Tea…is my second favorite beverage after most of the alcoholic ones. One of the main reasons that I enjoy alcoholic beverages is not the alcohol itself, though that can lend a pleasant lift to a social evening. The reason is that these beverages often are indicative of a place, reflecting not only what the French call terroir but also culture and history. Tea is at least as indicative of place as grapes, grain, or agave, though its social lubrication qualities are somewhat different.
The second most-consumed beverage in the word, surpassed only by water, is produced in many regions. The nexus of tea production is Asia, where China, Japan, Taiwan (née Formosa), India, Korea, Nepal, and Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon) produce classic styles of tea. The growing region, cultivation method, production process, and steeping regimen of sub-regions within these countries impart differences as significant as those found in Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra. So how does one begin to learn the myriad styles of tea? Much like one learns about wine: taste, and perhaps take a class and consult some references.
The Court of Master Sommeliers, Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation, Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and Society of Wine Educators, amongst others in the wine certification world, have developed excellent tools and techniques for differentiating the wines of the world. Each of these organizations offers classes in which benchmark styles are tasted and analyzed. These wines provide a base for future learning and reference points for comparison with other wines.
Traditionally, as with wine, tea knowledge was gained from experience. Certification is much more recent in the realm of tea than in wine, and the systems have not been refined as much as with wine education. The Specialty Tea Institute (STI) offers the best classes for tea certification, but refrains from revealing producers or agents in order not to be seen as endorsing products. In addition, classic descriptors are given for only a portion of the teas. While STI already offers the best education for aspiring tea geeks, adding these two aspects to classes would elevate the practical education to an even higher level.
Fortunately there are options to augment the STI classes. I recommend one older and two recent books for anyone interested in exploring what is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable beverages in the world. All provide recommendations of classic tea styles and descriptors for each.
Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by the folks at The Camellia Sinensis Tea House
History of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss
Tea: Aromas and Flavors Around the World by Lydia Gautier
These books in combination with STI classes can take you on a journey that is both enjoyable and rewarding. Most importantly, don’t forget to taste (and drink!) tea.
If you are in Dallas, Texas, please visit Kyle Stewart at The Cultured Cup to learn more about STI classes and to taste the range of tea styles available.