What you need to know about becoming a tea sommelier – according to an expert

10th Sep 19 | Lifestyle

Want to take that delicious cuppa one step further and get into tea pairing? Kim Havelaar of Roqberry tells Sam Wylie-Harris how.

Tea being poured into a cup on a table set for afternoon tea

We all have a favourite brew, and considering Brits drink approximately 100 million cups a day, when it comes to reading our tea leaves and tapping into the tea market, you’d be right to predict the future’s looking very ‘Rosy’…

“I’ve always had an interest in food and drink, whether it’s eating out or cooking at home, and really enjoy exploring new flavour combinations when travelling, which is how I first experienced the ‘tea culture’ and concept of pairing tea with food,” says Kim Havelaar, founder of tea brand Roqberry.

Kim Havelaar, tea sommelier, founder, Roqberry (Roqberry/PA)
Kim Havelaar, tea sommelier and founder of Roqberry (Roqberry/PA)

“I saw so many exciting, new and innovative products across the food, alcohol, coffee, and soft drinks markets [in the UK], but found the tea industry was lagging behind, with most brands either just offering classics, or under delivering.”

“The more I learned about tea through study,” she adds, “the more interested I became.”

So what do you need to know to become a tea sommelier?

“Certifications can be obtained from institutions such as the UK Tea Academy. Courses include written and verbal exams, as well as practical tests identifying tea and achieving the optimal brew for that particular variety.

Roqberry sweet grapefruit tea

“To understand the process, leaf to cup, it’s important to visit tea plantations and manufacturers in the different producing regions. Understanding the theory is an important foundation, the ability to suggest tea and food pairings then improves with experience, palate and a degree of trial and error,” explains Havelaar.

The first tea plantation she ever visited was Munnar, India, while travelling through Kerala, but it was years before she even thought about doing anything in tea: “I remember finding it such a beautiful sight, the acres and acres of tea plants. I was also very humbled to learn how much effort goes into growing a tea plant just right, for us all to enjoy a cup at home.

Harvesting tea

“My most recent trip has been to the tea plantations in Japan, from Kakegawa to Uji, Kyotanabe and Wazuka. Tea is produced differently in Japan (steamed vs. ‘panned’) and Matcha was also a new process for me to learn.”

How does it differ from being a beer or wine sommelier?

“Tea sommeliers are becoming increasingly popular as demand for alcohol-free beverages continues to grow, and many (high-end) restaurants now offer a tea pairing menu alongside their wine pairing menu.”

“Similar to how a wine sommelier looks after the wine offering of a restaurant, a tea sommelier looks after the tea menu, and ensures staff are properly trained on how to brew each tea and its unique characteristics. A tea sommelier also works with the chef to pair tea to the food menu and can suggest teas that best complement a particular dish.”

Do you need any particular skills?

“Tea, much like wine, is grown in several countries around the world, each with their own unique processing methods and flavour profiles. As a sommelier, you need a broad knowledge about the main categories of tea (White, green, oolong and black tea (there is also such a thing as yellow and dark tea, albeit more rare) and the most renowned varieties within them.

Bag of Roqberry loose tea

“They have different manufacturing methods and require different brewing temperatures. Once you understand this, you have a good foundation to learn more.”

Do tea sommeliers work with loose tea and tea bags, or just one/both?

“Typically, sommeliers will work with loose tea so they can adjust the amount of tea used to the desired brew. That said, tea bags have come a long way from where they once started and pyramid teabags containing good quality tea will give you an excellent brew.”

Are there any teas we’ve been drinking wrong?

“Yes! By far the most common mistake is to brew green tea the same way as your English Breakfast, resulting in an unappealing bitterness. While the bitterness is actually caused by antioxidants and caffeine, and therefore could be argued to be good for you, it’s not the most enjoyable to drink. To achieve the best result from green tea, brew it at around 80 degrees C,” suggests Havelaar.

Roqberry is a new brand of tea, hand blended in the UK. Flavours include fresh expressions of classic blends, such as smooth and sunny Citrus Grey, and new fusions such as Sushi & Spice. Visit Roqberry.

© Press Association 2019