From Merriam-Webster online:

Main Entry: mas·ter
1 a (1): a male teacher (2): a. person holding an academic degree higher than a bachelor’s but lower than a doctor’s, often capitalized; b. a revered religious leader; c. a worker or artisan qualified to teach apprentices; d (1): an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill (2): a great figure of the past (as in science or art) whose work serves as a model or ideal

What is a tea master, exactly? To some people, who have been in the industry a long time, this may seem like a silly question. Others, particularly newcomers, may be glad someone finally asked what they’ve been wondering for a while.

The question came up for me last month, when I was reporting on BYB Brands buying Bazza High-Energy Tea from Cooper Tea Company (see news story here). A press release about the deal described Cooper Tea Company founder Barry Cooper as the “last remaining classically trained tea and herb master still active in his field.”

Wondering what a “classically trained tea and herb master” was, I e-mailed the contact on the release, Colleen Norwine, Cooper’s marketing director. She sent me a lengthy reply starting with “With regards to your question about Barry as the last remaining classically-trained tea and herb master still active in the field, we do believe that to be the case.”

This was followed by a bullet list of Cooper’s experience, starting with his “classic London tea-house training from the Lipton master tea tasters” in 1965, and ending with his former chairmanship of the Tea Association of the USA. In between were travels and studies all over the world and stints at Celestial Seasonings and Gevalia, in addition to Lipton, where “the classic training of a tea taster involved tasting upwards of 600 cups of tea each week from all over the world in preparation for these auctions. This is the classic training that is unfortunately no longer available in the trade as the London auctions ceased to exist some time ago.”

It still seemed a little subjective to me, so I decided to check with some trainers and associations to see about any official designations. The director of education for the American Botanical Council informed me her group offered no formal training that culminated in an “herb master” title.

Chas Kroll, executive director of the recently formed American Tea Masters Association, began his reply to my query with, “In order to be called a ‘master’ in any field, one has to be committed to teaching, sharing their knowledge and experience with others. This is definitely the way in martial arts where the Sensai is considered the master by his/her students.”

An essay twice as long as Norwine’s followed, and included these bits that were specifically about tea: “(A Cupping Orthodox Indian Teastea master is) normally ‘cupping’ one tea after another, comparing the tastes on their palate, filtering their conclusions from past experiences, and anticipating their next delightful-tasting tea. … Each of our graduating tea masters is, at least in my view, classically trained. Our curriculum, which is based on accelerated learning techniques, is both thorough and comprehensive, and includes what has been experienced as the most essential components supporting participants in launching their career as a tea master or integrating tea mastery skills into their existing career.”

Joseph P. Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA, gave a judicious response: “The Tea Association does not have a position on what credentials are required to be designated a Tea Master or a classically trained tea master, although it certainly implies years of learning about tea in a (or several) tea producing countries.”

He added that he had recently asked the same question I was asking of a living Japanese Tea Master (who, as it happens, will be presenting at the World Tea Expo next month). “His answer was similarly vague,” Simrany said, “but he also advised that he traces his title back for hundreds of years as, in his case, he suggested you need to be born into a tea master family!”

Interestingly, Simrany said that administrators of the Specialty Tea Institute (which is under the aegis of the Tea Association) discourage students who go through STI’s training program to refer to themselves as “some sort of tea master,” although some, he added, choose to ignore this advice.

True Tea MasterSo, where does this leave me in answering my question, what is a tea master? Apparently, there is no official designation, just nebulous traditions and cultural institutions. If anyone can call himself a tea master, it remains the job of the listener to judge for himself whether the designation is accurate.

Personally, I’d prefer clarity – a standard or diploma of some kind. Absent that, I think I would put more credence in those who are dubbed “tea masters” by someone other than themselves.

Main, 2nd & 3rd Images: S. Bushberg

First Image: DrBacchus