Tea Tasting Class

Throughout the year, we host monthly tea-tasting events at our shop.  During the summer, we lighten up the calendar of events to account for customers’ summer outdoor activities, school breaks, vacations, and the annual migration out of Washington, DC by the political hoi polloi in August.  Instead of formal tasting events, we add more in-store samplings and a monthly Tea 101 class for those new to tea.

During a recent class, full of eager tea “newbies,” we began by talking about the different tea types and were enjoying tasting the first tea – a Japanese Bancha green tea – when the inevitable questions arose about Japan’s recovery, the location of the tea-growing areas, and tea product safety.  A happy communal tea moment briefly turned to quiet reflection.  We moved onto the next tea – a Darjeeling – as I started preparing a pot to share around the table.  While the tea leaves were infusing, a late-arriving older gentleman took a seat in the back corner of the tea-tasting room.  He had the appearance and demeanor of a professor and in contrast to the excited, tea-tutored expressions of the others in the class, he acknowledged much of the tea information being discussed with slight nods of affirmation.

As we talked about the Darjeeling growing area, the unique terroir of the tea, and the first flush and second flush harvests, I had one of those public-speaking moments in which you temporarily freeze, internally trying to navigate and edit content in mid-sentence.  At most, it lasted 2-3 seconds, but thoughts and ideas flew in and out of my mind at lightning speed and made it feel much longer.  What caused such an awkward pause?  The group was tasting the tea after we had finished talking about its character, flavor notes, and so on and I was about to mention some of the challenges this year in getting the first flush teas to market out of Darjeeling – the labor, politics, and economics of tea.  I froze, looking around the room at their faces as they were just beginning to appreciate a finer tea and stopped myself from raising the real-world issues surrounding the recent harvest and producton.  Would it complicate their enjoyment of the tea?  Should they know?  Did they even want to know?  I sensed something about the gentleman sitting in the back of the room that made me stop, shift gears, and not bring up any of this Darjeeling background information.  Instead, I grabbed a new pot and moved on to our third tea, a Jin Xuan (“Milk”) oolong.

After the event, the “professor” lingered in the tasting room until the other attendees had left.  As we chatted about tea and tea-growing countries, I discovered that he had spent many years working in tea-producing countries on capital development and microfinance projects, both in government and private-sector programs.  He was particularly familiar with the growth and the challenges of the tea industry in India and Sri Lanka.  The conversation shifted from tea quality and local sourcing to certification programs, such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, from the age of some of the tea-processing machinery in India to civil war in Sri Lanka.  Now I was the knowledge-absorbing student.  As the last tea cup was cleared from the table, there was a sense of resignation about him as he looked at the world map we have on the wall in the tea-tasting room and said, almost in a whisper, “You do what you can, the rest is up to them.”

Graciously, having had access to some of the best teas in the world directly from the grower, he picked up a couple of our teas to purchase.  As he was leaving the room, he turned and offered one last thought, “You did the right thing, just letting them enjoy the teas tonight.”  Then glancing at the wall, waving his hand a little dismissively, “All that … if they want to learn more, it’s up to them.”

This article has been updated from the original 2011 publication.