Wine / Bier sommelier and coffee sommelier are well respected profession job title because these industries have established serious and industrial recognized requirements and standards for knowledge, skills and professional protocols. Indeed international tea societies grow fast in recent years, internet opens more channels for information and some useful training programs are introduced, but so far there is no collateral standards being established, not even in the tea homeland, China. The tea world is vast but the growing practice seems small and slim.
Recently overheard disputes in tea sommelier society in Belgium because there were articles, interviews and/or publicity from those who are proud to present their tea sommelier identity to push pure tea ONLY forwards. Personally I think it is good to see more people speak for pure tea but it does not mean we should ignore or even despise the existence of blending tea or tea bag.
With my simple mind, I have problem to understand the conflict between tea sommeliers. However, I think it is necessary for us to ask ourselves few simple questions: What is the role of tea sommelier? What does tea sommelier mean? Which attitude is the right attitude?
The definition of sommelier is someone who has professional knowledge, skills and follow the professional protocols. One basic difference from tea with wine/bier or coffee is that with tea we need to learn more than how to brew a cup of tea, the learning shouldn’t limited to the imitation of movement and process, but there are moral protocols, behaviours driven by attitude and wisdom in life.
What does the tea sommelier title really mean?
As a responsible tea sommelier we should have the courage to challenge ourselves. This job title does not mean we already know “everything” about tea, it is in fact mean now we have to consider how to move forwards correctly in the journey and to explore more learning in tea with the “passport” on our hands.
Yes, for achievement we should have self-confidence about ourselves. But how not to let our self-confidence becomes an uncontrollable egoism that blind our mind, that’s a critical learning that requires self disciplines and consciousness. We live more healthier by having less and will be more happy if we could put our egoism behind tea. There are many doors to open on the path and every time we open one door we will realize there are yet much to learn. When learning tea, we learn not only about tea types, how to brew tea and how to distinguish the flavor and taste, most of all, what we need to learn is how to shape our learning attitude in life as a better and happy person.
In the world of tea, tea is simple but people are complicated. Here I would like to share with a quote of an ancient Chinese wisdom from I-Jing: Proud is alike a full moon, it starts to reduce every day; humbleness is alike a new moon that it becomes full each day.
Even though tea entered Europe in the early 17th century, but let’s face it, it was for the higher and rich society but not for average people. Twinings began to blend tea and created a consistency flavor and taste in 1870. Why? Because they love the sensation through nose. When Thomas Sullivan invented tea bags in 1908 in New York, the mistaken steeping without opening began when clients received tea in silk bags. It laid down the root for a more easy brewing tea culture. Tea only became more popular in Europe in the 19th century and we must give the credit to Twinings and Lipton who push the low-priced tea bags to the market. Why they do that? I am sure the answer from them will very simple and straight forwards : Darling, it’s all about market and business.
So if you were a tea sommelier who also involves with marketing and wants to sell more tea, then the first basic questions you must consider in the pyramid reality are: 1) target market 2) products selection 3) marketing strategy
Starting from 1995, I noticed the growing number of tea shops in Belgium, I have witnessed the quality change and market shift from dust, to CTC in tea bag, then BOP in pyramid tea bag, to aromatic tea and blended tea.
Even though I question if it is healthy to consume too much flavored additives in food and drink, including tea. But I respect each consumer who has her/his own preferences in flavor and taste. No matter what l I am happy to witness the market shift from low quality tea bag gradually grow to transitional level. Moving from introduction/penetration phase to expand/transition to grow phase requires more consumers are demanding better quality. This growing process requires a lot of investment in quality tea, increasing number of tea lovers and patient with time.
Today the percentage of flavored tea’s are dominating the market, even in some whole leaf tea’s are flavored tea’s. And, many flavored blending and aromatic tea’s were ‘created’ by creative tea sommeliers driven by their ‘marketing strategy’.
Actually blending tea or not blending tea is not the real concern as long as ingredients used are pure and labels are correct and truthful. Personally I have more concern about the use of aromatic additives in tea and over-pesticide quality.
There is no “the best” quality but there are better and even more better quality tea’s. As tea sommelier this is the fundamental understanding we must bear in mind.
What can tea sommelier do?
Tea is about health, it has many benefits to health only if people know what to choose and how to drink appropriately. Therefore we have to pay extra attention if information have been over exaggerated or incorrect. Because we should do our best not to mislead consumers.
When we present before customers, we are not just “a sales person” but an adviser or a coach to help them to find a good balance in healthy life style.
Right attitude is important
As tea sommelier, I strongly believe we should put our egoism behind tea because only when we are willing to empty the cup, we can then refill it with more refreshing knowledge and inspiration. As a responsible tea sommelier we should take our responsibility seriously to share correct information and to give appropriate advice.
The first thing tea sommelier needs to learn is respect; respect tea and respect people who are different, and who have different preference in flavor and taste.
These years a tea fashion is being forged and many accumulated inaccurate information about tea and the use of tea were spreading. Follow a trendy path is easy but to identify a right path and able to continue to move forward on that path is not as simple as we thought. Regardless years of experience or cultural background, whoever is doing her/his best to give good advice and provide good quality tea deserve respect and support.
I know the language handicap with Dutch obstruct me to reach more people in Belgium. But it won’t stop me trying my best. I do, however, have concern about the quality of some schools offer tea sommelier program, if few days lesson then they can receive a certificate as tea sommelier, then what kind of quality issue that we are going to face in this industry?