High-quality, loose leaf tea is becoming more popular as people learn to appreciate the art and grace of tea. As an advocate for direct trade and a seasoned tea traveler, I have learned that for some the art is in how the tea is cultivated and processed while others focus on the art of serving the brewed tea. Both require great skill and are important to the sweetness in the final cup, but which one is essential to the aesthetic of the tea leaves? Related to this question is the accepted nomenclature of the artist behind the tea, or “Tea Master”. New Tea Lovers in the Western world have been introduced to the art of tea from a local tea merchant, or “Tea Master” (certified or not), but if you travel to source, the Tea Master is often referred to as the person that has an intimate understanding of the tea leaves for processing the tea to bring out the best of its terroir.
Google search the term “Tea Master” and you will find several listings for “Tea Master” certification courses. I have never taken any of these courses and so can’t speak on their content, but I have met several people that have been certified. Their knowledge of tea is rich and many of them have traveled to the source to truly understand the origin of tea, but at the end of the day, their art and practice revolve around the service of tea. Uncertified “Tea Masters” in the United States also exist as tea merchants that have a solid knowledge of tea and its culture and use this knowledge to introduce customers to tea. If your exposure to tea is limited to what was available in the United States, you would see that more focus is put on the service and knowledge of tea culture.
Let us now take an adventure to the origins of tea. If it wasn’t for the origin there would be no leaves for the tea server to brew and no culture to share. At the origin are a few simple things; soil, water, air, tea plants, and people handling the tea. There are many ways the tea is handled and in most cases there is a leader, an experienced craftsperson that recommends the standard to which the green tea leaves will be plucked, the amount of time and style of withering that will be applied, the amount of pressure applied and duration of rolling, the halting of oxidation, the heat and method of kill green, and the amount of drying needed. If there are any variations in any of these steps the final product in the cup will be completely different. A Tea Master can also brew a fine cup of tea with a deep appreciation of the art of service, but you may see more often than not that they brew and share tea in a crude manner, not paying mind to the temperature, brewing time, and brewing vessel. If they put a positive intention and attention to detail in the processing of their tea its beauty should shine through in any brewing method.
As direct trade tea and authentic storytelling become more prominent in the Western World more focus will be put on the art of the Tea Master at origin. This does not mean that the art of tea service will be devalued, it just means that the perceived art of tea will expand. All will see that a beautiful cup of tea can be brewed in any fashion as long as there are positive intentions and good quality leaf. As far as nomenclature I think a division between the making and service of tea would be useful. For this reason, I have adopted the term of “Tea Artist” and/or “Tea Expert” as one that practices the service and culture of tea while reserving the term “Tea Master” for the maker of the tea from green leaf to loose leaf. If you would like to contribute your thoughts on this subject, comment on this article or email me at email@example.com, I would love to hear your ideas.