The Levels of Tea Experience

All due respect and perhaps apologies are due to William James, who wrote an influential book just over a century ago, called The Varieties of Religious Experience. You can approach tea from many different directions and there’s hardly one true and proper path. But like most things in life, you typically have to start at the bottom and work your way up through the ranks.

No matter what your level is, a cuppa English Breakfast Tea No. 2 will go down well. (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
No matter what your level is, a cuppa English Breakfast Tea No. 2 will go down well. (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Most tea drinkers start here, although if you grow up in one of those countries where tea is integral to the culture, you’ve already got a leg up on most of us. Growing up in a suburban middle-class American home, my notion of tea was this weird powdery stuff that you scooped from a big jar and added to water. Is it any wonder that I wouldn’t go near the stuff? Probably not.

I can’t speak about other people’s discovery of tea so I’ll briefly relate my experiences as an apprentice in this world. I started out mostly drinking tea to warm up in the winters when I was still living in a cold climate. I was mostly drinking inexpensive tisanes, sometimes referred to as “herbal tea,” and after a time I started to branch out into drinking “real” tea. Although this was the cheap and not very good tea often found in tea bags and I have to say that I was somewhat underwhelmed by it all.

For a craftsperson, the next step after completing an apprenticeship and before moving on to becoming a master is journeyman. Or perhaps we should say journeyperson. If I were so bold as to place myself somewhere on this scale I’d say that I’m in this category. After being not so impressed with the teas I was drinking way back when, I gradually began to realize that there were other ones that were more worthwhile and some that were a few notches above that. Of course, it took some time for my palette to be able to appreciate the subtleties of these fine teas, and that’s still a work in progress.

I’m not sure what a tea master is. I could go with the old saw about “I’ll know it when I see it,” but I’m not sure if I would. In any event, there are no shortage of organizations who would like you to believe that they can grant you a measure of tea mastery in a surprisingly short time. While their efforts might not be for nothing, I’m pretty sure that true tea mastery is something that takes a whole lot of time with a whole lot of tea going down the hatch. Beyond that I’m not sure. If I ever get there, I’ll report back.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

See also: What Is a Tea Sommelier?

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