by William I. Lengeman III

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines sommelier as “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service” or “a wine steward.” Though this definition doesn’t really leave any room for us to apply the word to tea culture, a number of tea experts have gone ahead and appropriated the term for themselves anyway.

Genmaicha Japanese Green Tea

One reasonably valid way to measure the popularity of the word sommelier as it applies to wine vs. tea is simply to do a Google search. While it may not be the most scientific method of comparing and contrasting, a recent search for “sommelier” returned 1,850,000 English results. “Tea sommelier,” by comparison, falls far behind, racking up a modest but respectable 48,500 results. Not bad for the new kid on the block.

It’s tricky to determine exactly when the first tea sommelier appeared but there are several individuals who lay claim to various firsts in this area. In the United States – and perhaps even worldwide – James Labe is often put forth as the first person to take on this position – at New York’s W Hotel. These days Labe serves as a faculty member of the American Tea Master’s Association, among other things.

In Canada, Michael Obnowlenny is likely the first to blaze the tea sommelier trail. Obnowlenny has plied his trade at the EPIC Restaurant, located in Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel. In England, the title of first tea sommelier apparently goes to Karl Kessab, who does his thing at London’s Lanesborough Hotel.

For anyone who is interested in embarking on such a career path, there are a few resources available, though it doesn’t appear that there’s a formal certification course available yet. Aspiring tea sommeliers who are looking to increase their knowledge of all things tea might want to consider the Tea Certification Program offered by The Tea Association of the USA. Also of potential interest, a Tea Sommelier Academy, located in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Check out William’s blog, Tea Guy Speaks, for more great articles.

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