Thursday, June 30, 2016

World Tea Expo, Day 1- Re-Evaluating Tea Education

(from right to left: Jo Johnson, James Norwood Pratt, Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, Darlene Meyers-Perry)
So, here's the thing. I sat down to write a recap of my first full day at the World Tea Expo. I started sketching out my ideas for the Tea Education panel...and realized there was so much to say that it had to exist on its own. In order to spare you a post that would take a few hours to read, I'm going to stick with discussing the panel and everything leading up to it. 

Early in the morning I nervously checked in and received my press badge and met up with a few tea friends, most of whom I had never met in person before, Geoffrey Norman, Naomi Rosen, Rachel Carter, and Nicole Schwartz. It was such a pleasure to meet everyone. I also of course got to see Nicole Martin, which is always a treat, and I met her fabulous 'tea sherpa' fiancee, Jason. Seeing everyone helped dissolve a bit of my 'new girl' anxiety and their friendliness warmed my heart (which was not an easy thing to do in the sub-zero temperatures inside the convention center).

After meeting everyone it was time for my first seminar of the expo, one I was really looking forward to: Re-Evaluating Tea Education. Jo Johnson was the fearless moderator keeping everyone in check, and the panel consisted of several very well respected tea professionals (I consider them tea celebrities): Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, James Norwood Pratt, and Darlene Meyers-Perry. This star-studded panel had quite a task ahead of them, discussing the future of tea education. This is a hot button topic, as there is no standard for education,and many sub-par programs exist. There are a few well-run rograms but since there is no consistency, tea education in general gets a bad rap. As James Norwood Pratt mentions in the discussion, "information is not knowledge". This is very true. Sitting in a room listening to words doesn't mean you're actually absorbing them. Or retaining anything at all. But of course this statement doesn't mean a student passionate about tea in the right education environment isn't learning anything. He's just saying that generally, you can't assume someone has learned what they need to just by attending classes.

Kevin Gascoyne discussed the importance of knowing the business side of things, which is equally as important as the 'technical' tea side. As students of tea, we need to understand the market,and how to encourage it. This also made sense to me, as you can't be successful in the tea industry (or any industry really) without real-world business experience. There is also huge need for educating businesses on teas they sell, and how to curate them more carefully. There is nothing more frustrating for the consumer than to walk into a store to find hundreds of teas and a staff with a rudimentary knowledge of them.

Kevin said he prefers hiring individuals without a formal tea education so he can teach them from scratch. While I can completely understand why he'd say this, I think it's a bit too general. Of course at this point it's impossible to know what someone was taught, and if the information learned is even accurate. But it seems a bit unfair to completely dismiss someone right off. He did clarify later that he wouldn't completely discount someone that happens to have certification, but he's looking for someone willing to build on what they know and keep an open mind since no one can ever know everything in tea. At one point he said "We're on a journey, not a destination", which I thought was a good way to describe his position.

Jo Johnson explained a bit about her own experience in tea education. She has taken classes because she sought a formal guide on what to study in order to stay focused and not get distracted through  her research. I completely related to this, because whenever I start doing research on teas, I'll look at one thing, get side tracked by an equally interesting tea fact (Ooh! 17th century tea water pumps!) and then end up going off in a different direction. While this is part of the learning process, it is also very time consuming and gets you off topic. Tea education should bring guidance to people like myself that are looking for it, as well as a solid foundation of knowledge.

Everyone agreed the current state of tea education had to change. But we didn't really get into how that could start to happen. There are so many levels to tea education, so where do we start?  You certainly can't get a PhD in tea in the US (and do you really need to?), but why can't there be clear tracks of education, with majors, and areas to specialize in? The most important thing the panelists agreed on is that there needs to be real-world experience in tea education. You can't just read a few books, taste a few teas, and consider yourself educated. It's an ongoing process and interactive experience within the industry is key.  As Darlene Meyers-Perry said, "We will always be learning. You are forever a student of tea."

At this point in the discussion I started to wonder- could the state of tea education be helped with tea internships for students? Working alongside tea professionals, and going on tea-sourcing trips to growing regions could be interesting ways of adding 'internship' experience to an education program. This could be a good starting point for students looking to gain real-world experience in the industry if they don't already have it.

Austin Hodge pointed out that education is a long, ongoing process and it's important for students to realize this. He said "As a tea professional, it'll take you 10 years to realize what you don't know". He wants to see a student that is humble, and continuing to learn since there is never an end to anyone's tea education. Any student that thinks they've learned enough is setting themselves up for failure.

My frustration with the panel discussion is that there just wasn't enough time to even scratch the surface of the issue. This panel shows the importance of continued discussion and action on tea education. We need to find a way for those of us that want formal learning to get the best education possible in and outside of the classroom, and be seen as aspiring tea professionals. We need to recognize educators that are actually running good programs, and help them to be even better. I wished we could hear the panel's ideas on how to change and improve the state of things, but alas we ran out of time. I think this was a good jumping-off point, and I hope the discussion can continue to get deeper into specifics. We need to work together as an industry to get the standards of tea education up to a level where it is truly respected.

...ok, I promise the next post will be about teas, products and tea people I encountered at the expo!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Reflections on The World Tea Expo: Day 1/2

Well, what a whirlwind! My brain is still processing 3 full days of exploring tea and chatting with amazing tea folks at World Tea Expo. I had no idea what to expect other than: "the days are hectic", "you will not have time for lunch", "you WILL be tea drunk" and "you'll need a sweater". These turned out to be important truths.

Even after packing all my stuff, including snacks and a sweater, I was preoccupied. Anxiety is in my blood; I come from a long line of worriers. It's usually my go-to emotion, especially when things are unknown. Anxious electricity filled my stomach in the days leading up to departure. But as usual, I had nothing to worry about. My first expo was a bit overwhelming but the kindness of my fellow bloggers and tea friends made all the difference. It was an incredibly memorable experience. I tried to soak in as much as possible, and as I said, I'm still sorting through the memories. I thought I'd posts by the separate days that encompassed my adventure at World Tea Expo. This post is the 'pre-expo' summary, basically 1/2 a day in Vegas.

My tea adventure started before I boarded the plane. Tea on an airplane is a painful experience. Not just because of the tea they serve- it's the water that ruins the party. I don't know much about the behind-the-scenes of airplane cuisine, but that water tastes terrible. Wherever it comes from, it always ends up tasting like dishwater. So, since I couldn't bring in my own water from home, I decided to take an empty thermos and try to beg for hot water at one of the airport cafes. This proved to be easy to do and I had a full thermos of hot water simply by asking for it. The trickier part was just getting a cup on the plane. When asked if I wanted a drink, I said 'just a cup for tea, I have my own water and tea leaves'. The flight attendant looked at me like I had three heads. To her credit, she quickly regained her composure and asked again what I wanted. I explained again and she got it- I ended up with the right cup, and tea was served. I put my leaves in a refillable tea bag, although I probably would've gone grandpa style. I was worried that the flight attendant would want to clear the cup and take the perfectly good leaves away before I was finished with them. So with a little planning, I had a nice roasted oolong and it helped keep me calm for the whole flight.

After landing, I ran into Jo J. in the airport. It was comforting to see a familiar face after walking through the noise of airport chaos and slot machines. Arriving at my hotel, I decided I'd have a quiet evening to gather my thoughts and prepare for the start of the expo the following day. My inner introvert needed some time to prepare. A few minutes later my phone pinged and I noticed a message in our blogger group. Linda Gaylard was wondering if anyone was free for dinner. I hadn't met Linda in person, but we've chatted online before and I knew it would be nice to get to know her one on one. We agreed on a time and place, and off I went to meet her. We had a lovely dinner that was relaxing and convivial. I enjoyed chatting with her in person, and learning more about her career in tea. If you haven't checked out her book yet, it's a must read for any tea enthusiast. As dinner wound down, we of course asked the server about tea options. We exchanged amused glances over the selection of 'umm, we have an English a green, Oh! And an Earl Grey'.

Back at the hotel I was unpacking a few things, and noticed the most amazing thing. The painting on the wall was tea-art! At least, I assume it was. I mean, look at this:

I think it's too light to be rings of a coffee mug. It must be tea! I took this as a very good sign for the days ahead of me. If there is a painting made of tea in my ridiculously garish Las Vegas hotel, then there is lots of good to uncover in this town. This turned out to be true, as you'll see in my next few posts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

...On Tea Education.

My daughter the budding tea lover recently asked me to do a presentation on tea for her 3rd grade class. I’m excited to expose children this young to the wonders of tea, and use their senses to enjoy various herbals. After speaking with her teacher about the idea, it got me thinking- why am I qualified to teach children about tea? The tea industry is mixed on the topic of tea education, and there is good reason for it. Professional certification programs vary in quality and depth, and anyone with a fat wallet can take one. There is no standard of excellence to achieve, no way of knowing that you are getting a proper tea education. 

Tea education is a relatively new industry in the US. Because of this, there are many people jumping on the education bandwagon and nothing is standardized. World of Tea recently published an excellent article calling out the use of the term tea sommelier, and I couldn't agree more with this. I am a big believer in education, but there needs to be a unified standard for teaching, specific levels of mastery, and precise areas of focus.

A bit of a disclaimer
It's hard for me to really critique this emerging industry, as someone who has both a bachelor's and master's degree. Clearly I'm an advocate for higher education.  But with lack of scholarships, and the obvious lack of educational standards, can I even say we should have formal tea education for those that want it? Before I go any further, let me be quite frank about one thing- I'm currently enrolled in a tea sommelier program. Yup! Does that make me a hypocrite? I don't think so. As a full time working mom, freelance writer, and tea lover, finding the time to educate myself can be a challenge. If I have a few spare minutes to myself, I may decide to spend them reading about or drinking tea, but maybe not with the motivation or focus to fully absorb what I'm learning. For a long time I wanted an outlet to help further my tea education. With my schedule, I need to specifically carve out time and have essays and exams to motivate me. I applaud those that don’t need this kind of motivation to further their tea knowledge, but for me, it’s a necessity!

A few bloggers and I got together and decided we wanted to find the best online education source for our needs. Much research and time was put into choosing the right program. It was a daunting process, so we talked to tea people. We spoke with many tea bloggers and professionals, and we learned quite a bit about the various online course options available to us. We chose wisely, and we’re all very happy with the choice. The classes are very small (often one-on-one), the course work is rigorous (with many essays and exams), and most importantly it has been motivating me to keep on learning. I’ve got a long road of tea education ahead of me, and it’s very exciting. Ok, with that out of the way, let me continue...

The significance in a name
To be clear, I'm talking about a specific certification level, one where you are supposed to gain a high level of tea understanding. Most of the formal tea education programs call this certification status 'tea sommelier'. Some of the backlash in the industry has to do with the term, 'sommelier'. This is a term obviously borrowed from the wine industry and has no true basis in tea education. It indicates a very high level of education and palate refinement. I don't love the term 'tea sommelier' either. It is a borrowed term and doesn’t come close to the same level of expertise. But of course it is a useful word since it indicates a level of knowledge about flavors, terroir, preparation, pairings... things that sommeliers are expected to understand. But of course, just saying you are a tea sommelier doesn't mean anything. There are no specific educational requirements, or years of mastery like that of a wine sommelier. Since you can never master tea, a tea sommelier (or similar title) needs to have a specified skill set. Just like there are different majors at universities, there should be different areas of certification and levels of study. 

I wonder, what should we call students such as me? Am I a tea intern? A tea student? A Tea jedi-in-training? An aspiring tea professional?

What needs to happen?
Of course, we need to scrutinize the US tea education industry, and this is slowly starting to happen. Who are the teachers, why are they qualified to teach? Why bother to get a formal education at all? At this point, just about anyone can create a tea education program. Looking for a tea sommelier course can cause sensory overload. Courses range in price and time commitment. I've heard horror stories of poorly trained teachers, stale tea provided for tastings, all sorts of drama around the tea education system. What’s a prospective student to do? Finding a school isn’t as easy as it seems.

The importance of discussion
Obviously there is a need for a motivated discussion on reforming and standardizing tea education. Set a high bar to create trust in the tea educational system, and hold ‘tea professionals’ to a specific level of proficiency. In less than a week I'll be attending the World Tea Expo (So excited! So nervous!), and there is an exciting panel on re-evaluating tea education. I cannot wait to attend this session and hear the discussion. I will be taking notes and will report back. If you have any specific questions you’d like to me to raise at this WTE session, please let me know in the comments. As tea students, let’s get our voices heard!

Just to note, these are just my humble thoughts about tea education. I don't think you need to have a formal tea education to be passionate about tea, or have professional knowledge. Nor do you need it to be successful in the tea industry. But for people like me that want a formal education, there is work to be done.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review: Teavivre Organic Tian Mu Mao Feng Green tea

It's a great time of year for tea drinking (ok, when is it not a great time of year for tea drinking?). Many spring teas have been released, and I recently received a package of fresh teas from Teavivre. It just so happens that I needed a Chinese green tea to review for a tea class that I'm taking through ITEI, and I decided to try Teavivre's Organic Tian Mu Mao Feng. Teavivre describes this tea as pure tea buds and new leaves. In fact, Mao Feng refers to the fuzzy tea buds. This is an important thing to note for later in the post.

I've been delving deeper into tea tasting through my class, and I think the more structured tastings are helping me to identify more characteristics in a tea. Since this is a Chinese tea, we decided to use a gaiwan. The leaves had a lot of flavor to share with me, and I was able to get quite a few steeps out of them.

Teavivre lists the harvest time as April 14th, 2016. This tea is from Tian Mu mountain in Hangzhou City. I've had very good experiences with the teas I've had from Teavivre in the past. They package the teas in well sealed vacuum bags, and they have a nice selection.

The dry leaves are a deep, dark foresty green with a little bit of white fuzz scattered about. The leaves are small, and tightly twisted. This tea is supposed to be processed the same day that it's picked. Processing the tea quickly to stop the oxidation causes this tea to have a nice deep green hue, darker than many other types of Chinese greens I've had.

I've been learning about the different grades of Chinese tea, and this one appears to be close to a 'grade 1'. Special grade teas are young buds with the first appearing young leaf. They're plucked before the Qingming festival, which is an ancestral memorial day holiday in China that happens in April on the 15th day of the spring equinox (I think this year it landed on April 4th). The grade 1 teas are 1 bud and 1 leaf, plucked before April 21st. Since this tea has more (tender) leaves than buds (but does contain some buds), and was plucked on April 14th, it probably falls closer to a grade 1.

The dry leaf has a raw green bean aroma, it is sweet and every so slightly floral. It smells very fresh! My first infusion produced a pale yellow tea. The infused leaves had a brisk aroma and a dark green, fresh smell. After examining the wet leaves, I was surprised to see a lack of buds.

The first steep had no astringency at all. It was gently vegetal and delicate. After a few steeps a bit of astringency emerged, which could be because I upped the steep time by a few seconds. There were hints of dryness but the vegetal notes were still there. There was a soft sweetness as well. It became a little more floral as the steeps went on, and kept that fresh vegetal green flavor. This combination brought yellow dandelion flowers to my mind. I could see them as I sipped. It brought back childhood memories of sitting in the spring grass, making chains of dandelion flowers for my friends to wear. This is a medium bodied tea with a beautiful long finish. I tasted it long after I sipped!

As I mentioned, upon inspecting the infused leaves I was hard pressed to find the tell-tale mao feng buds. I found a scant few, and they weren't attached to the leaves. Since Teavivre doesn't mention anything about the grade or quality of the tea, this isn't much of an issue. I'm surprised by the lack of buds, but I still think this is a tasty, enjoyable spring tea. This tea is light, yet flavorful enough to drink all afternoon long, even on the hottest days. Thank you to Teavivre for providing this sample!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Interview: Gabrielle Jammal of Tea Sommelier at the Baccarat Hotel, NYC

Gabrielle, left, I'm on the right

A few months ago I had an amazing afternoon tea experience with Jee and Lisa at the Baccarat hotel. We instantly bonded with the tea sommelier Gabrielle, who's passion for tea is clear from the moment you meet her. We had such fun chatting about tea, that we've even found time to meet for lunch away from the hotel. I thought you'd all be interested in learning a little bit about Gabrielle and what she does as a tea sommelier for the hotel. I'm happy to present our interview below.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Mizuba Tea Company Daily Matcha

I recently had the good fortune of attending an online tandem tasting via google hangouts with other lovely tea folk. The tea discussed was Mizuba's daily matcha. The tea friends in attendance were: Geoffrey Norman, Rachana Rachel Carter, Jo Johnson, and Nicole Martin. Now let me explain first that this tasting was taking place at 9pm, and I suffer from frequent battles with insomnia where I spend way too much time contemplating every creaky, creepy sound at 3am. I was worried the matcha would aggravate the insomnia, so I decided to just enjoy everyone's company and sample it on a morning when I had time to savor it. It was torturous to hear everyone's rave review without a bowl of my own, but I've since had my turn to give it a try.

Now I have to admit I enjoy matcha but I don't make it at home as much as I should. My matcha whisking skills are adequate, but require more practice. On the morning I decided to finally taste this acclaimed tea, I was focused on my matcha setup when I felt a presence sniffing about. I looked next to me and the Littlest Tea Critic had grabbed the sample bag and stuck her nose in it. I asked her what she smelled, and she said 'green tea, vegetables'. This kid knows what she's doing.  The first thing that came to my mind when I put my nose to the dry powder was 'matcha cotton candy'. Seriously, if you could create matcha spun sugar, this is how I think it would smell. Sweet, fresh and creamy like white chocolate studded with spring freshly picked sweet peas.

I started whisking and the Littlest Tea Critic was delighted. She asked if she could try her hand at it. I have to say, the kid's got promise...

After whisking, we both gave it a taste. I have to agree with my fellow bloggers, it's an insanely smooth, velvety matcha. Visions of cream and steamed green beans came to mind. The tea only has a whisper of that sweetness from the dry powder, but it's so fresh, so green. The Littlest Tea Critic also had a few sips and her feedback came as contented sighs.

This Mizbuba daily matcha is affordable and a perfect choice for anyone looking for a matcha fix.I'll definitely purchase some of this once my sample is gone. The Littlest Tea Critic wouldn't have it any other way!

Thank you to Geoffrey Norman for the delicious sample and to Rachana Rachel Carter for organizing!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Interview: Allen Han, Co-Founder of Teforia

Teforia co-founders Allen Han and Kris Efland
If you are plugged into the tea world, chances are you've heard about Teforia, a company hoping to change the way we enjoy tea. I'm not sure how I feel about using a fancy machine to make tea, but once I heard about it I knew I had to find out more. Part of the reason I drink tea is to interact with the leaves, and enjoy being an integral part of the brewing process. Without human interaction, tea wouldn't be possible. I suppose Teforia takes this interaction to a new level and I admit I've heard great things about the tea maker. I haven't had the opportunity to try tea brewed through the Teforia yet, but I hope I'll have the chance at the World Tea Expo coming up in June. The tea maker's technology allows the machine to know exactly what tea you are making, and how to extract the best flavor. I find it interesting that the user is able to adjust the level of antioxidants and caffeine in their brewed tea. I didn't believe this was possible, so I asked about it. The response:
Every infusion recipe for Teforia teas that we've crafted with the help of tea masters around the world includes dozens of variables -- from water temperature and steeping time to agitation of the leaves and more. What most don't realize when they're brewing, and what is difficult to achieve through conventional methods, is that subtle changes in these variables can completely alter the level of caffeine, antioxidants, flavor, aroma, and more in every Teforia tea.
It's intriguing stuff. I'm excited to present this interview with Teforia co-founder Allen Han. Learn about the journey to creating Teforia, and decide if it's something you'd try for yourself.