I have to admit that I love continuous professional development. Learning. Pieces of paper with letters. So I planned two weeks of learning about tea, coffee and chocolate in London in August and September 2017, and even managed to squeeze in some sake!
First, tea. Although a most beloved drink in the countries where I’ve spent most of my life to date (Ireland and England) I actually knew very little about it. The main point of discussion in Ireland was whether your house drank Barry’s or Lyons Tea. (The two major brands found in every supermarket. Just to be contrary, my Lyons home drank Barry’s.) After I moved to the UK it was all about milk first or not, but beyond that it was again a question of which high street tea bag. People who were older or more sophisticated, or objected to the price of tea bags, used leaf tea. And, um, it was a good gift if you were going abroad.
It was something we drank day in, day out, many times a day, without really appreciating what it was or where it came from. It was only after getting into sake and taking the WSET Level 3 sake course that I started thinking about the origins and processing of other food and drink. (I can blame sake for a lot of things, and I will.)
Tea Champion is a two-day tea course run by the UK Tea Academy, who bill themselves as the only UK organisation offering a professional tea certification programme. It was held in Westminster Kingsway College, a catering college a few minutes walk from Victoria Station, in a classroom fully equipped with facilities for making tea (and coffee, judging by the posters on the walls). The course I took was split over two weeks, with a full day on each Tuesday. That was one thing that had put me off taking it before, as unless I was doing something else I would have to travel to London twice, but as it happened it bookended the chocolate course and the London School of Coffee sensory course. Some courses run over two consecutive days (e.g. Tue and Wed) so it’s worth checking the course calendar if that’s more convenient for you.
The majority of people in the class were working in the catering or food and drink sectors (staff of famous hotels/tea rooms, tea companies, department stores, coffee roasters) with one starting her own tea business, one aiming to help friends growing tea in Africa improve their business, and one taking the course purely out of personal interest. Lots of them wanted to offer tea alongside other drinks, including coffee and wine – a wine sommelier I met on the International Institute of Chocolate and Cocoa Tasting Level 1 course had already taken the Tea Champion course to increase the range of tasting opportunities he could offer customers. This was very interesting, as I was already thinking that – like me – people who develop an interest in one food or drink will see it extend to others as well. (And to the circumstances of the people who produce that it, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
The course covers a lot in two days, as you can see in the course description, starting with the basics of what should be called tea (polite reminder that if it’s just herbs and/or fruit, it’s an infusion), the different varieties of tea plant and where they grow. Jane Pettigrew, the director of the UK Tea Academy, stressed that processed teas have hundreds of flavour profiles, which could be more than coffee and definitely more than wine. She also mentioned a compound called L-theanine which was reputed to have health benefits and also produce the relaxing “ahhh” of a good cuppa. The effects are not yet recognised by regulators and so it’s not advertised on packs, but the tea industry seems to be working on that. In any case, the molecular structure is close to that of glutamate and therefore thought to be responsible for the umami component in green tea. (Extensive information on Examine.com although I don’t know if the site is reliable.) It was also interesting that the mythical origins of tea involve someone looking at plant infusions for their effects on health. That was certainly a recurring theme.
The history of tea trade and drinking around the world was particularly fascinating, including the development of the tea bag (for reasons of portability/increased consumption, something that would also come up in the chocolate course) and tea as a form of currency, the origins of the “tea break”, and the Opium Wars with China that led to the development of tea plantations in India and later, in response to demand for tea bags, in Africa. The development of different cultivars of tea plant was also interesting – wild tea trees are tall and difficult to harvest, whereas many plantations have small bushes that are easier to pick leaves from. Tea cultivation faces a serious threat from climate change, just like coffee, and although work is underway to find varietals or cultivars that can cope with changes in heat, humidity, etc. it will take a long time – up to 25 years.
The course then moved on to seasonality and terroir, where another common theme emerged – that the most prized flavours come from less than ideal conditions. For tea, that means slow growth in cool, dry conditions at high altitude. (For sake, it means slow, cool fermentation that stresses yeast and causes them to produce the characteristic ginjo-ka aromas.) Depending on their climate, some regions produce tea only in certain seasons and others (near the tropics) produce all year round. There was also discussion of growing on large areas of flat land where machinery can be easily used versus on slopes or other difficult terrain, and the decrease in people willing to do this kind of work (something I’d previously come across in wine).
After a brief description of the six types of tea produced by different styles of processing, the tasting began. Although I have managed a reasonable amount of practice before, during and after the WSET sake course, I found it very difficult to recognise teas blind after tasting them. Making notes and identifying aromas and flavours was fine, and I could tell that different teas were different, but it’s a good thing that blind tasting was not part of the final exam.
We also looked at different tea bags, from sealed flat paper ones that cost about GBP £0.01 each to high-tech Japanese ultrasound-sealed biodegradable cornstarch clear pyramid tea bags large enough to hold entire leaves (GBP £0.04 each). Returning to the idea of convenience, Jane pointed out that tea bags are easier for high-volume catering – less mess, no special training needed.
Next was the five tastes (sweet, sour/acidic, salty, bitter and umami – at least I got good practice in these as they also came up in the coffee sensory and chocolate tasting courses) and the importance of the nose in determining flavour. Lots of slurping, which I’ve gradually got used to from coffee tasting.
We then went through a structured tasting process where we looked at the dry leaf, evaluating aroma, colour and shape and looking for buds, then examining the wet leaf for colour, shape and smell, and finally evaluating the clarity, colour, smell and flavour of the brewed tea. We used both a flavour wheel and a spider chart that evaluated various properties of the teas – interesting when we compared two similar teas (e.g. same tea grown in different places) or the same tea processed differently (e.g. rolled leaves versus tea bag). (Although Martin Christie of Seventy% would have many critical things to say about flavour wheels and spider charts a few days later on the chocolate course.)
Sediment in green teas was also mentioned – Japanese steam processing produces lots of particulates, so sediment is expected and not considered a fault. However, Chinese dry heat processing seals the leaf and doesn’t produce particulates, so the tea shouldn’t produce sediment. We also had a brief look at matcha. I never realised how it was produced – the stems are stripped from the leaves which are then pulverised, so instead of drinking an infusion of the leaf you consume the whole thing.
We then moved on to making and storing tea, including the effect of water. Chlorine and limescale affect brewing badly so Jane’s advice was to use filtered water. Oxygen was also important (no reboiling the kettle). We tasted the same tea made with freshly boiled filtered water and deoxygenated water, then with filtered and unfiltered water, and green tea brewed at two different temperatures. Jane also emphasised that tea should be weighed out, not measured by volume (e.g. teaspoons) as the shape and size of the leaves could give you a very different weight of tea for the same volume.
And all that was just module 1!
We started Module 2 with a practical exercise to apply what we had just learned by brewing tea in different brewing systems (a range of teapots and other containers) with the recommended volume of water and brewing time. There was also a paper exercise to figure out how to reliably get water for brewing at different temperatures with limited time, space and investment (low tech solution – one source of hot water, measured amounts of cold water, thermometers). We then discussed tea terminology and the basic techniques used to dry, oxidise and/or ferment and process tea into the range of varieties we see on the shelves.
Finally, we tasted more black teas, reviewed the process for making black and green teas, and looked at techniques to change the flavour of tea in the leaf, such as shading. (Adversity = flavour again!)
The following Tuesday we were back in the same classroom to talk about white tea, which I had at least heard of and drunk a few times, and yellow tea, which was completely new to me. It turns out to be slightly fermented with minimal oxidation, producing a lovely mellow tea with slightly musty overtones. The laborious processing makes it more expensive than the similar but minimally minimally processed white tea. There was more fun with terminology, such as French using duvet for the fluffy covering on the buds used to make yellow/white tea, known as “pekoe” in English as a corruption of the Chinese term.
We then moved on to oolong teas, which I’d heard of and probably had before but knew nothing about. Jane went into great detail on the time-consuming processing for the dark and jade types of oolong, then we moved on to an exercise where we assessed the brewing temperature and time for different teas.
Next were puerh teas, which only became available in the west around 2000. This was also mostly new to me, as I’d barely heard of the type of tea before, but its history was fascinating – green tea accidentally fermented on the long journey from Yunnan province to Tibet, producing a completely different appearance and flavour which was also due to the unique microbial communities deposited on the tea before it was sent out.
The complicated processing and length of time needed to produce the traditional puerh (shung) tea was an issue for tea manufacturers, who developed a method of heaping hot, wet leaves to produce a similar flavour in just a few months (shu tea). Water drained off shung tea was used to wet the shu tea, presumably to transfer the right microbial community. We also got the chance to try some of the teas, and to see the beautiful packaged cakes – including one steamed over rice which had an amazing aroma.
After some more terminology, we moved on to tea grading, which is not standardised and where flowery language abounds for marketing purposes. (But there is an ISO for tea tasting.) We had fun looking at tea packaging and figuring out what has meaning and what is just fluff.
Then it was flavoured teas, with some flavoured in the country of production and others in the country of consumption, and more consideration of tea bags (which use flavour granules). The components of flavoured teas have to be similar in size and weight to avoid settling and separation. The final topic for the mechanics of tea production was blending, where you also had to consider the grade (size) of the tea to make sure the different components of the blend did not separate.
The big challenge was then to taste an English Breakfast tea blend and recreate it ourselves! We had a selection of pure teas to consider, some were ruled out (wrong flavour profile or wrong size) and then we had to estimate the proportion of each suitable tea to make up the blend. I was teamed up with one of the attendees from the coffee roaster, we didn’t do too badly but were still fairly far off the mark.
The last sessions were on certification and ethical production, followed by health benefits of tea. Increased demand for organic produce has seen a shift to organic production, which is more labour-intensive and therefore more expensive, but no guarantee of quality from a tea perspective. There is also the issue that a producer may essentially be using organic methods but can’t afford the certification, also a problem for coffee and chocolate.
Fairtrade was held up as a mixed success – it has huge name recognition but farmers have to pay to join and it’s not suitable for small farmers. The premium charged goes back to the farmers who can decide how to spend it, and there is also a minimum price for tea and other products bought under the scheme. Another body is the Ethical Tea Partnership, specifically for tea, which audits tea gardens (much nicer name than “plantation”) against local laws and their own codes against child labour, although the audit system doesn’t seem to be completely foolproof as one garden was found to have dangerous working conditions. The scheme is funded by the founding companies and free for farmers to join. Rainforest Alliance was also mentioned, and although it sounded like they focus on environmental impact and sustainable agriculture rather than working conditions, pricing or other factors – so no one group covered everything – upon looking at their site they also work for human and economic rights.
And finally… health. Bogus health claims have always annoyed me, and more so since I completed my biology degree last year. I decided to keep my head down and write my comments in my notebook rather than out loud, although I’m sure my expression must have spoken for me at some points.
Jane put the increase in tea consumption down to its purported health benefits, with the astringent polyphenols (which the plant produces along with caffeine to defend itself from being eaten) renowned as antioxidants. (Do the antioxidants survive processing? Too many antioxidants are not beneficial for health, and the free radical/antioxidant theory of ageing is just one of several competing theories…) There was also mention of tea protecting from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but no citations given and some very weaselly words such as “I think the jury says it’s okay” and “the general consensus is” which may not annoy you so much if you haven’t spent the last few years backing up everything you say. Your mileage may vary.
So in summary, leaving aside the health section, it was a fantastic course that goes into incredible depth over the two days. There were two assistants each day, so the tastings, blendings, etc. were all run beautifully. Probably the best organised course that I went to this year or even the last few years in that respect. There was an excellent mix of instruction, activities and well-planned tastings that helped bring the material to life. The practical exercises were really useful in terms of thinking about how to apply what we were learning, and the knowledge and enthusiasm of the tutor and assistants were second to none. The two days are intensive, and if you choose to do the exam on the second day (as I did) a lot of revision beforehand is a good idea. You can also take it later on another date the course is running if that’s easier. I can highly recommend it as a thorough introduction to tea in all its forms.
Would I go on to do the next module, Tea Sommelier? Probably not at the moment, as my main aim in doing the course was to grasp the basics of tea (definitely achieved, learned about types of tea I didn’t even know existed), recap some of the tasting procedures and terminology I already knew from sake and coffee tasting (also achieved) and have another something to taste when I wasn’t tasting sake. But the next level course goes into a lot of detail and also covers skills like water delivery and brewing systems and organising tastings, which is more relevant for someone working in the industry. (Although the sections on writing descriptions would be exactly what I want.) So – not now, but based on my experience with the Tea Champion course I’d be more than happy to if it became more relevant.