The Problem With Tea Sommeliers

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.’

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

2018-05-15T08:40:33+00:00

About the Author:

Jordan has spent most of his life working in the food and beverage industry. His professional experience with tea started at American Tea Room in Los Angeles, where he worked for almost six years, becoming their Beverage Director and helping in a three-location expansion. Later, he moved to developing, training, and menu-building what would become Alfred Tea Room, which he's helped expand into Japan. He now serves as Food & Beverage Director for Alfred Inc. which includes Alfred Tea Room and multiple locations of Alfred Coffee in Los Angeles and Austin.

49 Comments

  1. Agnieszka August 30, 2017 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Hello,
    Great article. I am European and got my education there as you all know the US education is horrible.
    So after over 20 years in US and over 8 years in tea business I have decided to study for Tea Sommelier Certificate in Germany. Therefore I know that is earned.

  2. Belinda Davenport August 25, 2017 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    That was a super, well informed article. I own and run a large tea room in the UK which has an extensive range of teas and tisanes. We specialise in afternoon teas and have daily 6 different types of afternoon teas, plus a child’s afternoon tea and 5 different themed afternoon teas, Vintage Afternoon Tea Cruise, Mad Hatters, Halloween and two versions of Victorian Christmas. We have for the last 11 years, asked our customers how they would like their teas brewed, guided them to the best tea for the preferences, and introduced them to different teas, all of which are loose leaf. We serve them in warmed bone china tea cups from warmed china tea pots. I have built up an extensive knowledge but from dealing with my teas and our personally dealing with customers on a daily basis. In planning for the future, I have decided that I would like to become a tea consultant and two elements that I think would strengthen my position would be to write a book and get an appropriate qualification. The book I am about just under half way through on how we set up our award winning tea room (we are the last ever Tea Guilds Top Tea Room in the U.K.) from all aspects, not just how we developed our tea range, but also the back office stuff, accountants, pensions, not boring stuff but real nitty gritty reality, but also how we have dealt with marketing and social media. I have really enjoyed writing what I’ve done so far, and speaking to my customers there’s a lot of interest in me telling our story. Qualifications though, well, that’s how I found your article! The UK Academy does look interesting but not only is it expensive, it is London based and we are in Cheshire. I actually come from the Education industry, having been a Travel and Tourism Lecturer holding a Masters Degree in Tourism Management and I hold a City and Guilds Assessor, Internal Verifier, and External Verifier in Travel Services. Now you might have guessed why we do themed afternoon teas and have a Quintessentially British Vintage Tea Room! I totally agree with one person commenting on what if someone does want to formalise their experience with a fast track exam, yet having seen a true Sommelier at work, I wouldn’t dare to assume that title. More importantly is as you put it what career prospects would you have by getting certification. I would worry for those embarking in a tea sommelier qualification how much opportunities they would find than if they embarked on a Sommelier course then specialised in tea. The travel industry did suffer from watering down of.what qualifications were worth. It is early days for the qualification but I do hope that as you put it a new term is found or the criteria and experience required for the qualification is standardised worldwide.

  3. D May 29, 2017 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Jordan, I appreciate this information. My comments are late in the game, because I’m just exploring the subject of tea education and sommelier certification. I work in a retail tea job; and I’m part of the leadership team. I want to become more educated in the world of tea so that I can offer workshops, and provide value to those seeking more tea knowledge. To be able to host events, with exceptional tea tasting and food pairing.I’ve reviewed many of the programs in the US, and I can’t justify the cost. I also agree that with very little standardization between these programs it’s difficult to know the best course of action. Based on what I’m trying to do, (outlined above) would you have a suggestion.

    • Jordan G. Hardin May 29, 2017 at 4:26 pm - Reply

      This is something I hear very often, there is a struggle to start. I’m actually working on an article trying to get a basis to start, so I’ll keep you notified of when I post it!

  4. Wolfe February 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    I have been part of the Canadian program which I found lacked the seriousness a course to become a sommelier should have. Theaterial was ridsen with mistakes and inconsistencies. The one day of the week where we discussed with a teacher throuch video chat was actually just spoon feeding of the material we were supposed to read prior to the meeting. They said they would stop spoon feeding but didn’t on the next course. Practically got bullied for pointing out they needed a professional editor to look at the material. This is supposed to be Canada’s official tea association. Very disappointed. I find that researching and reading alot, as well as associating with long-standing experts will get me better results for cheaper.

    • Austin Hodge February 2, 2017 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      According to Dan Bolton, the publisher and editor of Tea Journey Magazine, the Chinese government has stated that any “Tea Master” certifications are invalid. Th3y did not address. They did not address the sommelier controversy.

      • Sheng January 27, 2018 at 4:06 am - Reply

        I think you’re referring to the ‘tea artist’ certification? I can’t imagine that the ‘tea taster’ certification would be invalid, it’s a more intensive course. Anyway, I think the paper doesn’t really mattter. It’s about how you proof yourself in practice.

        • Jordan G. Hardin January 27, 2018 at 7:17 pm - Reply

          We actually wrote about this briefly, and linked to the full article where we learned about it: https://worldoftea.org/tea-master-abolished-in-china/

          • Sheng January 28, 2018 at 4:15 am

            I’ve read the whole Chinese source in article but it only says that the ‘tea artist’ program is discontinued. That’s understandable, because it’s more a course for a hobbyist. Not a profession quality programme. In which line can I find that the ‘tea taster’ programme is discontinued?

          • Jordan G. Hardin January 28, 2018 at 6:41 pm

            I think there may be some confusion here? The article I wrote was directly referencing an article in Sixth Tone (cited at the bottom of mine) talking about the announcement. In the first paragraph, it mentions that “tea taster” is still accredited. What no longer is, is what the article continually refers to as a “tea master” (is this what you’re calling “tea artist”?). The article also seems to say that the “tea master” certification wasn’t just for hobbyists at all, but was originally seen as a prestigious title. They say that it was due to poor standards and lack of proper education that the title became ill-respected. Do you feel this is wrong?

          • Sheng January 29, 2018 at 1:49 am

            The sixth tone article is absolutely an excellent article. However, it does wrongly call the ‘tea artist’ (茶艺师) course, a ‘tea master’ course. It’s a course that takes a few days to complete, and it’s meant for people who love drinking and making tea as a hobby. The ‘tea taster’ (品茶师), is a serious programme in which you learn to evaluate tea and identify aromas and flavours. I believe the articles makes the tea taster course sound more inferior. In fact, my colleague at Teasenz (who already completed the tea artist course) is currently doing the tea taster course.

          • Jordan G. Hardin January 30, 2018 at 12:59 am

            Although I see what you’re saying, I disagree that the article makes “tea tasters” sound inferior. The article states, “The difficulty in enforcing standards seems a good enough reason to abolish the tea master certificate. In addition to their knowledge of tea, masters engage in various forms of ceremonial performance that remain difficult to objectively evaluate. Tea tasters, meanwhile, face many more challenges in getting certified. Only the Ministry of Agriculture has the right to issue accreditations to tasters. When would-be tasters apply for licenses through tea corporations, they have to meet as many mandatory requirements as other high-level professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, or teachers.”
            Additionally, although you are saying that the formerly certified “tea master” or “tea artist” title is for hobbyists, it still stands that the government had officially accredited it as a true “profession” for 18 years. Again, the issue seems to be lack of standards and poor policing of training.

          • Sheng January 30, 2018 at 1:46 am

            Ok, agree.

            I think the tea artist course is still useful to learn the basics of tea and tea preparation.The fact that you’ve passed the course would show an employer that you’re interested in tea and that you’ve obtained at least a foundation of knowledge. If I was an employer, I would believe that person is committed to a tea career and I would believe he/she is perhaps more trainable than others without a degree. A person with a tea artist degree plus lets say 2 years of working experience, would be convincing to me. Tea preparation is 50% theory and 50% ‘feeling’ for specific teas.

    • Wolfe March 24, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

      I meant to write “material”, not theaterial. Writing with a phone can be weird. It’s hard to make a point about mistakes when your sentence barely holds the road. 😉 To add to that, the courses with them aren’t cheap either. Anyone wishing to be taken seriously should be concerned with the consistency and have a professional review it. The value was not worth the money paid.

  5. Juan Luca January 5, 2017 at 1:20 am - Reply

    This article is very well written,in a clear and articulate way. Unfortunately, the need to have an academic response to the knowledge is derived from classical Western Greek and Roman thought. To ensure that few persons have the keys of knowledge. fortunately in the Eastern world the direct experience is considered more trustworthy and reliable. Although the tradition of tea is just as important and old as the wine one, this was carried out by wise minds and no need of distinguished awards. Anyone living in an environment surrounded by history knows that to know every aspect of culture implies a study higher than the life of an individual. I do not agree that the problem is integrating food and drinks because I live 100 km from Venice and I can eat sushi at the restourant and having when 500 white wines to choose from and nobody is perfect for my taste as the Japanese tea. Thank you and sorry for my poor english.

  6. Brett Pavia November 14, 2016 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Maybe the tea industry could learn form the coffee industry. The Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has come along ways in creating standards in the coffee industry, in terms of educational pathways, certified training labs, origin trips, guilds, and competitions. It might make better logic for the tea industry to partner with the coffee industry, as they share more similarities between them than either does with the wine industry.

    • Regina November 14, 2016 at 2:47 pm - Reply

      Agreed, Brett. Especially since the coffee industry is beginning third wave coffee in most places and should be more aligned with tea than with the wine industry. I have a known a few tea “sommeliers” but do not practice anything within the industry and therefore, I find their lack of hands-on experience negates their education. Their ‘title’ is irrelevant. Let’s hope the tea industry can get on the same page.

  7. Ashley October 25, 2016 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I completely agree with this. The tea industry is growing in North America, but, until there’s a set standard of quality here, the consumer base will remain largely inexperienced. What I expect from “certified” experts is the ability to communicate what elements create an ideal tea experience. What currently counts as certification is indeed fairly nebulous. Until that improves, several restaurants and tea rooms will continue to offer bleached bags of tea dust stuck to the bottom of chipped mugs.

  8. Chiara September 28, 2016 at 2:54 am - Reply

    Insightful post – thanks for sharing. I am a tea lover who thought about a certification (not for career-related reasons), but decided against it. This is mostly because I don’t see it as a valuable qualification, given the lack of consistency between courses. What I find appalling, however, is going to places like Dorchester, Savoy, F&M to drink over-Brewed tea – everyone seems to just leave tea in the pot for as long as you stay for afternoon tea. Whoever serves tea in these places hasn’t been trained properly, sorry to say this!

    • Heather February 3, 2017 at 11:17 am - Reply

      I’m a tea lover too, and I’m going to take the introductory course just to learn a bit more about tea in a classroom setting. There’s no professional reason for me to get a ‘tea sommelier’ title but I may take a couple other courses out of interest. Or, after this intro course, I may just read more about it.

      • Regina February 3, 2017 at 6:26 pm - Reply

        Heather,
        I would like to recommend The Specialty Tea Institute for your training, based in New York. They are backed by over 100 years of experience in the industry and the Tea Association, USA. All of the large tea companies, Lipton, Bigelow, Harney and Sons (one is one the Board here) and I have taken the first 2 levels of the Certified Tea Specialist classes and working on the 3rd. They give hands-on experience, taste testing and videos, instead of just on-line teaching. They also arrange for tea garden trips for those who are members and take their classes. Good luck!

        • Brian Certosimo October 14, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

          Regina,

          It is very clear you are a well rounded individual when it comes to the topic being discussed. Do you have any suggestions for someone to help them increase their knowledge of tea and it’s history? Thank you in advance for any suggestions

  9. Parag Hatibarua May 17, 2016 at 5:11 am - Reply

    Interesting debate Jordan! I am a professional tea taster with more than 28 years of tea tasting and quality evaluation experience. I do personally believe that it does take years to master the art of Tea Tasting, similar to a Master”Wine Sommelier. ” I too teach Tea tasting and cover world teas with my students, however, I always advise that the palate is like a knife, the more you taste, the sharper it stays! And if you stop tasting, it rusts! It is said that there are more than 10,000 types of teas in the world! I would like to clarify that essentially there are 6 types of teas: White, Yellow, Green, Oolong, Red and Black. The others are not “real” tea, but tisanes. It is not possible to know all /or even 1000 different teas, as nearly all small farmers in China produce their own “brand” of tea,of which very little is available to the world ,therefore, the similarity between a wine sommelier and a Tea Sommelier differs. I am a little short on time at the moment and would like to delve deeper and defend my tribe! More next time!

    • Lord Devotea May 17, 2016 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      I have to disagree with one of your contentions: I live in one of the world’s best wine regions, and even though I don’t drink wine, I do know that with 2 hours of my home are at least 200 wineries, all with at least 4 or 5 different lines.
      I don’t think there is value in comparing the drinks, I think Jordan’s contention is more about the skill set required, how it is acquired and how it is certified.
      I do love your analogy “the palate is like a knife, the more you taste, the sharper it stays! And if you stop tasting, it rusts!”

    • Regina October 17, 2016 at 2:58 pm - Reply

      belief

    • Alleys June 10, 2017 at 2:45 am - Reply

      Agree! Just black tea alone, there are many varieties. And within a variety, there are thousands types of tea.
      And these teas are not “blended”. Some are classified as “grown under rocks”, “beside the spring”, “parasitics”, “under lychee tree”, all sorts of ways the tea are grown. And how they are fermented, “cooked” or “raw”. The longer the tea is kept, it changes aroma and taste.

      Tea Sommelier courses out there are not comprehensive, some even not factual especially the course outlines covering Asian tea. You’ll learn more from a tea master or plantation owner.

      Tea Sommelier courses caters to a western way of brewing tea. The Asian use of tea for medicinal use and health benefits are different from Western approach. Even cupping, the teapot itself is another specialization: type of soil, way of making a teapot, what is a good tea pot etc.

      If you are learning western way of brewing tea, I think these two websites offer better options:
      https://www.worldteaacademy.com/catalog
      http://australianteamasters.com.au/course-selection/

      🙂

  10. Louisa L. May 11, 2016 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Hi Jordan, I recently completed the Tea Sommelier course at the newly formed UK Tea Academy, run by Jane Pettigrew. Interestingly this is only level 2, tea master is considered the next stage – and there is a foundation level below sommelier too.

    I run my own tea company and have learnt everything I possibly can about tea without yet visiting the origins first hand. The standard and detail of education was extraordinarily high and the exam was tough. I spent three days with university-style revision notes in my hands and, despite being fairly academic, was still nervous when I undertook the oral, practical and written exams. Five of us (including some who had studied at tea school in China) took the exam and I believe I am the only one who demonstrated the required level of knowledge first time around.

    Yes, many of these courses might just be a time and money commitment, but this particular course does not just give accreditation because you have paid for the privilege – you do have to prove a high level of knowledge at the end and I’m not sure I could have done this without three years of previous home study/tasting. While I appreciate a wine sommelier would almost certainly have more even more knowledge and, potentially, a more developed pallete, it is a field which, as you point out, was established much much earlier than 1998 – and tea courses such as this one prove there are finally some standards and value for money in tea education in the UK.

    • Regina October 17, 2016 at 3:00 pm - Reply

      Parag, I have to vehemently disagree with the thought of only 6 types of tea. If we use the conventional definition of tea (“tea leaves from the Camillia Sinensis bush”) then this may be correct but if the clinical definition of tea is used, which it is my belief that it should because we are finding MANY different types of leaves being steeped not only for medicinal purposes but also for pleasure, (“tea that is the leaf and/or said liquor of plant”) then Rooibos tea is not an infusion nor is it a tisane. Jordan has proven a significant point that not all tea professionals are 1. professionals, 2. on the same page as the ones that are the foremost in the industry, and 3. have any updated information regarding their industry and product. People in Capetown South Africa do not believe their tea is an infusion or a tisane when they pluck the leaves and steep them just the same as if it were a cameliia sinensis bush. It may be time for a tune-up on information that is at the forefront of this industry, including that of white tea and caffeine.
      Jordan, wonderfully accurate information as this topic was specifically spoken about at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this past June. The tea industry is trying to get everyone on the same page about misnomers and myths.

  11. Evan Draper May 11, 2016 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    To expand on some of Shabnam Weber’s points, I don’t begrudge the tea world’s appropriation of wine’s sommelier terminology, because it aspires to the same status. And I wholeheartedly agree that the gap in execution is tremendous. But I have to emphasize that slow evolution HAS been taking place. I have noted the birth of multiple tea certification programs, and their competition HAS driven down price and increased quality, though not nearly by as much as any of us would like. Though we’ll never catch up with China–or probably wine for that matter–let’s give tea expertise more time to grow.

    Another aspect I’d like to elaborate is the etymology of “sommelier.” Originally that was someone who looked after the noble’s “betes de somme,” or the animals that enumerated his wealth. In that sense a sommelier looked after 1) a large, ostentatious accumulation of things that 2) weren’t his. That works for a fancy establishment’s wine cellar. It doesn’t make much sense for a small commodity tea list sourced by a sole proprietor. But it’s not inconceivable that someone stateside could incorporate a righteous pu cave in their foodservice offering.

  12. Eduardo Molina Anfossi May 4, 2016 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    I found this a great article, it’s good to debate about this topic, I’m from Chile and I went to Sommelier School here in my country, of course the focus has always been on wine, nowadays is more common to find in the market more complexity in different products, that’s way we also studied beers, spirits, olive oil, water, cigars, coffee and tea of course, among other things. The main thing is that even focusing on wine, with all the tasting we do throughout our years studying and learning by ourselves you develop a set of skills that you could basically, with a little bit of practice use almost in any kind of product. I attended a Tea Sommelier training and basically it was a tea course, but no way would I consider that a sommelier training, I’ve been working with tea for already almost 8 years, I left wine to focus just on tea, and that meant I had to travel a lot, try a lot of tea, attend different tea schools, were I could acquire all that information regarding history, service, ceremonies, culture, that is something, that as sommeliers, enriches our speech and make the product more interesting for the customer, is not just a beverage it has a background, it has an origin and that’s something you want to share to give a full experience. i have already been to most of all major producing countries and nowadays I work as a Tea Sommelier, but as the article says not in a restaurant or tea room. I’m partner with a group in Chile that brought Adagio Teas stores to the country and we are opening several retail stores, so my job is basically related to education, by training the personal, teaching people who wants to learn about tea, tea tastings, some times I do tea service for special occasions, like this coming weekend for mothers day I will be advising and preparing tea during Tea Time at the Ritz-Carlton here in Santiago, but is something that I don’t do, very often, which is a shame, because I love to do that. Anyway, my point is that being a Sommelier involves more than just having a little knowledge about a product, as the person who wrote the article said, we are supposed to know everything about a product and have great tasting skills, something really hard to get in just a few hours course, specially if you are doing it online!!! It’s been a topic of conversation during our Sommelier Assemblies how people who are not sommeliers are using the word and making us look bad, because being such a rare profession until know, people sometimes have bad experience with people that called themselves Sommeliers, when they are not, giving us a bad reputation. I have personally met some Tea Sommeliers, who have no knowledge about tasting, are not really able to find descriptors in the teas they are drinking and their info about the tea is very poor, sometimes not knowing main producing regions, which for them are even hard to pronounce. As a Sommelier who specializes in tea I would ask those people who are not sommeliers not to call themselves like that. I wouldn’t call myself a doctor for recommending you a certain medication when you are in pain. It’s probably an exaggeration, of corse, medicine might require more study and it’s by far more complex, but to be honest, after you finish one of those Tea Courses, do you really feel like the greatest expert and that you know everything about it?, it takes time, tasting and traveling to finally become a Sommelier. My idea is not to sound cocky or anything like that, I just want to create conscious about how sometimes we use a title we don’t really deserve, maybe because it sounds nice to use french words and it’s snob, or whatever. I personally consider myself a Sommelier who specializes in tea, I even use the word Tea Sommelier in my Facebook profile and in my twitter account, but it meant a lot of training, tasting and traveling as all wine sommeliers do. I founded a tea school here in Chile about 3 years ago and we offer tea training courses with an amount of hours pretty similar to some other Tea Sommelier courses, but we don’t give any tea sommelier titile, I have and I owe respect to my career and my colleagues who have undergone similar training. We just offer tea courses to anyone who wants to know about tea, if you studied management and need to have some tea knowledge for your business, or a nutritional consultant, because knowing about tea is useful for what she does, or a customer who wants to drink tea just knowing more about it, a journalist who is specializing in gourmet topics and critics, etc. We offer tea courses as a complement to what you do, because if you want to be a Tea Sommelier, I’m so sorry to disagree with a lot of people, but you have to be a sommelier first.
    Regards to all of you, I really expect the tone of my comment didn’t sound as coming from someone criticizing what others do, but just trying to create some conscious about the use of the word of a profession I practice and love.

  13. Tran Yi May 4, 2016 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    Great article. Could not be closer to the truth. With the cost of some of these programs, it would be better to go to Asia. The student would learn a lot more this way.

  14. Drew Taylor May 3, 2016 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you for raising the issue of proper accreditation associated with tea sommeliers. As with any accreditation, those who simply get their piece of paper and cease learning are of little use as any measure of expertise. In contrast, the select number of people who use accreditation as a springboard to inspire their further ongoing study of a subject and product they relish, in tandem with the social community that prides themselves on knowing who among them travels to the source, experiences the highest qualities of tea and makes them available to others through organized tours and importation and distribution.

    So much of tea expertise is knowledge based and this knowledge comes not only through various courses, but through festivals and lectures and books and personal experience. Aficionado might be a better term, but then there are those who are employed to select teas for discerning businesses, and whom take the time to do tastings and pairings with no desire or interest in beguiling anyone with their credentials.

    Thus, I take issue with any suggestion that those who call themselves tea sommeliers and take it as seriously as any wine sommelier are somehow denigrating the term. For that insinuation you can go fly.

  15. Shabnam Weber May 3, 2016 at 10:03 am - Reply

    There is so much in your article that I agree with, but a few points I feel need clarification. There are so many tea education courses being offered throughout the world – some referring to themselves as ‘Tea Sommeliers’, with little to no relation to each other. This is a fundamental problem within our industry and precisely the reason I worked together with the Tea Association of Canada to develop the Certified TAC Tea Sommelier program. Creating a program that is not operated for profit, that is accredited by industry and that is standardized were some of the pillars on which we started.

    Our program is made up of 8 modules running 6 weeks. Each module has an examination that includes an oral presentation, written exam and blind cupping. Once all modules have been successfully completed, students may apply for final certification – which also includes an oral presentation, written exam, blind cupping as well as tea preparation. This model is the same whether you take the course at a College in Vancouver, a College in Toronto, a College in Nova Scotia – or if, like so many of our international students, take the course online. You can indeed ‘challenge’ the exam if you meet specific criteria – specifically, having worked in the industry and have experience.

    Is there a cost to the program? Yes, there is. As there is a cost to operating any service being provided. Suggesting though that certification is bought rather than earned is a great disservice to anyone with an education, in any field. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, chefs, all of whom paid for their education but earned their credentials.

    I do understand the prickle by some in the wine industry not wanting to expand the use of ‘Sommelier’, but I would remind them that language evolves and the word ‘sommelier’ actually comes from middle French. It was used as a term for people who were in charge of the transportation of supplies.

    The wine industry is far ahead of us in terms of education and standardization. The Wine Sommelier program is differentiated by different levels of Sommeliers – Master being the highest. I wouldn’t dream of comparing a Certified Tea Sommelier to a Master Sommelier, any more than I would compare a Level 1 Wine Sommelier to a Master Wine Sommelier.

    We have a 5000 year old beverage and yet our development of education is still in its infancy. The Union des Sommeliers in France, was established in 1907 – the North American Sommelier Association wasn’t established until 2006. Everything evolves. And I hope that as our industry evolves we become better. -Shabnam Weber

    • Jordan G. Hardin May 5, 2016 at 9:26 pm - Reply

      Firstly, I’d like to say that I respect anyone who wants to get into tea takes the time to learn, taste, grow, and educate in turn. My main issue is what they call themselves. My secondary issue is the education they receive and what they are paying for. Is it being represented fairly? Frankly, if the expectation is that you will be comparable to a sommelier in terms of expertise and opportunities, then it isn’t being represented accurately.

      I fully understand that you must pay for an education. I’m not doing a disservice to those that have. But to use your example: if I wanted to be a medical professional whose focus was in tea, and I took a 1-year training course offering certification as a Doctor of Tea (or a Th.D diploma if you will), that would clearly be a misuse of the term doctor, no? It might be misrepresenting what I’d done to earn that title. Misrepresenting yourself in this field might actually kill people, which is why it’s illegal to call yourself a doctor unless you’ve actually taken extensive accredited courses over many years and gotten certification through exams. They all had to endure the same kind of hard work, study, and testing.

      • Amanda Vermillion May 6, 2016 at 3:13 pm - Reply

        Anyone with a PhD (Doctorate) can call themselves a doctor, so that’s not the best analogy.

      • Shabnam Weber May 6, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

        We agree in terms of opportunities in the hospitality industry. The hospitality industry has not opened up opportunities or jobs to Tea Sommeliers in the same way they have with Wine Sommeliers. Again however, I can only point out that the position of Wine Sommelier has existed 100 years longer than Tea Sommelier has. So…perhaps giving it some time to develop would be kinder.

        In terms of my example of doctors, lawyers, teachers, chefs…I was pointing out that they all pay for an education. Payment for an education does not mean the title is not earned, which is what your article suggests in its closing remark.

        As I mentioned, I agree with you fully on the lack of standardization – the idea that someone can learn all about tea over a weekend, etc., as some of the courses out there try to do. The TAC Tea Sommelier program however does not fall into that category. I’ve listed for you above what is required to become one. I’ll compare for you the Wine Sommelier program. At George Brown College, considered the best culinary school in Canada, it takes 6 courses at 6 weeks each in order to earn your “Certified Sommelier Certificate”, which is directly connected with the Canadian Association of Sommeliers. Can that take 1 year? Sure it can. Can it take 3-5, yes it can. Just as our course does. The point here being…what does ‘comparable in terms of expertise’ mean? Compared to a Master Wine Sommelier, no of course not. Just as a Wine Sommelier Level 1 isn’t comparable to a Master Wine Sommelier. That would be comparing apples to oranges. The only thing they have in common…is that they’re both fruit.

        Anyone who thinks their learning is complete when handed a degree, regardless of their profession, will in the end, fall short out in the real world.

        • Jordan G. Hardin May 6, 2016 at 9:49 pm - Reply

          We seem to have a difference of opinion when it comes to the core idea of the article. I believe that taking a title from another profession and applying it to oneself is a clear indicator of wanting to equate oneself with that profession and reap the respect that the term receives. I think this is deceiving.

          It seems, that you disagree with this opinion. Which is totally fine. I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to, since you have built a program around certifying tea sommeliers.

          What the closing remark of my article suggests (only specific to the term ‘sommelier’ and to no other professions), is that if you are to use a term the way previously mentioned, to consider whether the given program deserves this title, or if they’ve taken it. I make no judgements on any specific programs, because as we’ve said, there’s no good way to compare them. But we can compare them to the place they’ve taken their moniker from, as I do extensively in the article.

          • Shabnam Weber May 6, 2016 at 9:54 pm

            David, it’s been a good conversation and I look forward to having it in person some day.

      • Sylvana. P. Levesque May 6, 2016 at 8:09 pm - Reply

        Again wonderful debate David! What is the difference between a Tea Sommelier from school A and a Tea sommelier from school B?

        Perhaps, none for the public in general as they take your word for it and A LOT for those who work hard and professionally at either teaching tea mastery or sommelier courses “selon les règles d’art” or being tea sommeliers, tea masters on daily basis, cupping world teas, training their nose and palate, going to origins, selecting teas based on types, countries, cultivars, terroirs, harvesting seasons, grades, aromatic bouquet, taste criterias and the list is long, everything ITEI students and alumnis do and never stop doing.

        Is the difference then in the price paid for the program to school A or school B? Is this where one says: You get what you pay for? In a way, yes.
        Now, getting what you pay for remains your problem as a tea sommelier or tea master but you make it a major credibility problem for the rest of us who take these titles and credentials seriously. Just because someone posts the content of their course, be it on their website or at a College, it does not necessarily mean that they are really delivering comprehensive tea knowledge and skills, we know something about that. That’s where it gets complicated for those who want to select a school to pursue their goal of becoming a Tea Sommelier, a Master Tea Sommelier or a Tea Master. Do not ask me at International Tea Education Institute which tea school is better than the other to teach these complex programs; in life you always have choices, do your homework keeping in mind that not everything that shines is of gold. However, telling you this is my duty.

  16. Austin Hodge May 3, 2016 at 9:45 am - Reply

    Excellent article Jordon. It has been my luck to have traveled in China with a Master Wine Sommelier. She scared me with her insistence to taste the soil at every tea garden we visited together. We happen to be traveling around Yunnan province andI thought the rain forest soil might hold some danger. She however was unconcerned. I am yet to find that level of dedication to experiential learning in Western tea professionals. I have spent the last 20 years hanging out with Chinese tea professionals that might spend a life time just studying one small grouping of tea. The Chinese say that you can study tea for a lifetime time and never even learn the names of the teas.

    Consider that just to be able to be competent in tasting Da Hong Pao, one Chinese wulong, that conventional wisdom in Wuyishan, where the tea is made, you need ten years of experience tasting authentic DHP, made by the recognized top ten DHP tea makers. No Master Wine Sommelier could ever claim the title without having one taste of the best wines, or even knowing there names, or the people that make them. Unthinkable.

    It is still close to impossible to find top quality Chinese tea outside of Chinese and they are not that easy to come by from within. It is, however, pretty easy to get a large number of certifications that range from tea master to sommelier to whatever, if you are willing to pay usually a nice chunk of money to anyone brazen enough to call themselves an expert, and put together some classes.Getting the tea is the hard part, and you can’t know it without being exposed to it, tasting and evaluating it for years. If my friend is a role model there is also soil to be tasted at origin.

    Recently Zhuping Hodge paired teas for the full tasting menu at Alize, a Michelin Star restaurant. Even though she knows tea well, she needed the collaboration of Chef Mark Purdy, because this level of food/tea pairing is rare, and they needed to work as a team to accomplish it. Him having the food chops and she the tea. The Chinese don’t pair tea with food, so it’s a very new role for tea, especially the interesting teas, the ones with complexity, and layers of taste. They are hard to come by so experimentation can only be very limited.

    I’m sure tea desire to be at a professional level with tea through experience and education will be someday realized, though it’s a steep slope to climb. I’m sure there will inevitably be people that will read my comment and question my emphasis on China. Well they can’t know what hey don’t know, no matter what certificates they have invested in. Learning Chinese teas is not easy, takes a long time, costs money, and there are language and cultural barriers that are significant.

    Or perhaps as Jordon suggests, we should just look for another name. Great article Jordon!

    • Adrian May 4, 2016 at 9:26 pm - Reply

      It’s much too easy for people here in the west to forget that the Chinese have been at this a long time and have established a good deal of culture and structure with this stuff; I’d wager that it rivals the wine world. Too many just play at it over here, dubbing themselves experts while often at odds with things that are commonly known in China. The market here just doesn’t seem to cultivate the same rigor, as it stands now, unfortunately.

    • Jordan G. Hardin May 5, 2016 at 8:34 pm - Reply

      Thanks Austin! Your points are spot-on; the level of expertise in China when it comes to learning in tea is unrivaled and is much closer to the Master Sommeliers we see in the world. The sommeliers I mention in the article I happen to be good friends with and I love going out to eat with them or doing tastings with them, because they really really take it seriously. It informs how I taste and evaluate teas and other drinks tremendously. As for tea and food pairings, I love them when they are done well, but it’s a very tricky business. With wine, pairing systems are well established, but I’m still not 100% convinced that tea works in pairings with food quite as well. Tea seems more of an accessory to a meal, whereas wine is a part of the meal (at least in terms of a full dining experience). How I wish I could go to Alize and try the tea pairings!

  17. Gwen May 3, 2016 at 8:03 am - Reply

    This is a fantastic article and speaks to such a huge issue in the tea industry today. As the industry booms and more and more “professionals” begin to emerge, it is more and more difficult to properly define the scope of a true professional’s knowledge and experience.
    I just completed one of the existing programs (not for sommelier certification, but another professional tea certification) and what astounded and disappointed me about the program was how the majority of the coursework was just book-learning and how remarkably little time was spent actually tasting and learning about different teas themselves. This is so unlike the wine world which, as you said, requires years of hands-on training and experience (imagine hiring a sommelier who had a certification but had only tasted 20 or 30 different wines) and even the coffee industry which universally recognizes the Q-Grader license which not only requires intensive testing (primarily focused around tasting coffee and calibrating with other cuppers – go figure) but also requires somewhat regular calibrations to maintain the license. I learned more about tea – actual tea – during my short time working at a well-known tea tasting room than in my year of taking expensive certification courses.
    I eagerly await the day when tea is taken as seriously as coffee, wine, and beer in North America… Although my experience in tea certification has led me to be far more willing to trust someone who has hands-on experience in tea than someone who has a fancy PDF with a “professional certification” (guilty).

    Thanks again for the great write-up. I hope the people designing education programs read this.

  18. Wil van Rooij May 3, 2016 at 6:29 am - Reply

    Great article! Following a ‘teasommelier’ course myself I totally agree! I’m a tea-afficionado and will never call myself a sommelier. We’ve a real sommelier in class and he’s of a total different level concerning knowledge &taste. But it’s an old problem. Maybe an old poem shows my view on the topic a little better:
    “Going far away to China
    to seek the sacred shoots
    Old Eisai brought them back
    sowed them in our land.
    Uji tea has a taste infused
    with Nature’s own essence
    A PITY PEOPLE ONLY PRATTLE
    ABOUT IT’S COLOR AND SCENT.

    Baisao (The Old Tea Seller) 1675-1763
    (Capitals are mine)

  19. Sylvana. P. Levesque May 3, 2016 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Great article and research. As we all know tea education is still in its infancy in North America. As soon as International Tea Education Institute (ITEI) launched officially a few years ago with the ambition of building the tea careers of tomorrow, many tea school started adding the word education to their tea vocabulary. As if suddenly they realized that they have an educational mission even if they lacked the real tea expertise themselves. While the t-somm chapter and its challenges continue to evolve, i realized that the most urgent education in the Fine-Dining environments requiring immediate attention at a low cost is the one we offer to waiters. ITEI Tea Steward course (15 hours) is what every Five Star Hotel or restaurant needs to up their waiters general knowledge of tea and tea preparation skills. What’s the use of having Five Star Tea Menus if the hotel cannot yet hire a t-somm from a decent school for 60 k a year or have tea trained waiters. Customers in these venues expect excellence in tea lists and tea service and this is the actual challenge International Tea Education Institute is embracing. T-somms of great value will be needed as it is not the job of a Tea Steward to design a tea list, prepare the tea & Food pairing program or manage a tea cellar. We’re paving t-somms or Master t-somms way with simple steps. ITEI Tea Steward courses launch in London UK this May 13, 2016.

  20. Lord Devotea May 2, 2016 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    Jordan, I once was lucky enough to have Afternoon Tea at Brown’s Hotel in London, which is absolutely superb. We had a waiter who bought the food and poured the tea. He knew a reasonable amount, but did not have the in depth tea knowledge I would have liked. On the menu, it said “If you have any questions about the tea, ask to speak to our tea sommelier”, so I asked the waiter and he said he’d go find him.
    He returned ten minutes later to tell us that, according to the roster, HE was today’s tea sommelier.

  21. TJ Williamson May 2, 2016 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    Superb article. Great to see the research, comparisons, and contrasts between the different fields. Could not agree with you more. Touring vineyards, talking with the operators, and hearing their knowledge of wine leaves a lot to be desired when conversing with a tea sommelier. Looking forward to see where the future will take us.

  22. Nicole Martin May 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    A million times THIS! The current options the tea industry offers for professional education are extremely frustrating. Everything is scattered and there’s a ton of misinformation being passed on to students (who payed a lot for it financially) because of it. Here’s hoping that we sort ourselves out in the next few years!

    • Jordan G. Hardin May 5, 2016 at 8:29 pm - Reply

      Thanks Nicole! I think we will sort ourselves out, for sure, we just need standards and a proper path. There is no clear answer, but the path is laid out.

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