Sommelier, Tea Master, Tea Tender, Tea Specialist – there are most likely a few more monikers folks can acquire in the course of their careers as professional tea purveyors.
Personally, I would never call myself a tea master. In a lifetime on this planet sipping the leaf, I would still be a novice, still growing and learning about the art and craft of tea. Adopting the name “tea master” hints of finality – like you’ve reached the pinnacle of tea knowledge. I can honestly say after 12 years in this business, I see no pinnacle of tea wisdom in sight and I thank God for that.
In Canada, though, we have a Certified Tea Sommelier program. Now that sounds palatable and even acquirable because it suggests that the process of learning about the leaf and all its incarnations is a journey and not a destination. It’s like an apprenticeship – learning from hands-on experience through the course of decades, in some cases.
The genesis of this program occurred six years ago at George Brown College in Toronto – one of Canada’s top culinary schools. At the time, the two chefs who launched the program did an absolutely fantastic job, considering neither had any formal tea training. A few years later, the Tea Association of Canada decided it was time to branch out beyond the confines of George Brown’s corridors, and move west with the program. In doing this, almost all of the eight courses that make up the designation were re-written and updated. We can thank Shabnam Weber from The Tea Emporium in Toronto for her countless hours spent combing through the extensive curriculum.
Here in Vancouver – the second city in Canada to offer the designation – we are now in our second year of running the courses (VCC Tea Sommelier). Of the eight courses required to complete your tea sommelier designation, which totals more then 150 hours of classroom instruction, four of the courses have been taught thus far. In fact, the first two courses have had four rotations and each time they are offered, the numbers of students enrolling have increased.
I have taught all the courses so far. However, just this fall, we enlisted another instructor from a local teashop, who just passed the final exam for the designation. Reza is finishing his first teaching session of the second course.
In addition to the joy of talking about and cupping tea with a group of keeners two nights a week, there is the joy that comes with witnessing a juvenile tea palate mature and start to identify tea from all corners of the globe. When I teach, we cup a lot of teas. We spend at least half the class smelling, slurping, and discussing what we are tasting and how to put words to the sensations and nuances our palates are detecting. As I know from experience, this is one of the most difficult aspects of cupping tea, describing what you taste in no uncertain terms.
In January, Course 5 of the eight-course series launches for the first time. Called From the Bush to the Cup, this 18-hour course enhances your knowledge of advanced cultivation and processing methods. I can’t wait to teach it. With my little greenhouse tea garden up here in the mountains of the north shore, I need all the knowledge I can get.
This is an incredible program and I am humbled to have been chosen the lead instructor. I am highly impressed with the dedication and enthusiasm of the students who have chosen to complete one of the world’s only Certified Tea Sommelier designations. And, no, we don’t just learn how to tip our pinky up here in the great white north; we take tea a tad more seriously. I invite you come find out and see for yourself.
This post was published December 19, 2011.