What is a tea sommelier? When I ask this, people generally describe someone who pairs tea with food and prepares tea at a restaurant. This is, after all, what most people believe the job of a wine sommelier is and they wouldn’t be wrong, although this is only one branch on their tree. I decided to investigate this, since for years I’ve been bothered by the term ‘tea sommelier’ and by the general misalignment with true sommeliers.
After months of research, I’ve learned that tea sommeliers can spend large amounts of money to be certified, are trained in unstandardized ways with little cohesion between programs all claiming the same certification, that this training pales in comparison to the training and certification of a wine sommelier from which they take their moniker, and that certification can make very little difference to the job opportunities available to the certified.
The term ‘tea sommelier’ (or t-somm for short) was born in 1998, at Heartbeat Restaurant in the W Hotel in New York City.
I can find no earlier references. With a desire to create a modern tea program for guests at his health-centric restaurant, head chef Michel Nischan hired tea-aficionado James Labe, who was unofficially dubbed the restaurant’s ‘Tea Sommelier.’ I should point out that prior to this the late-great Helen Gustafson had been preaching the tea gospel at the infamous Chez Panisse since the 1970s in Berkley, where she focused her energy on quality tea sourcing and preparation. People now refer to her as a tea sommelier, but I haven’t found any references to this title before 1998, nor have I found a reference where she refers to herself as one.
‘Tea sommelier’ is an augmentation of the word ‘sommelier’ (somm for short). What does it mean to use that word? As I use it in this article, I exclusively mean a wine sommelier, since for centuries it has meant approximately the same thing. The term comes from Middle French and referred to someone in charge of curating, sourcing, transporting, and storing supplies for wealthy landowners, much of which was wine. In many respects, a modern sommelier is still performing these jobs; a third-level (Advanced) Sommelier told me that they must be experts in wine, but more so, in “all things of taste.”
The differences between a sommelier and a tea sommelier are my main concern, and in order to explore those differences, it’s important to understand what a somm is. The skills they possess, how they acquire those skills, and what’s expected of them as professionals I’ve broken down into ‘branches.’
- A sommelier’s first duty closest resembles the classical understanding of the word itself. They are expected to be well versed in everything that goes into the operation of a restaurant or hotel. They are expected to curate and source drinkable products (mainly wine), store them properly, and design extensive menus around these products. Not only an expert in wine, somms should be extraordinarily knowledgeable in all types of traditional world cuisines, foodstuffs, beer, liquor, cigars, coffee, and yes, tea.
- A sommelier’s second duty is tasting and identifying flavors in wine and pairing those flavors with foods, desserts, other beverages, moods, personal preferences, even the terroir of the cuisine being served if called for. To perform this job, the somm will have developed truly incredible sensory perceptions of taste and smell. In a blind tasting of any given wine, an Advanced or Master Sommelier should be able to, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, tell you what kind of wine it is, where in the world it’s from, and sometimes the estate and exact vintage. At the Court of Master Sommeliers, this process is referred to as ‘Deductive Tasting’, and it’s damn near a magic trick when you see it.
- Deductive Tasting cannot be done without the the support of the third branch; intimate knowledge of every conceivable facet in the world of wine. Somms are expected to know every single wine region in the world (in over 40 countries), every varietal from those wine regions (there are 350 official cultivars in Italy alone), every nuance and flavor characteristic of the varietals from those regions, the exact geography of the producing region, the growing conditions and climate, the processing techniques typically used, the aging requirements and laws for that region, the types of equipment used in fermentation, etc. etc. The list goes on and on.
- Finally, the fourth duty of a sommelier is customer interaction and satisfaction. Customer interaction is more in depth than it sounds and requires a somm to be well versed in the techniques of serving a bottle of wine to any customer. It involves analysis of a customer and what they’ve ordered to adeptly sell them a glass or bottle. The sommelier is using their expert knowledge to ‘place a bet’ that a customer will love the bottle of wine they’ve purchased. It’s important to note that this level of service is a universally recognized standard. Meaning, if you have mastered this art and risen in the ranks among certified sommeliers, this skill is applicable anywhere in the world.
Some might disagree with how I’ve broken this down and the complexity of a somm’s position is something a novice like me can only grasp at. The branches are the necessary components to create a sommelier and are the underlying meaning of the word. In food culture, to call oneself a sommelier without official certification is fairly unthinkable, because of the high level of quality that certification signifies. The amount of time candidates have to put in, both privately and with trainers, and the eventual certification they receive is hard won. Their skills are so recognized, that Ferran Adrià, chef and owner of the former El Bulli (popularly thought of as the best restaurant in the world for a time) employed a somm as his right hand man in his test kitchen. It was his impression that a sommelier’s palate and ability to recognize and pair flavors was unparalleled.
There are many sommelier certification courses worldwide, with varying degrees of skill involved (all are difficult), but the defining certification in America comes from the Court of Master Sommeliers. To become a Certified Sommelier (second level), you must first pass an introductory test (not for the faint of heart, but not improbable) before taking the Certified test, which is substantially harder. Somms I talked to spent many years training, working, and developing their mastery in order to pass their tests. A friend of mine, who’s a Certified Sommelier, studied for almost two years between the introductory test and the Certified test to feel prepared. Months before the time came, she was studying up to four hours a day, most days of the week. An Advanced Sommelier (third level) that I know took five years to take the three exams, the third of which has a 25% pass rate. To become a Master Sommelier (the fourth and final level) through the Court of Master Sommeliers, you must pass a truly difficult exam that is hard to draw parallels to in any other division of food or beverage training, with a pass rate of 10%. In 40 years, there have only been 170 Masters.
After rigorous study and certification, what does this garner you? Instant opportunities, which is decidedly the point of certification. Many who begin sommelier training have already been working in wine for many years (my Certified friend worked in wine for 10 years before she decided to take the exams), but it’s unlikely that they will have higher-paying opportunities without this certification. As a Certified Sommelier, you are a top contender for a somm job at a quality restaurant that takes wine seriously. Upon Advanced Sommelier certification, you can expect to contend for a job as a head sommelier for whole restaurant groups or hotels. A Master Sommelier will likely get instant job offers and make six figures a year, working for 5-star hotels, wine companies, or even opening up their own wine estate.
The begging question we must now ask: is the role of a tea sommelier comparable to a true sommelier? Is the claimed title justified? Let’s examine that.
If I wanted to become a tea sommelier, where would I start? In my research, I’ve come across numerous t-somm Certification courses, both in the US and abroad. In an effort to be fair, I will not pull any out as specific examples, but I’ve looked into almost a dozen of them. There are two hypothetical situations I can use:
- I’m someone who knows a little about tea, but would like to train to a professional level and certify to make a career out of working in tea.
- I’m someone who currently works in the tea industry and has spent many years doing so and feels I have a good background to start with. I want to certify to get better jobs in the tea industry.
In hypothetical #1, how do I choose a t-somm program? All claim to offer certification as a ‘tea sommelier.’ All the programs have numerous testimonials of trained professionals and claim to draw on years of tea experience (one program even claims to draw on the entire 5,000 year history of tea knowledge for their certification; a factually inaccurate claim). In more concrete terms, the real definition between these programs is time commitment and money.
The time commitment for a tea-somm program can range from only eight weeks (two days are spent with an actual instructor; the rest is done at home with occasional video conferencing) to 150 hours of coursework spread over many months. One program requires you to complete fourteen separate 3-week courses for certification (I wasn’t able to verify if multiple courses could be taken at once, or if you had to complete each course consecutively). A few countries have even coordinated with t-somm certification programs to build state-sponsored courses that you can take at a state college! These typically consist of eight courses, each 4-6 weeks long.
Already, it should be apparent that having options for a little time commitment (eight weeks), moderate time commitment (eight courses), or heavy time commitment (fourteen courses) doesn’t really speak to consistency or standardization. How exactly could an eight week, study-at-home (with video conferencing) certification compare to an eight course, state college sponsored certification? Would it be even be remotely similar? Without participating in all of these programs, it’s difficult to tell, but I can compare the curriculums against each other and to a fairly high degree they are similar. How much time is devoted to each topic may be different, but every course has a section covering Camellia sinensis and tea types, tea growing regions and terroir, and tea processing, cupping, and tasting. Most of the courses delve into tea culture around the world and tea ceremonies. A few even teach you advanced service techniques, like gongfu cha, and about tea chemistry. It should be noted, that to take the examination and become certified, you must complete (and pay for) every course.
Certainly, training and certification aren’t free, I understand that. But how much money would this set me back? The least expensive course I’ve found is $975 (with an agreed $79 annual membership fee) and the most expensive tops out at $4,350. The price range naturally reflects the designated amount of time involved. Again, I find this difference to be perplexing and potentially worrisome, especially when all options result in certified Tea Sommelier status. Shall we compare thee to a sommelier? Here’s the staggering fact: even the least expensive t-somm program is still more expensive than becoming a Certified Sommelier (second level), which stands at $920. And the most expensive t-somm program is more expensive than becoming a Master Sommelier (fourth level), which totals you $4,210.
So in hypothetical #1, I will have chosen a t-somm course, paid my dues, spent time training in their courses, and hopefully passed and become certified. I should expect to be a tea professional now. It would be troubling to me that a fellow t-somm colleague could have spent half the time and money I did to achieve this same result, but perhaps balance in created in the eyes of job opportunities.
In hypothetical #2, I require very little training and would like to begin certification as quickly as possible. Well… I have no options. By no options, I mean there simply isn’t a way for me to test my way to the certification exams the way I would in the sommelier world. Between somms and t-somms, this lack of parallel is a fairly striking difference. To become a Certified Sommelier you have to take and pass a two-day Introductory Course and Examination. Then, within 3-5 years you have to train, and come back for the Certified Sommelier examination. Notice that? You have to train… where? The crystal clear definition between these realms is for a professional somm, you will never be able to adequately learn everything you need to know in a classroom. It takes considerable personal effort, written guides and manuals, physical resources, world-travel, and the help of other professionals (paid or otherwise) to gain the kind of expertise you need to pass the remaining tests. I’ve spent many years of my life learning about the world of tea, but there is no path for me to be able to take an examination to become a t-somm outside of completing a training course that could take many months to complete, covers topics I am already intimately familiar with, will cost me at least $1,000, and provides no universally recognized label of quality.
Herein lies the problem I have with this kind of certification: of the tea sommeliers I have met, and there have been many, most of them weren’t on an intellectual level in regard to tea that I would consider at all commensurate with sommeliers in regard to wine. They are under-trained for a certification claiming top-level expertise, because their only course to acquiring the title of a t-somm is an unstandardized program that relies on it’s own tutelage as the baseline for testing. There aren’t any certifications I can take to prove my value as a tea professional because there is clearly no standard that they can recognize. These programs aren’t interested in holistic tea education as a true marker of a tea professional. Instead, they use tea knowledge their organization has developed classes around, taught by graduates of their own programs, to certify. This is a highly biased system. In contrast, if you have done extensive work in the field and are a promising somm-in-training, your exam fees may be paid for by the restaurant or hotel you work for, or the Court may even grant you a scholarship to take the examinations free of charge. I haven’t seen any t-somm programs that are structured this way.
For those who want a place in the tea industry, this may be worth it. Both hypotheticals may complete these programs, hoping that certification opens up a world of opportunities for them. I firmly believe the world could use more people who are true tea professionals, so I sincerely wish them the best. The training programs they’ve taken clearly state the opportunities available to a certified t-somm.
Can t-somms expect anything like what we see in the wine world?
When James Labe assumed the title of ‘Tea Sommelier,’ the term took off. There was a lot of press over the next couple years and many restaurants experimented with employing a tea sommelier. Sadly, not many restaurants still do. Ironically, the very restaurant where James Labe used to expertly prepare tea for guests, Heartbeat Restaurant, still serves tea, but no longer performs a tea service or employs t-somms at all. Restaurants are where the bulk of somms are employed, so it might stand to reason that t-somms might be similarly employed in restaurants. If we look at the top level, all the 3-star Michelin rated restaurants in the United States, only one of them has something like a t-somm, Christopher Day, who created a successful tea program for the restaurant Eleven Madison Park. He doesn’t refer to himself as a t-somm but he’s featured prominently in articles about the topic (I’ve seen a reference that he may have begun a t-somm course though I can’t verify if he completed it). The problem with this example? He’s actually the dining room manager for Eleven Madison Park, a position that certainly doesn’t rely on tea credentials and one that allows him to adapt service as he sees fit. The next problem? Since he is the head of tea (the head of all things dining room related actually), they don’t actually employ any t-somms, though staff is trained in tea service. But with a 183-page wine list, you can bet that they employ sommeliers.
At Per Se, Thomas Keller’s 3-star restaurant, they offer 14 teas of what looks to be decent quality (next to a 132-page wine list). In fact, Thomas Keller’s tea program was advised by Edward Eisler, founder and owner of Jing Tea, through which he has also advised Heston Blumenthal (of restaurants The Fat Duck and Dinner), Joël Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire (of the restaurant Sketch). He provides Jing tea to the Mandarin Oriental, Park Hyatt, InterContinental and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. This illustrates a core issue with t-somms in restaurants. Unless the restaurant is highly focused on tea, there is simply no reason to employ a t-somm when you are already employing one or more sommeliers, who are more adequately and diversely trained. Tea is a subject to be advised on, not one that warrants a full-time employee. In Michelin-rated restaurants the world over wine is so supremely important, even if the restaurant is Asian, where you’d expect tea to be more in focus. Like the 8 Restaurant at the Grand Lisboa, a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Macau, which has an excellent looking 1-page tea list and (this is real) a 582-page wine list.
Speaking of Asia, there are enormous opportunities for tea professionals, especially in Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of Japan. Consequently, training programs for professionals abound there. But good luck getting a job in Asia, at a hotel, a restaurant, a café, or a traditional teahouse with an American certification. I’ve never seen it. Tea is so endemic to East-Asian culture that the rigorous nature of tea training is so much more in depth than any Stateside program I’ve come across; we simply aren’t qualified to be employed at the level they are. I have seen some Asia-certified individuals call themselves tea sommeliers, but I believe this to be more an error in translation of terms relating to a Western audience than an attempt to be categorized with true sommeliers.
Many hotels across the world employ tea professionals, and their level of service is renowned, but trying to grab a job as a t-somm at a Western hotel may be difficult. Difficult, as in, it’s difficult for anyone to get these service jobs, not just t-somms. Despite a few notable examples, it doesn’t seem that certification makes any difference to a candidate’s chances to get a job in a hotel with tea service. What’s more valued is their service experience and etiquette. Most of these hotels are doing a traditional style of British high tea or afternoon tea, something I’ve seen only one t-somm course offer instruction in. The issue is most hotels have fairly rigorous training programs within their organization anyway, including tea service. For example, The Lanesborough in London has a very elegant afternoon tea service, and a designated tea sommelier, but one who is trained to their very high standards internally. They say that they have a different teapot for every tea they carry and the teas are tasted daily to ensure quality and consistency of flavor. Also, the Langham Hotels employ Tea Sommeliers, but they are required to be trained by the British company Wedgwood, which requires use of their branded china and tea. For other notable hotels, our friend Edward Eisler of Jing Tea set up one of the UK’s first t-somm courses, specifically aimed at hospitality training, which is attended by employees of The Savoy, Brown’s, and the Ritz. To be hired at these hotels is to be required to undergo highly specific training regardless of your previous experience.
As we can see, the avenues for employment as a t-somm are narrowing. One can end up working for the company that certified them, but I frankly think this doesn’t count. Upon searching through LinkedIn’s top 25 listings for Tea Sommeliers, what was most striking was that a full half of them didn’t have any official certification, they simply got to a professional level at which they decided they could call themselves a t-somm. Remember, this is how James Labe assumed his title. A notable example is Cynthia Gold, the Tea Sommelier formerly at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, and then at L’Espalier. As of 2012 she was talking about forming a standard of certification, working with representatives from Canada, the UK and France (something that could be very useful), but all without having certification herself.
What’s the most reliable employment opportunity for a certified t-somm?
Paradoxically, it’s the one which obviously requires no certification: self-employment. This was the most common result I found for t-somms when I excluded those working outside North America (due to the high weighted averages of tea professionals in Asia and European hotels). The majority of the remaining t-somms have created their own tea companies, have co-founded restaurants with a tea-centric influence, have written books about tea, or have freelanced as a tea advisor to businesses. It’s in these fields that I would say certification is not necessary, but perhaps the most justifiable. To be fair, some t-somm programs claim that this is the route they specifically train for. Especially when opening your own tea business, a good deal of money is required to get it working and these programs may be a relatively small price to pay. Additionally, you are under no assumptions that your title will have consequences to your future career. What you could teach yourself with that money and time I personally think would be equally valuable, of course, but for many a regimented classroom environment is key. As I’ve mentioned before, the more people we have bolstering the foundation of tea in this country the better.
All of this goes a very long way (perhaps too long a way) towards breaking down a term. Not ‘sommelier’; what we’ve come to expect of that term says a lot about its history and what had to be accomplished by scores of professionals to ballast it with meaning. What we expect of the term ‘tea sommelier’ is a deliberate appropriation and, I believe, unwarranted. When I asked the Certified and Advanced Sommeliers I knew to guess what might be involved in t-somm certification, they assumed that to earn their title, a t-somm would have to endure a similar training and examination program (which for them meant 2 years and 5 years, respectively). This couldn’t be further from the truth. The two live in different worlds with different standards and different opportunities.
Though tea sommeliers may have been first, the rise of other professions as ‘sommeliers’ has been met with warranted skepticism at best and outright alarm at worst. What does it mean to be a ‘mustard sommelier’? How exactly is one certified to be a ‘water sommelier’? Is a ‘hot sauce sommelier’ just marketing? Can a ‘honey sommelier’ accurately identify the plant species of a honey in a blind taste? I’m sure an ‘oil sommelier’ is extensively trained, but with every new iteration of this sequence, the word is, in some small way, denigrated. There are even folks in Colorado calling themselves ‘weed sommeliers’. This prevalence shifts compound-sommeliers away from looking like true professionals and toward looking desperate to be taken seriously.
It also represents a lack of imagination. It’s well within the means of an industry to create a term to represent their professionals. An olive oil professional coined the term ‘oleologist’ for their trade, which I think sounds excellent. But respect for what that term means takes time, effort, patience, and it takes demonstrable qualification standards and opportunities for those who are highly certified. Best example: if someone in the beer industry wants to be certified as a top-level expert, they can study (independently if they choose) and undergo four levels of certification as a ‘Cicerone’, a term that has become highly regarded in the beer community.
I want people to love tea, to learn about it, and to educate others. I want people to be able to make a career out of tea. I simply want them to use a different term for it. Calling oneself a sommelier, in many ways, is making a claim that you are at the forefront of knowledge in a given field. You have put yourself in the same league with people who have reached a level of expertise that is respected worldwide and have potentially worked harder and longer for it. I would ask, if you are to use such a term, to reflect on whether the use of this term garners respect. In other words, is it earned? Or is it purchased? Feel free to comment below.
Featured Image Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg