Sugimoto Temomi Shincha

Tasting Temomi Shincha

About a month ago, I was given a wonderful gift.  Kyohei Sugimoto, head of Sugimoto USA, the American branch of Sugimoto Seicha Co., Ltd., was kind enough to give me a taste of Temomi Shincha that had been made by his mother, Kazue Sugimoto, and a group of temomi artists in Shizuoka, Japan.

Temomi Shincha leafIt came in a small, ornately decorated, foil bag with 10 grams of tea leaf–enough for a single brewing.  According to the package, it was made on 26 April 2010, and that the group spent about 8 hours to make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of finished tea.  Unless I confused a decimal place somewhere, that means only 100 packages could be made.

The term temomi means hand-kneeded, or as one Japanese scientific paper described it, “massaged by hand”.  Shincha, of course, is the first picking of the season.  So this Temomi Shincha is a hand-made tea made from the first leaves picked in 2010 from those plants.  But that doesn’t really tell the whole story of this tea; in the highly mechanized world of Japanese green teas, this Temomi-cha was made entirely without machinery–just as the tea would have been made a couple of centuries ago.  In that sense, the opportunity to taste this tea was an opportunity to go back in time.

Temomi Shincha liquor of three steepsI followed the instructions that came with the tea package.  I used a 5-ounce clay teapot as suggested (though it was a Chinese-style pot, but my Japanese teapot is both too large and has no filter; I’ve had some brewing disasters using it).  The first brewing was for 3 minutes at 100F (40C).  Much of the water was absorbed by the leaves, but the liquor produced was strong and brothy-sweet.

For those not used to really fantastic Japanese green tea, the strong flavor was there without any bitterness or astringency.  This is due mainly to the use of cooler water, which pulls out more amino acids than it does the bitter catechins and caffeine.  The flavor was dense, thick, and intense, but without an edge.  It lingered after swallowing, too.  Not as long as some great wulongs do, but more than almost any green I can think of.

Temomi Shincha infusionAt another tea event with Kyohei Sugimoto, he had brewed some teas with cool water then switched to hotter water “so we can enjoy the bitterness.”  The idea being that you brew cold for sweet, then hot for bitter, and that both are to be enjoyed as aspects of the tea leaf.  The second and third brews were done with 130F (54C) water for a minute each, as per the instructions, and I did indeed enjoy the bitter.  It wasn’t knock-your-socks-off bitter, but not out of line with other bitter foods.  (I don’t drink alcohol, but my tasting partner described the bitterness of these steepings as somewhere between beer and bitters.)  The photo above shows a sample from each steeping–I’m surprised by how little the color changes from the cold to hot brewing.

After drinking the tea, we ate the leaves–or at least the ones we didn’t pull out to examine and admire.  The texture was something like lightly steamed spinach.  The leaves still had a little bitterness left, but it wasn’t more than you’d find in the greens of a fancy salad.

Meeting the Maker

Michael J. Coffey with the SugimotosIt was my pleasure, then, a couple of weeks later to meet both Tea Maestro Hiroyuki Sugimoto and Temomi Master Kazue Sugimoto at the World Tea Expo.  I expressed my thanks and honor at being able to try the Temomi Shincha that she had made.  She asked (via an interpreter who, I’m embarrased to admit, I don’t recall the name of) if I’d like to try any of the teas they had on display.  I chose the tea with the least well-known Japanese tea name, konacha, which is essentially the tea of Japanese sushi restaurants.  She gave me a look that said, “Hmm, interesting choice.”  Apparently, even though the expo was half over, nobody had yet asked to taste their konacha.

Also, having had some heated discussions with American tea people about how Japanese green tea is “supposed” to be brewed, I asked Hiroyuki Sugimoto (with Kyohei serving as interpreter) how he brewed his tea.  He said he always brewed his teas with boiling water.  He explained that with boiling water, it is easier to tell if there are flaws in the tea making.  I asked what he looked for as a sign of quality, he answered that it was a balance of factors.  Essentially, he tasted a tea specifically looking for flaws.  If he couldn’t find any, it was a good tea.  He would be unable to distinguish a well-made tea from a poorly-made tea, then, unless he brewed it with boiling water.

I was thrilled to have been able to meet these wonderful people, and happy to share tea with them!

Restaurant Tea Service: Carmelita

I think most tea lovers (at least the geeky ones) will agree with me that restaurants, as a whole, are a terrible place to have tea.  The standard seems to be a thick mug with a teabag in it, too-cool water, and no idea how long it’s been steeping when it comes to the table or where the teabag came from.

For the last several months, my partner and I have been “eating down the street”–that is, each Friday we go out to dinner at the next neighborhood, locally-owned restaurant down the street.  Not only is it a nice break from having to do the dishes but it also started as a way to help the local economy by spending money at places owned by our neighbors.  Last night, though, it struck me that I should talk about the tea service at these places–or, as my partner put it, “a very highly specialized subset of restaurant reviews.”

So I start with last night’s experience at Carmelita, a trendy, high-end vegetarian restaurant.  The first thing I noticed (about the tea, at least) was the menu.  It was better than most in that it gave both the brand/vendor name–Barnes & Watson Fine Teas–and specifically which teas/flavors they carried as well as a brief description of each tea.  Full disclosure: I have a business relationship with Barnes & Watson, though I’m not receiving anything for this mention of them, nor anything special from Carmelita.

I ordered the Genmaicha (“Japanese Sencha green tea and toasted rice”) and my partner ordered the Tahitian Blend Iced Tea (“black tea blend, tropical fruit flavor and citrus”).  The hot tea came as loose tea leaf in a French press and our server informed me that it had been steeping for about one minute so that I could gauge how long to continue steeping.  (I got distracted with a discussion of the menu, though, so I let it steep too long anyway and didn’t really notice the water temperature…but the fact that I was given the time it had been in the water already without having to ask earns lots of points.)

The iced tea came as you might expect, in a tall glass with ice and a straw, a slice of lemon on the side.  In addition, in another nice touch, there was a small creamer-style pitcher of simple syrup rather than the usual box of sugar packets.  As my partner pointed out, it made it much easier to sweeten the iced tea without constant stirring to dissolve solid sugar.

As I said, I let my Genmaicha brew too long (my own fault) so that wasn’t an ideal experience.  The refill on the iced tea must have been from the bottom of the batch or something because after the glass was topped off it was a little too…something slightly unpleasant.  Metallic-tasting, maybe?  However, on the whole, Carmelita seemed to be getting it right in ways that most restaurants don’t–loose tea, important brewing information, simple syrup instead of dry sugar for an iced tea, and actually listing where the tea came from and the various flavors rather than just “Tea” on the menu.  Oh, and the tea, both hot and iced, was $2 each.

Blending Breakfast

Feedback is requested at the end–please respond!

This last Sunday, after the Wulong Tea class for the Tea Basics Certification Training, I did a class about English Breakfast tea.  Or, more precisely, the whole idea of blending and what “breakfast tea” means.  In a departure from the typical tea training, I only offered some brief history about breakfast teas, their history, and how blending is done in larger tea companies.  The fun part for me was giving people the structure and framework to make their own breakfast tea blend and see what they came up with.

We set up 6 different identically brewed teas in a couple of stations.  The teas each came from different places of origin (Anhui [Keemun], Yunnan, Fujian [Wuyi Lapsang], Assam, Darjeeling, and Sri Lanka).  Participants first explored what they liked in a tea–how important was mouthfeel?  Strength?  Flavor profile?  Color?  Then, with an idea of their goal, they set to work, mixing various amounts of the various teas in their sampling cup in an attempt to create a blend that most closely matched the goal.

In the end, the recipes were quite varied.  One person found that the best combination for her was just the tea from Sri Lanka.  Another’s blend was about two-thirds lapsang, and the remaining a mix of non-smoked Chinese and Indian teas, while someone else had only the barest hint (about 5%) of lapsang.  Two people came up with identical recipes and worked up a special name for their breakfast co-blend.  Some liked them mild, others strong.  (And a tiny pitcher of milk was brought in to test blends with and without milk to see how they’d perform “in the field”).

More than half of the people who attended bought tea for their own blend.  Which gave me an idea:  I could offer a sampler of the different “student project” breakfast teas for folks to order, so you could taste how diverse the recipes were.  I’d love to get your feedback–is that something you’d like to see?  Would you buy a sampler of an ounce of 5 or 6 different teas for, say, $20?  I want to know!  Please comment, or send an email to teageek(at)teageek(dot)net with your thoughts, and maybe you can join in an extension of this class!

The Big Green Book of Tea Science

A few days ago, I finished a 770-page book on tea science.  It took a long time to get through and really challenged my understanding of chemistry, biology, agronomy, medicine, technology, and so on.  However, there were three paragraphs near the end in the chapter, “Physiological and clinical effects of tea,” that really struck me as a great, level-headed perspective on where tea science hits the media and public understanding.  And, they’re some of the least technical bits in the book.  I share them with you here:

Even at their most extreme value, none of these constituents, except possibly one or two of the inorganic ions, make anything more than a trivial and clinically insignificant contribution to nutritional requirements for energy, proteins, vitamins or minerals.  This has not, however, prevented apologists for the health-giving and medicinal properties of tea from making unjustified and unsustainable claims for it.  Many of the ‘therapeutic’ effects of tea are undoubtedly due to its water content.  Others could be due to pharmacologically active substances, not all of which have necessarily been identified. Probably most important of all is the placebo effect, especially if the person prescribing the tea believes in its healing properties.

As far as the adverse effects of tea are concerned, these, when they have been established at all, have mainly been attributed either to its caffeine or polyphenol content; but unknown or unidentified toxins—which occur in all foods of plant origin to a greater or lesser extent—may also be implicated.  More often than not, however, claims for the toxicity of tea, like those for its therapeutic efficacy, are based upon unwarranted extrapolations from inadequate data.  They often not only ignore all quantifiable considerations—which is the most heinous of all crimes in clinical toxicology—but confuse association with causation, an equally heinous crime in epidemiology.

Much of the knowledge relating to the acute pharmacology, including the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, of caffeine in man has been obtained from volunteer and other studies using the pure compound.  On the other hand, almost all of the knowledge relating to its toxicology has been inferred either from short- or long-term studies in animals.  It is therefore of dubious relevance to man.  Even more indirectly evidence of its long-term toxicity derives from epidemiological studies, mainly on coffee, but sometimes on coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages.  Dissection out of long-term toxicity effects due solely to caffeine from those due to other constituents of the caffeinated beverages has only occasionally been attempted, and the justification for doing so has not always been accepted…

In short, there simply hasn’t been enough science done to realistically come to most of the conclusions (positive or negative) about the consumption of tea.  As I often say in my classes, “it’s more complicated than that.”  If you hear a clear-cut benefit or danger related to consuming tea, take it with a grain of salt because the reality, or our knowledge of it, is probably not that simple.

New: Tea Geek Certification

PSCS students taste keemunAs those who get my newsletter now know, I’ve taken the jump into the certification business. However, since I have written a post on the blog about my mixed feelings about certification, I think it’s important to have a little conversation about why I’m doing it and how my certification is different from other programs out there.

First, the “why” of the certification program. From the very beginning of Tea Geek, my intention has been educational. I do sell a little tea and teaware, but the primary focus of my activities have been about tea information—sorting the good from the bad, busting myths, offering classes, doing informal (so far) research, and so on. I’ve always had a vision of something similar to what they have in many tea-producing countries—a technical college style school that focuses on all aspects of tea.

The certification program is one of several things being worked on to bring the world closer to this vision. Many people (Americans especially) expect to get some kind of reward or memento for learning—a diploma, a certificate, grades, plaques, etc. Offering certification meets that expectation in the educational marketplace. From a business perspective, it’s a pretty good business model: once the program is developed and ready, costs are very low so profit margins can be quite good. And, from the perspective of being a change-agent in the tea industry (see the “what’s different” part below), it provides a way to do things a little differently in order to shift around some incentives.

So what’s different about this certification? Well, first off, you pretty much can’t fail. This is because the certification doesn’t take the form of a grade or a pass/fail test like most programs. Instead, in the spirit of schools such as Fairhaven College, Evergreen State College, and the Puget Sound Community School (where I taught my first tea class), a certification consists of a narrative evaluation of the individual’s tea knowledge and skills.   Therefore, no matter what your level of knowledge or skill, you will be able to sit down for an interview or test (or whatever format is appropriate for the topic) and demonstrate your competency.  You will earn a description of what you’re good at, and can even get some suggestions of what you might learn next—if that’s something you’re interested in.

Tea Geek will, of course, be providing classes to prepare those who want to maximize their evaluation time, but these classes are absolutely not prerequisites for having a tea knowledge/skill evaluation.  Currently, there is a prep class series being offered in person, and soon a virtual version will be ready for those outside the western Washington State area.  Upcoming trainings and classes are posted on a public page at the Tea Geek Wiki.

There are a few more things to be done for an official launch, but those who are interested should send an email message to teageek [at] to be sure you get notification when the program goes live.

Questions?  Comments?  Send an email or leave a comment below!

The Influence of Brewing Vessel on Tea Quality

For years and years, I’ve been hearing stories of how important the brewing vessel is in producing an excellent brew. Lots of different reasons have been given for why a particular method or material is the “best”. Unfortunately, very few of the claims are consistent. As an example, cast-iron tetsubins have been touted as being the best for brewing tea because the metal keeps the tea hotter longer. They’ve also been reviled for not keeping the tea hot enough because metal radiates heat too quickly. Some say they’re good for you because the iron they are made of conditions the water and acts as an iron supplement. Others say that the metal makes the tea taste metallic (even in ones where the water and tea never touch the metal because they’ve been enameled on the inside).

So how important is the container on the flavor of the tea? That depends. It depends on whether you think quality of the brewed tea is an objective thing, or if it’s subjective. Essentially, you’re delusional. Yes, I’m talking about you…the one reading this. I’m delusional, too, of course. Think about it. The standard human comes with two separate eyes and two separate optic nerves. How come you don’t see two images of everything? Because your brain takes actual objective information about the world and interprets it. And the human brain does lots of automatic interpretation—which sometimes isn’t accurate. If it was, there’d be no such thing as an optical illusion.

But what does that have to do with flavor? Plenty. I’d talk about it myself, but an article I read a couple of days ago does it far better than I ever could. It has to do with an analysis of the claim that different wine glasses make a difference in tasting wine. I encourage you to read it, keeping in mind any opinions you have about the suitability of a particular type of brewing vessel—tetsubin, Yixing clay, porcelain gaiwan, glass or silver teapot, etc.

Shattered Myths
by Daniel Zwerdling
published August 2004,

(Link opens in new window)

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so once you’re done reading the article, please come back and comment.

Evaluating Tea Information

I recently read an article in Scientific American Mind (June/July 2007 issue), which had a great article on getting good advice. Although the article was talking primarily about medical advice, the following paragraph struck me as relevant to anyone who is interested in learning about the tea they drink:

We cannot avoid relying on expert opinion. We simply do not have the factual knowledge required to answer all of our questions. Certain fields are so technical, moreover, that only a true expert’s opinion will do…. But our very need for such advice is also why claims of expertise so easily lend themselves to abuse, much to the detriment of the person looking for help. Professionals in the advertising industry are well aware of the persuasive powers of such appeals to authority. Consequently, they spend billions of dollars on advertising and employ ostensibly trustworthy—or not so trustworthy—experts who try to lure us into buying products or services. It’s one thing to be on our guard when watching commercials, however, and quite another to evaluate the credibility of Web sites, self-help books and the like.

The tea industry is not immune to this. Everyone assumes that their local tea shop worker can teach them something about tea. And often this is the case…but not always. When my career path officially switched from “education” to “tea industry” (though I’d already been teaching about tea under the former category), I had pretty much tapped out the tea information of all the places I bought tea from. When it came time for training at my first tea-shop job, they pretty much skipped over everything having to do with the product itself because I’d been feeding them information about tea for some time.

How do you evaluate whether someone’s really an expert, then? Here, modified from its original form to apply better to the tea industry rather than medical field, is a quick and dirty list:

Impartiality: The tea authority should not be biased. If what they’re telling you about would benefit them, it should lead you to question more deeply what they say. For example, a tea shop that tells you how to evaluate a tea that happens to be one of their best-sellers may be giving you biased information leading you to think theirs is the best, rather than a true judge of the quality of that kind of tea.

Degree/Certification: There are two things to look at here. First, is the credential that someone claims relevant? For example, I have a Level-3 certification in black tea from the Specialty Tea Institute. You might well question whether my advice about green tea is good, since I don’t currently have a Level-3 certification in that type. The other thing to look at is the reputation and requirements of the certifying body is. There are lots of fake degrees, diploma mills, and certifications that set their bar very low. Just because someone says they’re certified, doesn’t mean the certificate represents mastery, or that it’s relevant to what they’re telling you about tea.

Experience: A real expert should have extensive experience in whatever area they’re talking about. If you’ve been reading my blog or taking my classes, you’ll have an idea of how many areas it’s possible to have experience in, relative to tea. Just because someone has been selling tea for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean they have experience in how it’s processed, or agriculture, or biochemistry, or history. I know of a tea company that changed ownership—the old owner had extensive experience in the sensory evaluation of teas, whereas the new owner has more extensive experience in business and marketing. I’ve heard from several of their customers that this change in experience can be detected in both the products they carry and the health of the business.

Affiliations: What affiliations does this particular expert have? What reputation does he or she have with those organizations? Ask what memberships they have, and inquire of those organizations if the expert is a member in good standing. If an expert is not a member of an organization you expect they would, ask why. As a non-tea example, at least one of the Seattle neighborhood chambers of commerce is not itself a member of the national chamber of commerce. At first that seems strange, but upon questioning, they will be happy to tell you that they don’t agree with the profits-above-environment sentiment and policies of the national chamber and have chosen not to be national members for that reason. This bit of information helps suggest what biases both the local and national organization might have.

Publications: While there is very little scholarly publication about tea in the U.S. outside of the medical community, publication is still an area where you can evaluate an expert. Although even books these days can be published without the watchful eye of an informed topic-specific editor, important information can be gleaned from anything published—from books, to newspaper or magazine articles, to blog posts. Does the piece include references? Are opinions backed up with evidence, or labeled as opinions, or stated as plain facts? Have you seen conflicting information elsewhere, and if so, which source meets more of these expert-reliability tests? In the case of publications where comments can be appended (many online articles, blogs, etc.), have industry leaders questioned or supported the information? The more “peer reviewed” the expert’s publications have, the better (assuming the peer-reviews aren’t pointing out errors or questionable sources and so forth).

And, as also provided in the Scientific American Mind article, a great place to learn more about the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, or the “appeal to misleading authority”:

Now, go forth and question those who tell you things about tea! (And yes, that includes me.)

Tea Comparison: Huang Zhi Xiang vs. Huang Zhi Xiang

As you may know, people who have become members of Tea Geek are sent a free sample of tea every quarter, and sometimes I get teas in that are available only to members because they’re only available in very small amounts.  This quarter, both happened:  a members-only tea is what was sent out as free samples.  Coincidentally, one of our members—Eric Glass—got the same kind of tea (same cultivar, same region, different farm and perhaps different season) when he took a recent tea tour of China.  Eric was good enough to taste both versions and write up the experience.

General notes on the tea: Huang Zhi Xiang (黄枝香), or “Yellow Branch Fragrance” is a Dan Cong wulong from the Phoenix Mountain area, near Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China.  The cultivar, also called Huang Zhi Xiang, is a descendant of the more widely distributed Shui Xian (“water sprite” or “narcissus”) cultivar.

Here, slightly edited, is his comparison of his Huang Zhi Xiang (“EG”) and Tea Geek’s Huang Zhi Xiang (“TG”):

The Hung Zhi Xiang I bought came from Mr. Zhang’s family farm located on Wu Dong Shan, not far from the more famous Feng Huan Shan (Phoenix Mountain.)

Dry leaf of Huang Zhi XiangThe first thing I noticed was how loose TeaGeek’s (TG) tea was twisted compared to mine (EG).  The TG’s dry leaves were also a darker green and each EG leaf had a more uneven color. TG was unfortunately more brittle, which I found a bit odd since I have been not storing EG well by keeping it in the plastic Ziploc bag I had originally bought it in when I was in China.

The fragrance of EG dry leaves was much more fresh, more green and never had a roasted scent like TG had.  When wet, the same basic smells were there but TG had a hint of peach.  In later steepings, EG developed this as well, and got stronger with each steep, even more so than TG (I only did a total of 3 infusions.)

Comparing the first cup, after a rinse, TG was much smoother than EG but it didn’t have as much flavor.   Its mild sourness and citrus flavor I tasted in both teas seemed to be more apparent in EG from the beginning, however TG seemed to always be at a pleasant level. For some reason I found TG to be slightly sweet, something that was never apparent in EG or any other subsequent brew.

Dry leaf of Huang Zhi XiangIn mouthfeel, EG from the beginning always had a slight stickiness to it; I like to use the word “gummy.”  EG’s gumminess only got worse but it seemed that TG’s first infusion was the only cup that was smooth.  Compared to EG, TG increased its gummy character at a higher rate than EG and at the 3rd infusion it was worse than EG.  Not to say that it’s overwhelming, far from it, but it was noticeable to me.

The liquor of both TG and EG were of the same basic color. I won’t go into RBG levels; I’m sure TeaGeek would, at least he should for that matter.  Both were a bit yellow, I first thought of olive oil but these teas weren’t as green.  Both were very clear but TG was darker yet duller where as EG always turned out more green and very bright.

Dry leaf of Huang Zhi XiangI always like to study the leaves when I’m finished.  This had some odd results.  Even though the liquid of EG was greener, the wet, brewed leaves were much more yellow and TG was much more green and a lot darker.  TG also had unfolded in the cup more, probably due to the fact that they weren’t twisted as much as EG.  The amount of bruising from leaf to leaf was very consistent in TG, where as some EG leaves had more than others.  Also, most EG leaf had spots of bruising within the leaf, not just around the edges like TG.  The shape of EG’s fully untwisted leaves had the same width but were much longer and there was more difference in leaf sizes in EG as well, from about 3cm to 6cm.  TG had leaves that were more equal, from about 3cm to 4.5cm.  But those were just the size of the leaves I brewed; smaller and larger leaves could very well exist.

All in all I didn’t have a favorite between the two; TG was roastier with more fragrance and EG was more “fresh tasting.”  These are both the same tea, believe me.  But I was amazed at how many subtle differences there were between the two.

Photo credits: Eric Glass.

I’m Certifiable

My certificateThe final proof came in the mail yesterday:  I am now certified by the Specialty Tea Institute.   I understand that I’m the first person ever to successfully challenge levels 1 and 2, and I’ve got the black tea portion of level 3 under my belt.

And I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have a piece of paper on the wall (albeit, with my name misspelled) certifying that I’ve completed their training.  (And, to be honest, it’s not really on my wall.)  At the same time, I felt it a much higher honor to have been asked by a few of my fellow students after one of the level 3 classes if they could pick my brain because, as one of them put it, “from the kinds of questions you’re asking, it seems like you know what you’re talking about.”

Also, the full STI certification program takes something like 12 days to complete all of their classes (until they add a level 4).  Once you’ve gone through those two weeks’ worth of training, you earn America’s most well-known and respected tea certification program, with a wall’s worth of certificates.   (There are other programs out there that promise awarding “tea master” status.  Still others may take a bit longer but aren’t as widely recognized as STI’s program.)

But in at least China, Japan, and Taiwan, a basic training in tea is a college education.  Two years of full time studying about tea, plus the typical general requirements, to get a Bachelor’s.  And that’s not the advanced stuff.   To get any kind of educational recognition, they need to learn how to grow tea and process it in a variety of ways.  They need to be able to evaluate a tea by taste and then take the leaves back to the factory to fix flaws.  They need to be able to identify cultivars by sight and by taste.  They need to know how much of which kinds of fertilizer to use and how that will affect the flavor in the cup.

Here in America, though, you can get “certified” for being able to tell the difference between a black and a green tea.  We get a certificate for making it through a couple of days of class, let alone a couple of years.  Heck, Americans can’t even take a couple of years of tea classes if we wanted.

Unfortunately, there are lots of factors in favor of the status quo.  A few people are willing to pay big money to get a certificate, so tea certification (especially if it’s easy, convenient, short, and expensive) is a financially viable business.  People in the tea business can use it as a marketing tool–even though the certificate doesn’t prove skill or experience, just the ability to take a test well about recently-reviewed information.

But is that really what expertise is about?  Is that really what we want to encourage in the world of tea?

Personally, I would prefer that the tea community collaborate with each other, and recommend each other.  Let those who get recommended often by the peers that know them well be called the “experts”.  Let the “tea masters” be those who have devoted decades to a particular topic within the field of tea, with the understanding that the only thing they’re a “master” in is that particular topic.

Of course, I’m not the king of human behavior, nor of economics, so I can’t make this so.  And I’d be a little stupid not to use my certification to get me more business if I can.  But I hope that you, dear reader, will recognize what’s possible and look beyond titles, specific classes, awards, programs, and so forth.

I hope you ask the tea people you meet what their specialties are, who they learned the most from, and what they’re currently doing to deepen their understanding in their chosen area.   People who are truly serious about tea should be able to easily answer those questions without blinking an eye.

Tea and the Rise of Shanghainese

It’s official: planning has started for a trip to China with the idea of seeing the World Expo in Shanghai and then heading off into the country for tea experiences. As the linguist (at least between my partner and I—he’s the cartographer and navigator), I started doing my part by redoubling my Chinese-learning efforts and by learning a little about Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is the most widespread of the Wu family of languages (or dialects, depending on how you define them). However, it was not always so. It used to be that the Suzhou dialect was the most widespread and most prestigious of the Wu dialects. However, because the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) forced the opening on Shanghai as one of the “treaty ports,” it became a center of trade with the West. As such, the local dialect became more advantageous to speak if you were involved in commerce, trade, finance, shipping, etc.

And, of course, the Treaty of Nanking was what ended the Opium Wars…that started because of the foreign policy and commerce decisions between China and England, specifically regarding the trade of tea.

Or, in the order it actually happened: China sells tea to England. England’s treasury starts geting sucked dry by the trade so they get the Chinese hooked on British opium grown near Darjeeling (did I mention that this has to do with tea?). The Chinese government doesn’t like the drug pushers and tries to stop them. The English don’t like the Chinese firing on their ships and go to war. Two wars later, they sign a treaty forcing open Shanghai’s port (among other Chinese concessions). In order to trade in Shanghai and get wealthy, folks in the areas of Zhejiang, Fujian, and other nearby locales start learning speaking Shanghainese in order to do better business directly or indirectly with the foreign traders at the port. Shanghainese gains prestige and more speakers, toppling Suzhou’s dialect for the king of the Wu dialects.

Tea, the linguistic kingmaker.