I started taking courses towards my tea sommelier certification through the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada in January 2015. If you haven’t found your New Year’s Resolution yet, maybe this is it!
Tea sommeliers are the new wine sommeliers. Tea sommelier classes and certification programs are popping up all over the globe as tea drinking enjoys a surge in popularity. Some love tea as a healthy alternative to juice or pop, some love the irresistible dessert blends from David’s Tea. A tea sommelier is someone whose expertise is in, you guessed it, tea!
Here's how I became a certified tea sommelier with the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, and how you can too.
How I Started My Tea Sommelier Training
I can’t remember exactly what made me enrol in Tea 101, but it was probably a Facebook ad. January is Hot Tea Month and tea found me. I clicked on the link and signed up, thinking, “Oh cool, I like tea.”
At the time I was working as a legal assistant, and missed doing classes since I finished my B.A. the spring before.
Cut to two and half years later and I rode this train all the way to the end of the line—I’m a bona fide certified TAC Tea Sommelier®.
What is a tea sommelier?
Tea sommeliers are people who—like wine sommeliers—are trained in the taste, terroir, history, and pairing knowledge of tea.
Much like our friends the wine sommelier, they can recommend how to better prepare and consume tea, can create tasting menus, and have knowledge of the steeped leaf that runs the gamut.
Some tea sommeliers who have especially deep regional knowledge have been known to tell you what mountain a tea was grown on, just by tasting the leaf’s liquor. Those people are like magicians.
All of us have our specialties, of course. Some might be experts in blending and scented tea, some might be Indian black tea ninjas. Some might be handy in the history of Taiwanese tea cultivars. Others might be soil and terroir nerds.
What kind of jobs does a tea sommelier work?
You can expect to see tea sommeliers running tea shops, being hired at upscale hotels to design tea menus and offer advice to restaurant proprietors.
One of my favourite tea experts to follow, Kathy YL Chan, shares her tea consulting services with tourism and culinary businesses.
A certain amount of entrepreneurship is involved in finding yourself in any career. The tea sommelier certificate surely doesn’t guarantee anyone a job, but here’s a fun anecdote for you:
Much to my pride and pleasure, I finished a Master’s in Journalism degree in the Spring of 2017, graduating with the class prize and everything. It was great, but I didn’t have anyone knocking on my door with job offers.
Then, a couple of months later I passed my tea sommelier exam and had two job offers in my inbox the same week. I ended up not taking either (both required me to move), but still, it goes to show that you never know where work will come from, and an expensive university degree doesn’t mean anything on the job market.
Becoming a Certified Tea Sommelier in Canada
I took my training with the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, through their TAC TEA SOMMELIER® program.
More than 210 certified TAC Tea Sommelier® Professionals have graduated from the program, and their students aren’t limited to just Canadians.
The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada has graduated tea sommeliers in Canada, the US, Denmark, India, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, France, Hong Kong, Columbia, Mexico, and South Korea.
There are also students in Norway, Switzerland, South Africa, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Morocco, Mauritius, Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Indonesia.
So, as you can see, it’s quite a global program. In my classes I had some students from France, and Brazil, and it was always interesting to hear their perspective and comments to the class on how tea culture was in their hometowns.
The TAC TEA SOMMELIER® program consists of 8 courses and one final exam. I’ll break down the contents of each course and the exam below.
Step One: Fall in Love with Tea
Step one of your tea sommelier training is to, well, fall in love with tea. That’s the easy part. The hard part will be the crazy relationship with tea you have after.
Okay, so while you could in theory fall in love with tea while studying to be a tea sommelier, I think we all know it’ll be easier if you love tea from the start. Otherwise, the mere sight of your poor kitchen drain clogged with tea leaves after a twenty cup tasting session might become further clogged by your tears of agony.
Step Two: Take Classes With the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada
There are a few different options for taking the 8 courses required to become a tea sommelier through the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada.
CLASSES IN PERSON
If you have the luck of living near one of the colleges where teachers administer the course in person, then I highly recommend you go that route as you’ll get a lot out of the face-to-face interaction, and tasting tea with a group.
If you’re like me and live in a part of the world where no in-person tea sommelier courses exist—never fear! You can do the entire TAC Certified Tea Sommelier program online through the Academy of Tea. I took 100% of my classes online and enjoyed it.
Online classes consist of weekly, live, hour-long lessons with teachers conducted via GoToMeeting (like Skype, but better for classroom settings).
In between lessons, you’ll have tea tasting homework and written assignments. Usually, the class begins by reviewing the lesson for the week, then you’re asked to describe the teas you’ve tasted, we do a bit of tea sommelier vocabulary learning, then there’ll be an open Q&A period at the end.
During your tea sommelier studies, you'll taste tea from around the world.
Who Should Take Tea Sommelier Classes
I should mention now that people hoping to become tea sommeliers or work in tea aren’t the only ones who’d benefit from the tea sommelier classes. I’d also recommend them to anyone who works in professional food and beverage.
The tasting and menu preparation classes in particular are useful for anyone working with artisanal foods—such as wine, chocolate, or coffee.
Restaurateurs could also benefit from this knowledge. As a foodie and tea sommelier, one of my biggest gripes is the severe lack of tea knowledge in the restaurant world.
Even at very upscale places I’ve had a lot of 'meh' tea experiences. Sure, the occasional restaurant will be able to serve a scented tea, breakfast blend, or even a Darjeeling no problem, but ask for a nice oolong, or (god forbid) green tea, and you’re almost always left with a sub par tea experience.
When I go out with friends to restaurants, I’ll often order coffee.
“But don’t you like, LOVE tea?” they ask.
“Exactly,” I say, “That’s why I can’t order tea here.”
It sounds snobbish, but once you’ve had good tea it’s hard to drink packaged dust served with wrong temperature water, which (honestly) is what most places offer.
In closing: Restaurants—know your teas!
A Tea Sommelier Course Timeline
Other than Tea 101, which must be completed first, the other courses can be done in any order you like. I took my first class in January 2015 and took my certification exam in June 2017. So I spread out the classes over about 2 and a half years.
Honestly, I think spreading it out over time was a great way to do it. Building your palette is a big part of learning how to be a tea sommelier.
How Much Do You Need to Know to Start Taking Tea Sommelier Classes?
Nothing! Literally. All you need is enthusiasm for the brewed leaf, and an open mind.
When I started I knew a few basic teas— earl grey, genmaicha, and could basically tell you whether a tea was white, green, oolong, or black. Well, most of the time.
I definitely couldn’t tell the difference between a short and long-oxidized oolong, sencha and gyokuro, Chinese green vs Japanese green. I definitely would not have been able to tell you whether a black tea came from India or Sri Lanka, whether a white tea was a bai mu dan (white peony) or bai hao yin zhen (white silver needle).
Now... I can! And I have a super-powered vocabulary of creative words to use when talking about tea. I can discuss how tea affects and pairs with the five primary taste sensations—salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami.
Just a baby tea nerd
When I started my training I was super into Japanese tea culture, fresh of my student exchange from Japan where I’d seen chawans (Japanese tea bowls) made up close by a Japanese master potter in the Hagi region, famous for its Hagi Yaki pottery and wabi sabi style.
But, to be honest, beyond my enthusiasm, I didn’t have a great base of knowledge for tea history, and was hungry to learn.
For me in particular, I love learning about how colonization and culture affected tea practices, and how different cultures interpret one amazing leaf.
In Burma you have Lahpet (tea leaf salad), in Tibet—salty butter tea, while in Japan people spend hours on the highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony, while in the back alleys of China grandfathers sit and drink tea all day in the laissez-faire gong fu style.
Of course, the British know how to offer a nice cup of tea too. Thick cream and biscuits always at hand!
The TAC Certified Tea Sommelier Course Outline
TEA 101: INTRODUCTION TO TEA
This was my first course and introduction to the tea world. Jeff Kovac from Four Seasons Tea was our teacher.
Tea 101 was awesome because it got me totally hooked on learning more about tea. I signed up for this course on a bit of a whim, just thinking I’d do the Tea 101 for fun and stop there.
Boy, was I wrong.
We learned what the difference is in processing between white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and fermented teas, and how they all come from the camellia sinensis plant.
We also learned the origins of tea—historically factual and mythical, the basics of tasting teas and tea sommelier vocabulary, some basic tea types with the overall categories—like Ti Kuan Yin, Gunpowder, White Silver Needle, etc.
There was also a lot of learning about tea grading and types. We distinguished big, whole orthodox tea leaves from the finely ground CTC (cut, tear, curl) that appears in our breakfast blends. This might have also been when I unfortunately realized most restaurants in North American essentially serve packages dust, or sweepings off the factory floor, disguised as tea. Yuck. Once you taste good tea, you can never go back!
TEA 102: REGIONS OF THE WORLD
Shabnam Weber taught this and all the rest of my courses. Shabnam is an entrepreneur and founder of The Tea Emporium in Toronto. She is an absolute encyclopedia of tea knowledge, and dedicated teacher. She also had a huge role in designing the tea sommelier program.
Regions of the world was COOL. As a travel-phile and cross-cultural nerd, I loved how each lesson here focused on tea in a different part of the world, from China, to Japan, Sri Lanka & India, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Russia, and more.
If Tea 101 got me hooked, Tea 102 grabbed me by the hand and said, “Yeah, you’re in this for the long haul.”
TEA 103: SENSORY DEVELOPMENT
Tea 103 was a more difficult course. I mean, everything is do-able and figure-out-able, but Sensory Development definitely challenged me. Instead of just focusing on fun facts, now we had to really learn to train our palates.
There was a lot of cross-comparison and blind taste testing, with a focus on describing what we were experiencing.
A rewarding part of the class was when we got to compare tasting notes for waters, chocolate, coffees, and olive oil.
This class might have also made an olive oil fan out of me.
TEA 104: TEA TYPES
Here we took a MUCH deeper dive into the various subdivisions of tea. Here’s an excerpt of my tasting list from the China section to give you an idea of what we tried. It goes far beyond ‘green,’ ‘black,’ etc.
- Bai hao yin zhen (Chinese white tea)
- Pai mu tan (Chinese white tea)
- Ti kuan yin (Chinese oolong)
- Gunpowder (Chinese green)
- Mao feng (Chinese green)
- Mao jian (Chinese green)
- Dragonwell (Chinese green)
- Jasmine (Chinese green)
- Keemun (Chinese black)
- Lapsang souchong (Chinese black)
And then just when you had your palette sorted with the differences between all those greens and whites, for example, then you’d start on a completely new region.
For example, India and Sri Lanka were as follows:
- Assam Black Orthodox (Indian black tea)
- Nilgiri (Indian black tea)
- Darjeeling White (Indian white tea)
- Darjeeling 1st Flush (a flush is a harvest) (Indian black tea)
- Darjeeling 2nd Flush (Indian black tea)
- Kandy (Sri Lankan black tea)
- Dimbula (Sri Lankan black tea)
- Nuwara Eliya (Sri Lankan black tea)
- Uva (Sri Lankan black tea)
- Ruhuna (Sri Lankan black tea)
- Green (Sri Lankan green tea)
You get the picture? It was great for making my palate more specific. The only way to know is to sip!
TEA 105: FROM BUSH TO CUP
This section focuses much more in-depth on the process of harvesting and processing tea. Literally, how the leaf gets from the bush to your cup.
You'll talk a lot about practical problems that growers and producers face, like how to create a breakfast tea blend that tastes the same year after year, even when production and taste from tea fields differs year after year.
Another problem a buyer might face is how to store and transport tea from auction once it’s been bought. Tea is fickle to store. Any light or damp can have a negative affect!
We also learned about varieties of tea, hybridization, cloning, and some botanist considerations of tea. This is also where we discussed differences in production methods between countries that give each tea its unique taste.
For example, in China pan-frying stops tea from oxidizing. In Japan, it's steam. These two different methods give their respective teas unique flavour characteristics.
Another aspect of production is organic consideration and social responsibility—fair trade, regulations, codes of conduct, philosophies, etc.
TEA 106: PREPARATION, CONSUMPTION, AND HEALTH
Pretty straightforward and as the title says, this course focused on different ways tea is consumed around the world, with a focus on the health aspects of tea, which have spurred its popularity in North America especially.
Whether it's cold-steeped, brewed hot, left in the ground for days, or eaten, tea has a chemical effect on the body.
In this course we discuss compounds like caffeine, polyphenols like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), amino acids like L-Theanine, and more! EGCG is a catechin and often the subject of tea antioxidant studies. L-Theanine is responsible for tea inducing alpha waves in the brain. They’re the ones responsible for that pleasant ‘mindful alertness’ state you get when drinking tea.
TEA 107: MENU DESIGN, FOOD PAIRING & COOKING
THIS was a fun course. Here we focus on using tea in cooking and baking—from genmaicha-infused chicken noodle soup, to earl grey custards, and more.
The highlight of this course for me was the last project—picking your favourite restaurant and creating a paired tea menu to go with their offerings. Too much fun.
We also had to explain tea storage and service as though we were working with restaurateurs. Once again—restaurant owners! There’s no reason to be serving sub-par tea in your restaurants. There are lots of qualified tea sommeliers you can contract out to help you get your tea service top-notch.
TEA 108: THE BUSINESS OF TEA
Oh, so you thought tea was all floral china cups and cucumber sandwiches? Not true!
Tea is a huge, global, multi-billion dollar industry with millions of people involved. Here you meet some of the big players, from growers, to pickers, to brands, to consumers. You'll find out how they all interact, how government regulations work, and how politics is also involved in the tea trade.
There’s also a nice section in here on Canadian Imports and Canadian tea statistics. I say ‘nice’ because normally when I’m doing online learning the course is almost invariably from America and requires me to do some extra research to find out if what I’m learning holds up in Canada. So it was nice not to have to do that here.
I enjoyed learning about the different relationships between smallholder growers, factory-owned estates, blending factories, overseas packers, distributors, retailers, auctions, and more. Man, it’s amazing the places your tea goes before it ever makes it into your cup.
FINAL EXAM PREP SESSION
Now we’re in the home stretch. This prep session arranged by the TAC is completely optional but I 100% recommend you take it. It ended up being a few months between my last class (Tea 108 finished in September) and my final exam date (June in 2017).
I took the prep session a few weeks before the exam and I really feel it helped refresh my knowledge and gave me confidence that I knew what I was doing before I went into the exam. You go through each section and discuss how to best perform in each one. You’ll also review the types of teas that might show up on the blind taste test during the exam.
Step Three: Complete the TAC Tea Sommelier Final Exam
The TAC Tea Sommelier® final exam has four parts. All must be completed on the exam day.
- Multiple Choice Exam (60 questions, 30 minutes) (30%)
- Tea Preparation (~15 minutes) (30%)
- Oral Presentation (10 minutes) (10%)
- Blind Tasting (30 minutes) (30%)
You can do the multiple choice exam online and it's fairly straightforward—choose the right answer and move on.
First of all, for tea preparation, your examiner chooses a white, green, oolong, pu’erh, or black tea at random. You have to prepare that tea for them explaining how you’re doing it (water temperature, amount, steep time, utensils) and why.
In the oral presentation section your examiner will draw one of six topics out of a hat: tea regions, tea history, types of tea and processing methods, health of tea, tea preparation, or menu suggestions. Whatever they choose, you have to launch into a ten minute talk about it. Good luck!
The blind tasting section is what everyone worries about the most. To pass the overall exam you need to get at least a 75% on the blind cupping.
For the blind tasting, an assistant prepares 10 teas in cups. You never see the wet leaves, which could be a dead giveaway of the tea. All you see is the liquid.
From there, you have to name the style, type, and country of origin (for some countries, the region as well). For example, if the tea is a white tea from China, you have to say whether it’s White Silver Needle (bai hao yin zhen) or White Peony (bai mu dan). If it’s a black tea from India, you have to say whether it’s Assam, Darjeeling, or Nilgiri.
Blind Cupping Tips
I was definitely most intimidated by this section of the exam, but drinking truckloads of tea the week before paid off. I passed the blind taste test with a cool 100% mark. Best. Day. Ever.
The best tip I have for preparing for the blind taste test is this:
- Do contrasting sips for teas with similar teas. (ex: Darjeeling vs. Assam, or White Silver Needle vs. White Peony, back and forth)
- Pick one tea per week (or day), and then drink the hell out of that tea. When you move on to your next tea, the difference will be a lot more obvious.
For example, I drank genmaicha so much as a teenager that as soon as it touches my lips I know, ‘That’s genmaicha.’ You need to train your taste buds with all the other teas so as soon as they touch you know, “that’s Keemun,” or “That’s darjeeling.” The only way to get better at this is to drink more tea (yay!).
Cost of Becoming a Certified Tea Sommelier
My total investment in the TAC Tea Sommelier Program was $3,108.20 over two and a half years. That includes all the education, tea, and materials you need to finish the course.
Any More Questions?
I’d love to help answer any more questions you have about becoming a tea sommelier or about anything. Just leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you!
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