What is Tea Sommelier?

September 07, 2018

What is Tea Sommelier?

When you think of the word “sommelier,” images of France and long-stemmed wine glasses probably come to mind. In the wine world, a sommelier is a professional wine taster.

Even though tea culture has developed over thousands of years in China and tasting tea is similar to tasting wine in many ways, the concept of a “tea sommelier” has only recently been gaining popularity in Western countries. The skills of a sommelier are highly applicable to tea and are a great way to introduce the appreciation of tea to Western countries.

As a professional tea sommelier, you need to have some basic – but very important – essential skills

Understand how brewing tea relates to tea culture

Know how to professionally judge tea quality as a Tea Taster

Know how to properly brew tea

Know how to produce to tea and deeply understand how the taste of tea relates to the production.

Know how to source quality tea from a biodiverse and sustainable environment

If you excelled at only one of the above, you would be considered a specialist in that area. But only by attaining a professional level in all of these areas can you be called a Professional Tea Sommelier.

If you aspire to world-class knowledge in the realm of tea – and by doing so earn your certification while in the world’s most iconic tea growing region – our professional tea sommelier course is for you.

Our class sessions will entail actually going out into the surrounding tea fields and mountains to pick, pluck, roast, taste, and learn from the wild tea trees and local tea masters themselves. Throughout this course, you will be guided step by step on your own personal journey from book to branch, the lesson to leaf, and back again.

What is Tea Sommelier?

The word “sommelier” originates in France and indicates a specific role in the wine industry. A sommelier uses highly specialized tasting skills and knowledge to taste, assess, and appreciate tea.

Tea originated in China and tea culture has developed over thousands of years in China since it was discovered. Yet the idea of a “tea sommelier” was only recently created in Western countries. There is a surprising overlap in expertise required to deeply appreciate these two of the world’s most exquisite beverages. This makes the concept of a sommelier easily transferrable to the tea world and creates a ready pathway to a deeper appreciation of tea by Western countries.

However, significant differences between tea and wine are that the focus of wine tends to be on taste – but with tea, the brewing process or ceremony just before drinking must also be considered. Should a tea sommelier focus more on tasting or brewing?

From the Chinese point of view, three roles are clearly distinguishable in tea circles:

  1. People with mastery of brewing tea and tea ceremony are called Chayishi (茶艺师) in Chinese, which means a specialist in the art of tea.
  2. People who are artisans at producing exquisite tea for brewing are called production specialists.
  3. Those who are gifted at tasting tea are known as tasting specialists.

Few people in ancient China ever ascended to the highest level of tea mastery in all three of these areas. Lu Yu (733-804 AD) from the Tang Dynasty was the most important tea expert in China’s tea history. He is revered in China as the Tea Saint for being the father of Chinese tea culture. His book the Classic of Tea was the most comprehensive book on the subject in ancient times, including instruction on topics broad and deep such as growing, producing, brewing, and tasting the tea. In modern times, he is even known as the Tea Master in Western countries for the wealth of knowledge he contributed to the world of tea.

The funny thing is nowadays, lots of people call themselves a “tea master.” Some of them are good at carrying out tea ceremony, some are good at tea tasting, and some craft fine teas, but we have yet to see a true tea master of Lu Yu’s level of accomplishment.

The International Tea Academy looks to the legacy of Lu Yu in training its students: an ITA certified tea sommelier will focus solely on neither brewing nor tasting, but rather must be an expert in both. Our goal is to help you reach the highest level of brewing, tasting, and processing. So that you can truly be considered a highly skilled tea sommelier.

Essential Skill One  Professional Tea Brewing

Traditional Chinese tea ceremony has 5 beautiful aspects:

  1. Tea
  2. Water
  3. Fire
  4. Teaware
  5. Environment

In addition to these five pillars of the Traditional Chinese tea ceremony, it is essential to adopt a peaceful mood when brewing tea.

Major Six Types of Tea

No matter what kind of tea you are drinking, how fancy the name of the tea, or the specific place where it came from, all Chinese teas belong to one of six major varieties. To truly understand the tea you are drinking and brewing and judge its quality, you will need to intimately know these six major types: green, black, white, yellow, Oolong, and dark.

Most people think that brewing tea is easy and that anybody can do it. But actually, it is the most important step in drinking tea, and in order to brew a tea properly, you must understand what type of tea leaves you are brewing. Even the highest quality tea can be ruined by poor brewing. Using the proper brewing method for the type of tea you are brewing is absolutely essential.

How to Use Teaware?

Part One - Placement for Tea

Cha Ze(茶则): For removing tea leaves from their container and putting them into the teapot or Gai Wan (covered tea bowl).

Cha Shi(茶匙): For helping to empty tea from the chaze into the teapot

Cha Lu(茶滤): For setting on the tea pourer. When the tea liquor is poured into the tea pourer form the teapot or Gai Wan, the chalu will help filter out tea leaves.

Cha He(茶荷): White porcelain is one of the best materials for this lotus leaf-shaped tool, which is used for putting tea leaves into for visual inspection and smelling the aroma

Chacang(茶仓): Usually made from bamboo, porcelain, or pottery for storing tea.

Part Two - Tools for Managing Teaware

Chajia(茶夹): When washing teacups or serving tea to guests in cups, use the chajia to hold the teacup instead of holding it with the hand directly for the purpose of good hygiene and avoiding burns.

Chazen(茶针): A needle designed for clearing the spout of blockages.

Chadao(茶刀): A pick designed for breaking apart cakes, bricks, or any other shape of pressed tea.

Part Three - Tools for Serving Tea

ChaHai / Gongdaobei(茶海/公道杯): After brewing leaves in the teapot or Gaiwan, pour the tea liquor into this tool, then pour the liquor from the chahai into individual cups.

Part Four - Tools for Brewing Tea

Pinchabei(品茶杯): For tasting the tea.

Gaiwan(盖碗): For brewing tea. Usually used for brewing white, green, black, or yellow tea.

Chahu(茶壶): For brewing tea. Usually used for brewing Oolong or Puer tea.

PART Four - Tools for Cleaning

Chapan(茶盘): This tray holds the teaware during the ceremony and stores discarded water.

Chajin(茶巾): For wiping teaware and drying the tea tray and other teaware.

How is Tea Brewed in the Way of the Chinese Tea Ceremony

Step1: Wash Teaware

The purpose is to not only clean but also to warm up the teaware.

Step 2: Put the tea into the Gai Wan (or teapot)

The Chinese way of describing this step is beautiful: “The dragon goes into the palace.”

Step 3: Wash tea leaves

Pour boiled water into Gai Wan (or teapot) just long enough to wet the tea leaves, then pour the water out right away. The purpose is to wash the tea dust away and to “wake up” the tea.

Step 4: Add boiled water again, let leaves brew

Pour boiled water into the Gai Wan (or teapot) again and start brewing the tea. Use the lid of the Gai Wan to roll the water, which helps the tea liquor come out (not necessary in a teapot). Then cover with the lid and wait for a few seconds.

Step 5: Pour out tea liquor

Pour liquor into the Cha Hai(茶海).

Remember to put the filter on top of the cha hai before pouring the tea liquor into it.

Step 6: Pour liquor into a teacup

Pour liquor from cha hai into tea tasting cup.

Step 7: Smell aroma of the brewed tea leaves.

Step 8: Finally you can enjoy a great cup of tea!

We wanted to offer you these steps and images so you could get a basic idea of what the process of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony is like. The Chinese people have refined this brewing process over thousands of years. There are a lot of details about why it’s done this way and how to perform the ceremony correctly. Professional Tea Sommelier training is best taught face to face with a well-experienced teacher and a serious student brewing together.

Essential Skill Two - International Standard Tea Evaluation

If you would like to work in the tea industry or have your own tea business, being able to perform international standard tea evaluation is very important.

The purpose of tea evaluation is to assess three important aspects of the tea: tea grade, tea type, and tea quality.

To check these three things, there are a variety of procedures you will need to follow consecutively to get the necessary results.

International standard tea evaluation was created by the ancient Chinese in the time of the Qing Dynasty when China opened up its international tea trade. If people can understand how to taste Chinese tea, then they will find that the business of tea makes much more sense.

Chinese methods of processing and enjoying tea were reinvented over the centuries.

— Robert Gardella

What do you need for tea evaluation?

International Standard

Tea Evaluation Cup Set:

  1. Cup for brewing tea
  2. Bowl for examining tea liquor
  3. Spoon for tasting a tea

International Standard Tea Evaluation Tea Tray:

For holding tea samples and checking the quality of dry tea leaves

International Standard

Tea Evaluation Plate:

For checking the quality of infused tea leaves

There is more teaware you may need for International Standard Tea Evaluation, but the three items listed above cover the basics.

How to Perform the International Standard Tea Evaluation Process

Step1: Checking the Dry Tea Leaves

This first step is an important start for checking tea quality.

Observe the shape of the leaves, the aroma, and other information you can only read from dry tea leaves. This will give you a general idea of the potential grade and quality of your tea.

The next steps will consist of the work of confirming your initial assessment of the dry tea leaves.

Step 2: Brewing the Tea

For International Standard Tea Evaluation, brewing tea differs from the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. You will need to brew a specific quantity of tea for a fixed time. Different shapes of tea will require different brewing times.

International Standard Tea Evaluation brewing is “NOT FOR TASTE, BUT FOR TASTING.” The purpose is not to brew with the intent of bringing out the best tastes in the tea, but rather to brew by certain standards and then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.

Step 3: Smell Tea

Immediately after brewing the liquor from the leaves, smell the teacup. At this time the tea cup is warm and the aroma of the brewed leaves is very strong. Smelling the tea cup gives you the fullest sense of the exact aroma.

Step 4: Tasting the Tea

This tasting will be different from the tasting involved with the Chinese tea ceremony. You will need to note both the good tastes and the bad tastes all in one sip and compare them to the tea aroma you just smelled from the tea cup; this helps confirm your judgment of the tea’s quality. Then, you will try to find out which aspect of the tea processing was good, and which part was a failure.

Step 5: Check the Brewed Tea Leaves

The final and most important step helps you re-check your judgment of tea quality to make sure it is accurate. Based on the above three steps, you have all the details you need to pass a general judgment of the tea’s quality. Checking the brewed leaves verifies your previous assessments. If they don’t match your judgment to this point, you will need to go through all the steps again.

Step 6: Recording

Throughout every single step of tea evaluation, you will use professional forms that have been prepared for you to record your evaluation and help you arrive at your final judgment of the tea’s quality.

In the international tea trade, recording all of your tea evaluation results is extremely important. Your records help you make good decisions when purchasing and selling tea.

Essential Skill Three - Running a Successful Tea Business

You can run a tea business without ever seeing where the tea is grown, but you will be missing a vital link. Without knowing your source, even if you are wildly successful at selling tea, there is no guarantee you are doing the world a favor.

Who you do business with matters. If you want to have a tea business that is sustainable in the long term, you need to visit the original source of your tea.

Since how tea is grown is the main determinant of its quality, making sure your tea is grown in good conditions is vital to your tea business.

In addition, if you don’t have any idea what the work of tea farmers is like, how can you appreciate the tea you are brewing or selling? And how can you authentically share your appreciation of the teas you offer with your customers?

There are hundreds of ways of processing tea that can produce vastly different types of tea from the same leaves. The type of tea and its taste and quality all depend on the skill of the people producing it. If you don’t know how tea is processed, then you won’t know its true quality or what it’s actually worth.

There are many tea masters out there waiting for you to discover them. How will you communicate with them? What can you learn from them? How do you develop your business sustainably alongside the great tea masters? What should you do to protect our tea masters and tea culture that will also allow your business and the tea industry to grow in a healthy way? These are all questions you will need to find the answers to.

We have spent over 7 years hunting the highest quality ancient tea trees all over China. These rare gems are living treasures that will open your eyes to what tea really is – and how we have all suffered from developments in the modern tea industry. These trees will open you to the truth that how you run your tea business has the power to change the world for the better.

Essential Skill Four - Analysis of the Global Tea Industry

Based on over 10 years of experience in global tea market analysis, we will help you form a comprehensive understanding of market dynamics so you can have the foresight to build a strong and adaptive tea business.

What is the Best Way to Learn to be a Professional Tea Sommelier?

The craft of a Professional Tea Sommelier is best-transmitted face to face by an experienced teacher to a serious student.

Learning from books and videos is no substitute for the real thing. Having a live teacher to guide you in all aspects of tea, even down to posture, breathing, and other deviations from the proper way can save you years of painful un-learning of bad habits.

If you are interested in learning the trade of the Professional Tea Sommelier in person, be sure to visit our website for our latest workshops and retreats. You can also book a live video session over Skype or come to other live training.

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