As a long-time convert to the pleasures of drinking tea, I have been thinking a lot lately about the best way to introduce tea to a new audience. We each have our own story of how we came to tea, but no one story tends to reveal a singular path to tea enlightenment. Based on a recent tea-tasting session I led for my 38 students of professional baking at LA Trade Tech College, I learned a few things. What I learned might be instructive for any retailer or vendor of the leaf whose goal is to broaden his or her audience, sip by sip, cup by cup, by introducing more people to tea, who heretofore have been indifferent or averse to the pleasures of imbibing the liquor of the leaf. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order of importance:
- Introduce tea by using premium whole leaves; showing off the leaves – both before and after brewing as a way to distinguish one tea from another – can make the whole experience more memorable.
- Stress the almost universally agreed upon wisdom concerning leaf quantities, the importance of the quality and temperature of the water, and the time for infusion; however, also point out that one’s own personal taste can enter into the picture, affecting how much leaf is used and how long it is infused.
- Engage the group by asking for volunteers to taste the teas at various points during the infusion (perhaps every 30 seconds or so for a several-minute total infusion time) and record their impressions along that timeline to determine brewing times for the specific teas that are being offered.
- Start with the most subtle non-flavored teas and move on to bolder ones as the tasting progresses (from greens and oolongs to blacks and smoked blacks).
- Contrary to the previous, sometimes it helps to shake things up by following the tasting of a bold-flavored tea with something subtle (go from a Keemun or Yunnan black tea to an oolong, for instance).
- Taste the tea liquor from a second infusion and compare it to the first.
- Listen to the comments of the tasters who, with completely “untutored” palates, can say startlingly revealing and valid things about the tea that more jaded (read “experienced”) tasters might completely miss. (“This tea tastes like seaweed” was the reaction when a sencha was poured; “peachy” was the adjective applied to a first flush Darjeeling.)
- Flying in the face of traditional buttoned-down tastings, why not pair the teas with chocolate, ranging from white chocolate redolent of dairy and vanilla to smooth and round dark milk chocolate to pleasantly fruity, smoky, and even bittersweet dark chocolate.
- Pairing teas with an immediately accessible food like chocolate sets up interesting resonances with the tea, changing the tea’s flavor profiles in the presence of the chocolate and putting the chocolate’s flavor personality into sharper focus by being tasted with the tea, often to the benefit of each.
Tea vendors might even find that this kind of pairing opens up profitable cross-merchandising opportunities and a lure for those customers new to the pleasures of tea on its own.
With hundreds of chocolates and thousands of teas readily available, there is no one set of selections that will yield an eye-opening tasting, but the chart below captures the most recent tasting exercise that I led, with spaces purposely left blank for the tasters to fill in as the tasting progressed. Chocolates from the E. Guittard line were used to accompany premium whole-leaf teas from several online sources. The percentages for each chocolate refer to the total of cocoa solids and cocoa butter content in the finished chocolate, although chocolates from different manufacturers with the same percentages can taste completely different from each other due to the terroir and quality of the cacao beans and the manufacturing processes from bean to bar.
The possibilities for enjoying tea on its own or side by side with chocolates (or other foods, for that matter, such as cheese and varieties of seasonal fruit) are endless, as are the ways to introduce a new audience to tea. I am never afraid to experiment with different approaches. I would be interested in hearing from others in the tea world about particularly effective and transformative ways of getting non-tea drinkers to take their first sip of their first cup and how that experience led to the next cup and the one after that.