In case you haven't noticed, tea has gotten incredibly popular over the last decade. The tea section at the local supermarket has exploded, and more people are drinking more different types of tea than ever before, due to its increased availability. Your local market's tea section is no longer filled with just a few varieties of black tea, some green, and a handful of dusty herbal concoctions. And if you haven't noticed the boxes and tins in your supermarket, perhaps you've checked out the ever-expanding offerings at Starbucks, your local coffee shop, or even a neighborhood cafe.
If you're lucky, you may even have a tea shop in your town. David's Tea now has dozens of tea outlets across the U.S. and Canada — and all they sell is tea (and accouterments). And of course there are plenty of non-chain local tea shops, where you can learn about, and experiment with all sorts of teas that you might not want commit to buying a whole package of.
For those of us who really enjoy tea, this is this best kind of revolution; and the upshot is that like coffee, wine and chocolate, there's always more to learn.
Why is tea so popular these days? The reason is probably two-fold. On one hand, tea has been found, in study after study, to have numerous health benefits. Green tea's antioxidants can help keep skin clear and prevent heart disease and cancer. Black tea also has benefits, and so do matcha teas. Pu'erh teas can assist in digestion, and rooibos tea has been linked to stronger immunity and better digestion. And of course, herbal teas contain plants, roots and flowers that have been used in traditional medicine practices all over the world for a number of health issues (or as prevention for them). Mint or ginger tea for an upset stomach, chamomile and lavender to relax the mind and body, dandelion root tea to support the liver, and echinacea to build immunity — and those are just the most popular.
It's not uncommon to know the difference between some of the most popular teas, from herbal teasanes, like rooibos and chamomile, to the variety of black teas — from spicy Indian chais, to floral authentic British Earl Greys. And then there's white teas, mates, and (my personal favorite) pu'erhs. (Check out the video above for an excellent 20-minute primer.)
But there's so much more than these basics, whether you are interested in ancient varieties, how tea can affect (and combat) global warming, or want to dig deep into the health benefits — and the market is getting crowded and confusing even as it expands — enough so that there are people looking for education from tea sommelier programs, and students to fill those classes.
Like a wine expert, a tea sommelier is a person who has training and expertise (and plenty of personal knowledge) about how teas are made, how they should be brewed, and what their potential effects are on the body and mind. Oh, and they know about flavor, too; a well-trained tea sommelier should be able to recommend a tea to someone who doesn't know much about the subject, based on what other foods and drinks they enjoy, and what kind of caffeination effect they want.
As detailed in the video below by Shabnam Weber, a tea sommelier instructor, students in their program learn about more than just varieties of tea — there's also instruction in where teas come from, how they are prepared, and the history behind the social development of tea. "A tea sommelier can talk you about how to create tea cocktails, tea-and food pairing, cooking with tea, as well as creating the perfect tea menu," says Weber.
As the Tea Course details on the website, it's not a quick and easy process: "... you cannot become a tea expert overnight. It takes years of tasting, training, knowledge, sharing, networking, and lifelong learning to call yourself an expert in tea. Most experts come from families who have been in the tea industry for generations and have made it their lifelong journey."
But you have to start somewhere! If you're interested in dipping your toes into this world, you could start with the book "Tea Sommelier," which will give you a good primer on what a longer program of study might entail. The International Tea Masters Association certifies tea sommeliers worldwide, and there are also courses online, including this one through the Tea Association of Canada (they made the video above, which gives more detail about what can be learned).
While you might laugh at the idea of a tea expert now, it's really not so different from being an expert in any other kind of drink — a decade ago all the microbrewers were being mocked, and that's now a multimillion dollar business for plenty of passionate experts.
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