Kevin Gascoyne is a tea taster at the Camellia Sinensis Teahouse in Montreal. A local favourite, the teahouse has been around in one incarnation or another since 1997. Originally, Camellia Sinensis opened with a bohemian atmosphere that featured live music and hookahs. As the staff and clientele matured, they shelved the tobacco and toured the world to acquire one of the finest collections of tea in North America. Since then, the teahouse has won a slew of awards, published books on the craft, and now offers classes to promote a stronger tea culture and a more sophisticated breed of professional. Kevin Gascoyne is the house specialist on black tea, and he has made the tea gardens of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka his second home since 1989.
“Tea is a 5,000-year-old health tonic that can improve your day and lengthen your lifespan.”
What is your favourite tea to drink, and how do you take it?
I entered the tea world through a healthy obsession with the teas of Darjeeling and the Himalaya. Black teas offer the complexity and vitality I’m looking for in a good cup. My job allows me to drink exceptional teas from around the world all day long. I typically drink my teas neat—without milk or sweetener.
What makes different teas taste different, and how does that factor into your tea selections?
All tea comes from the plant whose botanical name is Camellia sinensis. It’s been so widely consumed that the simple action of putting leaves into water is now called tea. That’s why people often say “tea” when they drink rooibos, yerba mate, or other herbs, but it’s actually something else. Technically, we should call these other drinks infusions, though it doesn’t sound very inviting to say, “Would you like to join me for an afternoon infusion?”
There are too many factors in a tea’s taste to list them all, but the two big ones are the natural factors of the garden and the tea-maker’s process. When we select teas at the Camellia Sinensis Teahouse, we seek out special batches. When the tea is grown in good weather and soil, and leaves are masterfully handled, unique style emerges. The parallels with the wine world are obvious.
In North America, we rarely take the time for a proper pot of tea. We’re natural-born gulpers. What advice do you have for someone who loves tea but who feels too rushed to do it right?
Drink with a friend. Company can help to ground a person in the tea moment. If you can muster the enthusiasm, there are all sorts of infusion techniques such as Gaiwan, Gong Fu, or Sencha. Exploring new preparation techniques can help facilitate a stronger connection with the beverage.
Tea culture always has an air of tranquility to it. Why is that?
Tea is a 5,000-year-old health tonic that can improve your day and lengthen your lifespan. Two principal elements in this beverage work together to simultaneously calm our bodies while stimulating our minds. The first is the amino acid L-theanine. It calms the nervous system and reduces anxiety to offer a feeling of well-being. The second is, of course, our old friend caffeine, which stimulates the brain and sharpens consciousness. The caffeine in tea has a very different character to that of coffee. Tea releases it slower, so its effect lacks that super-stimulation that more easily causes jitters. With the hustle and bustle of modern living, tea’s calmer stimulation is ideal to help people stay alert with a cool head. The time it takes to make and drink a pot of tea is also a natural call to take a break.
When you travel to the tea-growing regions of the world, do you feel different than when you’re in a city? Is there something special about tea plantations?
The tea-growing regions are composed of beautiful rolling hills and fields. Some are mountainsides of neatly pruned, deep-green canopies quilting the landscape. My first visit to a tea garden was over 30 years ago. As my life as a taster-buyer developed, tea gardens became places where I feel at home. Garden details pop out to me as much as beverage nuances. Garden visitations also allow me to visit friends I’ve known for decades. There’s a great camaraderie in the tea world that springs from our shared passion.
But at the root of it all is a deep connection to a plant that continues to change my life on a daily basis. Tea is part of who I am. So when I return to the tea gardens each year, I have a feeling of going back to the source.