A Tea Sommelier: What Is It and Can You Be One?

An ever-increasing focus on health means restaurants and bars are also seeing a significant and increasing demand for alcohol-free drinks, says Roqberry Tea Sommelier Kim Havalaar.

Lunchtime sittings, especially during business meetings, often require alcohol-free beverages. Simultaneously, tea is gaining in popularity and expanding well beyond your everyday brew. The demand for speciality black, green and herbal teas is rising year-on-year.

What Is a Tea Sommelier?

You may be surprised to hear that tea has a fantastic ability to complement food dishes with a variety of flavour profiles. For this reason, more and more restaurants now offer a tea and food pairing menu alongside their wine pairing menu. It is not surprising then, that alongside the long-established profession of a wine sommelier, a newly emerging role is that of tea sommelier.

In a similar way that a wine sommelier looks after the wine offering of a restaurant, a tea sommelier looks after the tea menu, ensures members of staff are properly trained on how to brew each tea and that they understand the unique characteristics of each variety. A tea sommelier also works with the chef to pair tea to the food menu and can suggest teas that best complement a particular dish.

How To Qualify

To work as a tea sommelier the first step is a degree of self-study on the subject through books and research and ideally some experience of tea within in a hospitality setting. I have also visited tea plantations and manufacturers in India and throughout Japan to understand the process from leaf to cup. To stay up-to-date on the latest innovations, I think it is important to visit tea plantations all over the world regularly.

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Certifications can be obtained through the UK Tea Academy. To achieve this, you will follow an intensive course followed by both a written and verbal exam, as well as a practical test on identifying tea and achieving the optimal brew for that particular variety. Each tea has an ideal brewing temperature and time.

How Do Teas Differ?

Again, very much like wine, tea is grown in several countries around the world, each with their unique processing methods and flavour profiles. As a sommelier, you have a broad knowledge about the main categories of tea and the most renowned varieties within them. With time and experience, you deepen your knowledge, but as the topic is so expansive there will always be more to learn. Even tea masters tend to specialise in a particular tea origin as it is impossible to know all there is to know about every tea.

All tea comes from a plant called Camellia Sinensis – subdivided into Camellia Sinensis Sinensis and Camellia Sinensis Assamica – there are thousands of varietals (naturally occurring variations of the plant) and cultivars (variations of the plant created by man).

Tea is heavily influenced by or the environment in which it’s grown, or ‘terroir’, including everything from temperature, humidity levels, elevation, the quality of the soil and groundwater. The season in which it is harvested, and how the tea is plucked also have an impact, and of course, the post-harvest processing method.

Tea from Roqberry

Perfect Pairings

A significant part of being a tea sommelier has to do with being able to suggest a tea to compliment particular dishes. The variety and versatility of tea lends itself perfectly to pair with meals and almost all teas, including flavoured blends, will have a food pairing that works well. I find that although certain basic rules can be learned from theory, a better ability to suggest tea and food pairings comes from experience, palette, and a degree of trial and error.

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Because Roqberry is a foodie-inspired company – and because I love tea – I decided to certify as a tea sommelier. For me, pairing tea with the right food is important. I worked with restaurants on finding the best blends to complement their dishes and we include tasting tips on all of our packs.

Some of my favourite pairings to date include: Peppermint Cream – a Milk Oolong with peppermint and cacao – with caramelised pan-fried Dover sole and a dab of pea tartare; Raspberry Fondant – a Sri Lankan black tea with Cacao and freeze-dried raspberry – with confit duck and blackberry puree; and Turmeric Chai, a herbal infusion, with Caribbean goat curry.