What Is a Tea Sommelier?

The term “tea sommelier” has been popping up for awhile now — several years, actually. In fact, an online search produced a wealth of hits. Plus, intrepid Tea Guy Bill Lengeman posted this tidbit about three years ago, giving a glimpse into the mystery of what being a tea sommelier means.

Just a few of the hits that pop up in an online search for “tea sommelier” (Photo source: screen capture from site)
Just a few of the hits that pop up in an online search for “tea sommelier” (Photo source: screen capture from site)

Short answer: what anyone who has ever served tea to me in either a restaurant or tearoom is not.

Long answer: it’s complicated. Based on what I’ve found online, it could be one of several things.

  • Option 1: A person who got conned into paying hundreds of dollars for a course. (Gee, too cynical?)
  • Option 2: A person who has labeled him/herself a “tea sommelier” thinking it sounded cool. (Yes, there are some of them around, sad to say.)
  • Option 3: A career, requiring much study and knowledge of tea, for someone who is seeking something a bit more unusual but not too weird.
  • Option 4: A way for someone who has a great interest in tea to add to that knowledge and formalize it with a title (and a certificate).

Actually, it seems to be a bit of all of the above.

World-wide Phenomenon

Taking tea knowledge to the professional level is done around the world. Canada, the U.S., India, China, Japan, and France are but a few countries boasting people who take tea this seriously and follow through to be recognized as true tea experts. Courses are being offered in quite a few places. In fact, universities are getting into the act, recognizing tea as a legitimate area of deep study and offering courses.

Not all courses are created equal, though, and some folks do not consider some of the tea sommelier courses as being sufficiently in-depth to warrant that designation. And that brings us to seeking an official definition. To that end, I went to the Tea Association of the USA, which now includes the Specialty Tea Institute that offers a very strict course of instruction on how to be a tea sommelier. So strict that only 23 people world-wide were qualified through that program as of June 2009. Some of them have started their own tea shops while others offer their services in a catering capacity and still others give presentations about tea.

Alas, an official definition was not given, just a general description of the courses. Plus, I gained some insights by reading about other courses offered by the Tea Association of Canada and some universities as well as about some tea sommeliers. One disappointment was their focus on tea with lots of stuff added (fruits, flowers, spices, etc.) instead of on tea itself. Appreciating tea and all its natural and varied flavors would seem the key here. It is not. One winner of a Dutch tea sommelier award won by concocting some beverage containing mint, lime sorbet, apple juice, and a bit of Darjeeling tea thrown in (one has to ask “Why bother adding in tea?”). It sort of makes the areas of knowledge studied seem superfluous.

Some Areas of Knowledge

Courses to become tea sommeliers usually address these areas of tea knowledge (not meant to be comprehensive):

  • types and classifications of tea and how to differentiate them (a bit iffy since an exact number is a matter of serious debate among tea experts)
  • the essential components of teas
  • principal tea-growing regions of the world and how teas are grown
  • advanced cultivation and processing practices used in the production of tea
  • understanding of modern tea garden management practices currently used in various regions of world production
  • basic characteristics of different teas
  • processing tea using orthodox versus CTC methods
  • importance and impact of various processing decisions on the finished product
  • blending, flavoring, and scenting (the one I tend to find a bit troubling)
  • grading standards and naming teas by country of origin
  • steeping methods and proper cupping techniques
  • sensory evaluation of teas
  • history of tea, including tea evolution and influence on culture and world events
  • tea terminology
  • the science of taste, including the tea taster’s vocabulary, how we taste, what we rely on and what errors we should be aware of
  • planning and development of tea beverage menus for a variety of food service and retail settings, including bed & breakfast operations, tea rooms, hotels, restaurants, and retail tea shops
  • generating revenue through effective menus with appropriate food pairings
  • traditional and contemporary styles of tea service for a variety of food service settings
  • study and selection of tea wares and equipment for tea and other tea-related beverages
  • effective communication and culturally appropriate etiquette as they relate to tea and its service
  • operating a hygienic, safe, and secure environment in accordance with Provincial and Federal Government regulations

The Big Question

Do you need a tea sommelier to enjoy tea? Of course not. No more that you need a wine steward. But it sure can’t hurt. These people study all about tea, so why not benefit from that knowledge and enhance your own enjoyment of the leaf as well as making wiser tea purchases by knowing which high-priced teas are really worth it and avoiding the fakes.

Personally, as a Tea Princess, I think that restaurants need to think about at least consulting with a tea sommelier to improve their offerings and thereby attract people like me. And since one of the focuses of tea “sommelierness” is being able to pair tea with food for best affect, restaurants could benefit from developing this concept, too.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

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4 thoughts on “What Is a Tea Sommelier?

  1. Pingback: How to Become A Tea Sommelier | Tea Blog

  2. Pingback: The Levels of Tea Experience | Tea Blog

  3. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Terroir and Tea « Tea Blog

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