. It is like a dance on your palate.
This type of tea is still fairly rare and is treated like gold in our family. Almost completely unknown to the western world just a few years ago it is now gaining more popularity and more types are making it into the stores.
What makes Yellow teas different than Green teas is an additional step in the processing called sweltering. The leaves get a nice cozy wrap, normally some sort of cloth, which gives them the unique yellow color. The result is a tea which is more mellow and less vegetal that some of the green teas. It has an amazing rounded and balanced fruit flavor with an amazing mouth feel. There are very few true yellow tea masters left who know the process of making this kind of tea so there is the risk that this art might disappear.
Green Teas are becoming more and more popular in the world and the varieties seem endless.
Almost every tea producing country is now producing a special green tea and the market is growing more and more. Green teas are more processed than white teas and have some oxidation in the processing.
After a withering process, leaves are fired to stop the oxidation and to retain the green color in the leaf. There are two main processes to accomplish this and it results in different types of green tea. Most green teas in China are pan fired before they are further processed. Green teas in Japan are steamed, very similar to what we do in the kitchen with broccoli and spinach. The result is a different texture and flavor.
This tea ceremony has been enjoyed by my wife Kristen and I. The kids are sleeping peacefully. The ceremony is dedicated to peace and harmony.
It starts off by creating an atmosphere of calm and peace. The sun has gone down and I am lighting a green tea incense and a tea candle held by a Buddha. The wonderful smell of the tea incense fills the air and the candle light reveals the stage: a large bamboo tray.
The actors are already here: my new Yixing tea pot, a smelling cup and a few drinking cups to serve the tea. As with all of my tea ceremonies, they are happy to be out of their Chinese silk boxes and participate in this ceremony.
When I decided to get my first Yixing tea pot, I wanted to be a purist and dedicate it to only one special tea. Inspired by a famous watch commercial my mantra is: “You don’t own a Yixing tea pot, you merely look after it for the next generation.”
My goal is to turn this into a generational piece for my kids. I had to think long and hard about which tea to choose. I wanted it to be a tea where I know as much as possible about it, down to the individual farmer who made it.
My pick finally went for a Chinese Oolong tea, Huang Zhi Xiang Dan Cong (Gardenia Dan Cong). I truly enjoy Dan Cong teas, the tea of ‘many tastes’ and I have tasted several varieties over the years. There are 12 main varieties of Dan Cong teas with different aromas and such beautiful names like Honey Orchid, Ginger Flower, Almond, Gardenia and Magnolia.
I picked a tea that is complex, has an interesting aroma and flavor profile and it will be interesting to see how the flavor profile develops over time (and hopefully generations) while using the same Yixing tea pot. I am fascinated by the mystery and the depth of Chinese Oolong teas. I have a similar passion for Wuyi Shan Oolongs.