Thursday, October 15, 2015

Why Tea Education Is Broken and What We Can Learn From the Wine World

There comes a point in every tea enthusiast's journey where we come to a crossroads. Is there enough passion there to pursue a formal education in tea? Do I need some kind of certification? Where do I start? What organization should I trust? I know that I've been there (in many ways I still am). The trouble is that there is zero standardization when it comes to tea education. The other day I was watching Somm, a documentary about candidates for the Master Sommelier Exam, and that is what inspired this post.

Too Many Eggs, Too Many Baskets

Did you know that there are many different organizations or individuals that offer tea certifications? I counted at least ten just in the process of writing this blog post. Each of them has a different curriculum and the costs can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands depending on how deep you want to go. The fact that there is no real consensus in the industry dilutes the meaning of these certifications. To someone outside of the industry, they might seem impressive but I find that most folks within the tea community do not seem to take them seriously.

In the U.S. we are starving for tea knowledge. Many of the really important books and studies are still only available in Chinese or Japanese. Despite how long tea has been consumed, the concept of something elevated beyond a grocery store black tea bag is still very new. Things have certainly improved from when I first started seven years ago but there is still a long way to go. There is still a lot of misinformation being passed around, even by the organizations that are setting out to educate.

Can You Really Master Anything?

I struggle a lot with the term "master". No matter how far I am on my tea journey, I don't think I would ever call myself one. In western terms that usually implies knowing everything that there is to know about a particular subject. Can someone who sat in their living room, taking Skype classes, really be considered a tea master? I have a hard time believing this to be true, especially if they've never set foot inside of a country of origin.

What We Can Learn from the World of Wine

Humans have been consuming wine for just about as long as we have been consuming tea. Both beverages have a long and complex history that is deeply tied to the places where they are cultivated. While the wine world has its own issues to deal with, I think the one thing they are getting right is education. The Court of Master Sommeliers offers a very intensive series of courses culminating in their highest honor, the Master Sommelier Diploma. In order to earn this title, candidates must pass a three-part exam.

1. Practical wine service and salesmanship
Candidates must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of how to properly serve wine, liquors, and spirits. This includes food pairing as well as handling questions and complaints.

2. Theory
Candidates must demonstrate that they know how wine is produced as well as a deep knowledge of wine producing countries and the laws that regulate wine in each of them. Cigars are also included in this section.

3. Practical Tasting
Candidates are given a blind tasting flight of three white wines and three red wines. They must be able to determine grape varieties, country and appellation of origin as well vintage.

I've worked in a wine store in the past and I can tell you that everyone knew exactly what this certification meant. Most candidates do not pass on the first try. Many attempt four or five times before they are successful. I ask, dear reader, does anything in the tea biz come close to this level of intensity? I have yet to find any certification that does. What I would like to see is a pooling of resources rather than the separatist systems that we currently have. 

I'd love to know your thoughts on this subject. Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Disclaimer: The idea behind this post was not to call out any particular person or organization. My intention is to the discuss the issues that exist and to show the possibilities that exist if the tea industry could ever actually come to a consensus.