How to Become a Tea Master
A tea master is to tea what a sommelier is to wine: an expert who can identify the drink’s origin, aromas, mouthfeel, and much more. As Pure Leaf tea master Alex White explains, “I love tea beyond any normal measure and have a real appreciation for the craft behind it.”
White samples hundreds of teas a day to ensure consistency throughout his brand’s portfolio. “I help to sample, select, and purchase the tea that we use in our products,” White explains. “I help manage the crafting process. And because tea is an agricultural product, it has a natural variation that I must moderate and oversee in all tea blends to ensure a high standard of quality and taste."
Sound like a job you’d like to do? Same. Here are five steps White says you should take to become a tea master yourself.
1. Be ready to dedicate your time to the craft.
To become a tea master for Pure Leaf, White underwent two years of rigorous training, in which he learned how to “taste, recognize, and classify tea accurately,” he says. “Part of my training called for monthly blind taste tests, or ‘calibrations,’ which are designed to teach, test, and ensure a tea master’s accuracy. With this extensive training, I am able to identify a tea and nearly all of its characteristics in just a few seconds: where it’s from, what grade it is, what it would cost at auction, the mouthfeel, color, aroma, and more.” While you may not participate in the lengthy program that White did, you will have to undergo some kind of demanding training to earn your tea master stripes. “You must meet the highest standards for sourcing, tasting, and blending so you can always provide an authentic, delicious and smooth tea experience,” White says.
2. Pick the perfect pairs.
As White points out, “just as wine and food pairings are carefully thought out, aspiring tea masters should understand there is a science and an art behind tea and food pairings.” In fact, while you may only enjoy tea as a morning or afternoon pick-me-up, “tea is a culinary experience and is commonly used in a variety of dishes, such as marinades, vinaigrettes, and even desserts,” White says. “For example, the subtle flavors of green tea can be paired perfectly with fish to heighten the experience of the meal.” If you, too, want to be a tea master, you’ll need to think beyond the tea to the entire experience.
3. Immerse yourself.
“In addition to knowing how to manage and care for tea as a plant, you must always keep in mind that tea has a rich history and culture in order to purchase and blend the best teas possible,” explains White. At Pure Leaf “a tea master must have extensive knowledge of tea from an agricultural, historical, and commercial perspective, as they may provide tea-related advice and consultancy within the company, oversee all new tea product development, manage the variation of tea plants, and ensure compliance on every tea lot purchased.” In other words, it’s time to study up.
4. Work with tea estates.
According to White, “where tea leaves grow and how they are picked is fundamental to the flavor and quality.” So, White suggests that as you work to become a tea master, you visit tea fields — anywhere from India to Japan — and “see firsthand the dedication to growing and hand-picking tea leaves.” Travel in the name of tea research? Consider your next vacation planned.
5. Hone your passion for teas.
If you want to become a tea master, you’re passionate about the drink—and that passion is something you must continue to exploit, White says. “Tea is more than a commodity; it is a story with incredible history, magnificent sceneries, diverse cultures, communities, and scientific heritage,” he says. “And to fully appreciate tea, you must be committed to telling its story and providing an authentic sensory experience.” That could mean anything from perfecting a balance of spices to evoke a certain environment or story, to serving the brew in a carefully considered tea set. As White says, "You must be passionate about creating these experiences with every tea you craft.”