Most lovers of food and drink are familiar with the concept of a wine sommelier — a trained wine expert who knows the ins-and-outs of vintages and varietals, and can help restaurant guests pair their meals with just the right bottle.
With a number of other beverages (coffee, beer, high-end juice, etc) being touted as being the next big thing in terms of connoisseurship, it’s not surprising that sommelier certifications are being built around other drink categories. Still, the concept of a tea sommelier is foreign to a lot of people.
Many of us see tea like our parents saw wine decades ago (“There are two kinds: red and white”), and simply have a box of orange pekoe in our cupboards to offer non-coffee drinkers after dinner. But like wine, with its long history and huge variety, the world of tea is complicated and wide enough to warrant certification courses for those who want to sell it or offer it in restaurants alongside wine selections.
There are several certified tea sommeliers in Alberta; a certification course was offered at Calgary’s Bow Valley College in the earlier part of this decade. That in-person program has since been discontinued, but the Academy of Tea offers online courses or students can travel to select colleges in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia for a more traditional learning experience.
Guylaine Gagnon got her tea sommelier certification in 2012, and promptly started Tea Monde, an online premium, loose-leaf tea retail business. In addition to selling high-end tea directly from her site, Gagnon provides many of Calgary’s restaurants and cafes (including, but not limited to Q Haute Cuisine, Teatro, Alforno, Ollia, and Éclair de Lune, as well as Dine Chartier in Beaumont) with tea to serve to their guests.
“We can give people an experience like they have with wine,” she says. “If you pair good tea with food, you’re going to have as pleasant an experience as you do with wine.”
Michiko Ono of Matsu Kaze Tea agrees. Ono is certified as a tea sommelier by the Tea Association of Canada, as well as by the Japanese Green Tea Association as a Japanese Green Tea (Nihon-cha) Instructor. Matsu Kaze also sells tea online, but more importantly, she’s expanding the tea offerings at many of Calgary’s finer Japanese restaurants. While drinking tea for tea’s sake is perfectly fine, Ono encourages people to think of tea as a complement to food.
“Tea has the potential to make a huge contribution to the food industry,” she says. “Japanese green tea has a very food-friendly taste, and not only to pair with Japanese food. It has more possibilities than coffee or wine. It’s a lifestyle that people are trying to discover.”
This is also the approach favoured by Joshua Linvers, the beverage sommelier at Q Haute Cuisine, who also works with Gagnon as the business developer at Tea Monde. In an effort to offer non-alcoholic beverage pairings for Q Haute guests who don’t order wine, Linvers has developed a tea-pairing program, a rarity in Alberta. Linvers says people are sceptical about how well tea pairs with savoury dishes, but argues that some dishes are actually better paired with tea than wine.
“It’s the best when food is at extremes of the spectrum,” Linvers says. “In our culture, we don’t really drink tea with savoury food. There are so many teas that go so well with pasta or with meat that people don’t have a chance to experience.
“If they do order them after dinner, it’s the wrong flavour to go with chocolate cake or something sweet,” he adds.
Tea also works in food — Gagnon says she grinds tealeaves and uses Japanese matcha in baking, cooking, and in simple syrups for cocktails. Using ground tea leaves or powdered matcha, as opposed to steeped tea, keeps the non-water soluble vitamins and nutrients intact. Gagnon adds tea to soups, whipped cream, and has even tried infusing it into beer — since there are so many different kinds of tea, the possibilities are unending.
But Gagnon also knows that not everyone is ready to take tea to that next level, and recommends the tea curious start by visiting a good tea shop, reading a few books, and learning to brew a proper cup. It’s the first step towards discovering a whole new world of flavour.
“I encourage people to go to tea tastings and experience the true nature of tea,” she says. “Get away from all of these teas that are flavoured and have lots of filler that hide the tea taste.” “People have the perception that tea doesn’t taste very good because they’ve only had the stuff you buy at the grocery store. They’ve never had true good quality teas.”
Looking for spots to get afternoon tea?
Bow Valley Ranche (Calgary): Saturday/Sunday 2:00-4:00 p.m.
Brasserie Kensington (Calgary): Saturday/Sunday 2:15-4:30 p.m. $1 from every high tea is donated to a local charity
Fairmont Palliser (Calgary): Afternoon Tea every day in Oak Room and lobby 2:00-4:00 p.m.
Fairmont Macdonald (Edmonton): Afternoon tea, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday followed by a historic tour including the spectacular Queen Elizabeth II Suite
Linnea (Edmonton): Sundays 3:00pm and 3:30pm, reservations only
Callys Tea (Edmonton): Light Afternoon Tea and High Tea, Tuesday-Sunday