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.
To most people in modern times a sommelier is known as a highly trained and experienced wine professional or steward, which advises customers on the right selection of wine to go with their food. They undergo years of studying and practicing tasting and have a broad knowledge about wine regions. In recent years other industries have used the sommelier term as well such as the tea or the water sommelier. Not everybody in the wine industry or even in the tea industry is agreeing with this concept as some are concerned about the discrepancies over how years of grueling wine tasting and practice compare to a two week certificate for a tea course.
I can see where the concerns are coming from and as part of my tea studies we spent three weeks just pondering this question. Many highly respected tea masters and professionals will make it clear that a wine sommelier and a tea sommelier are not the same thing. However there is value and a need for tea sommelier in the industry.
For me the word sommelier stands for ambassador; a role model to ignite passion in others for their subject matter and industry.
For me to become a tea sommelier is not so much about the end result or the certificate but it is mostly about the journey. It is about bringing value to the industry. I agree that someone who finished a small 4 week course and then receives a printed certificate labelled ‘ tea sommelier’ should not be regarded as a tea professional or should be even considered to be employed in a prestigious position.
And there are some skills no program can teach you and that is the drive for excellence, the ability to connect with people and spark their passion in tea. It is what I do with this knowledge, where I take it and what value I can bring to the industry.
I made it my personal mission to advocate for high quality water and how water can influence the quality and flavour dynamic of teas. I am exploring the importance of sound in the tasting experience of tea. But most importantly the commitment to continue to learn and to grow. In a few months’ time I will be moving to Myanmar, close to the origins of tea and will continue my journey on a practical side, something I look forward to in learning how to cultivate tea plants and produce teas.
Tea is the second most important beverage in the world (yes before wine) but we are still living in a world of tea bags and after dinner quick slurps of tea before we leave the restaurant.
There is an amazing world of loose leaf teas and tea traditions which is enjoyed in the Asian culture but which remains mostly hidden to many people in the western world. If they could even imagine how tea can taste with an explosion of a flavour profile… How amazing high quality teas can taste on their own without drowning them in sugar, milk and lemon….
Don’t get me wrong, these are all important components of western tea culture but we yet have to discover the amazing world of high quality loose leaf teas. It is about options, alternatives and here is where the tea sommelier can play an important role. In the Arabic world they are already the stars, as people in this culture do not drink alcohol. They prefer tea and the tea sommelier consults them on the best match with food.
A tea sommelier can be the ally of a wine sommelier in a restaurant. This goes beyond just pairing teas with food, this includes adding tea to recipes, adding tea to cocktails and even using interesting tea equipment in the decoration of the restaurant.
As for myself I try to constantly push my limits. For over a year I spend hundreds of hours tasting, sometimes 6-7 hours in a row nonstop, repeat and rinse. I documented and described every single aspect of tea, the leaf and liquor appearance, the aroma, the flavours, the mouthfeel and the finish, the after taste and the comparison of hot and cold liquor. I have tasted 90 teas from over 40 Darjeeling estates and different flushes over a period of 3 weeks. I have done blind tastings to pinpoint a tea to a year, to the specific estate and the right flush.
I agree, it is not about absorbing knowledge, it is about building a well-diversified skill set with a strong tasting skill as the most important to have. It is about connecting to people and I have been fortunate to learn from some of the best educators in the industry. The tea industry is about passionate people and the ability to connect to people. It is about the passion about this magical plant and the endless variety that exists. It is about not getting lost in the complexity but to have to ability to build a bridge to curious people who want to drink great tea.
For the name, I remain open minded. I personally like the title of tea master , however this title is mostly respectfully associated with highly skilled individuals which for many generations produce high quality teas based on ancient traditions passed down to them.
The world is changing and the tea industry, in order to grow, needs to adopt and find new ways to ignite the passion about tea on a global scale. And for this it will need highly experienced and passionate people. Call them tea sommeliers!