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 discussionObviously 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.