When your product is as simple as dried leaves from a single plant, what makes an individual tea stand out?
Much of what makes a tea stand out is the quality of processing, starting from when the tea leaves are harvested or “plucked” from the tea plant, known as camellia sinensis. The picking of the tea leaves itself requires immense accuracy so as to only harvest very specific leaves- often only the top two leaves and the bud. The tea leaves then undergo various steps of processing which usually include withering (the natural reduction of moisture within the tea leaves), rolling (the purposeful “crushing” of the tea leaves so as to bruise the cell structure of the leaves and release the natural sugars within), baking/drying (the halting of the oxidation of the tea leaves), and sorting (the sifting of the tea leaves based on particle size). Within these steps, the quality of the execution varies greatly and much of this is dependent on the expertise and training of the factory manager, inevitably reflected in the flavour experienced in the final cup.
When creating your blends of teas, flowers, herbs, and oils, how do you preserve the essence of taste?
In addition to the quality of the base tea, the quality of every single ingredient that we blend with matters immensely. For example, when sourcing the bergamot oil to create the Earl Grey Classic tea, we tested 83 different versions until we found perfection in Sicily — the birthplace of bergamot. When blending the tea leaves with other ingredients (be they natural oils, dried flowers or spices), the order by which such ingredients are blended together matters greatly. We blend based on the principles of perfumery which takes a layered approach — blending while keeping in mind the various layers of top, heart and base notes. This approach is much more time consuming than mass production mixing, but it makes for a beautifully layered finish — both in terms of aroma and flavour.
As one of very few tea sommeliers in the world — especially North America — what advice do you have for people who wish to develop their palette for some of the delicate flavours found in tea?
My advice would be to taste, taste, taste, and note, note, note. When I first started tasting, I was exceptionally diligent about documenting the cupping experience. There is so much to learn in this process — everything from the appearance of the dry tea leaves, to the aroma of the infused leaves, leading up to the colour and taste of the infused tea liquor. There is an abundance of information in the tea leaves and the more you make note of them, the more you will become comfortable with and aware of flavours and characteristics you would have otherwise missed. As well, I highly recommend tasting teas early in the day when your palate is clean and fresh, and has not been exposed to the foods and flavours of the day.
How important is the preparation to the enjoyment of tea?
Taking pleasure in the preparation of tea is very important to me. Each person will create a ritual that is meaningful and unique to them, and for some that ritual may be built around a quality, but convenient cup of tea, and for others it may be a more thorough experience of sitting down and savouring tea from the pot. For me, it was important that the presentation of the tea itself was a part of the experience. I find tea and the ritual it embodies to be healing in many ways, and we designed the tea caddy that it’s packaged in with that in mind. Tea is sacred and the tin is its temple.
What is the difference between a tea bag in a to-go cup and a pot of loose leaf at a table?
Tea bags have come a long way since their invention in 1908, and it is now possible to get a beautiful extraction of flavour from a “tea bag” when it is made using whole leaf tea. The pyramid shape of some tea bags allows for full movement of the tea leaves within the tea bag (or “sachet” as we at Sloane call it), which yields an infusion quality equal to what you would experience from a teapot. However, there is no doubt a significant difference in the experience of drinking tea “on the go” versus enjoying a pot with friends and family tableside. Tea to-go allows for one to enjoy the ritual and comfort of tea, but with the convenience of being mobile in the process. Time is a luxury and if one can afford it, the process of sitting and pouring tea from a teapot (porcelain is my favourite) provides for a sort of tranquility and specialness that is simply beautiful.
Please tell us about one of the best tea experiences you’ve ever had.
Oh… there are so many worth mentioning but one that has always stood out for me is from my very first visit to Darjeeling, India. I had been in the tea factory the day before and awoke to the most crisp, sweet smelling air. As I sat on the covered veranda enjoying a cup of tea made from tea leaves manufactured the day prior, I looked out at the mountains and saw the mountains flirting with the clouds. Amongst it all were moving specks of colour which were actual women in the fields plucking the tea. As I sipped the tea, I knew in that moment that the experience I was having would forever be forged into my memory, and into my heart. It was at once incredibly spiritual and inspiring. I have relived that moment in my mind many times over.
What is the relationship in your life and in your work between traditional wisdom and contemporary knowledge?
For me, these two are very much intertwined. We live in a world where access to knowledge is literally at our fingertips and we are constantly either updating or being inundated with information. While it is important to keep up-to-date with information, as difficult as that may be with the pace our lives operate at, I feel that there is so much to be learned from experience, often the experience of others. Throughout my travels and journeys, I have crossed paths with individuals who by modern day standards may be “uneducated” in the academic sense, but by token of their life’s experiences have come to obtain a sense of understanding and knowledge that is so rich. It’s something that cannot be taught through any form of schooling. As it has been said, the more you learn about something, the more you learn how much you don’t know.