When Ana Kotar appraises tea, she starts by looking at the leaves. If they are dry, have an intense even colour and give off a strong fragrance, these are the first signs of good quality. Next comes the taste test: A good variety of tea has its own particular flavours that linger in the mouth. For the past three years, Ana Kotar has been working as a tea specialist, aka ‘a tea master’, at Paper & Tea, where she is responsible for compiling their assortment. Founded in 2012, this company runs two shops in Berlin and an online shop, mainly selling varieties imported directly from the tea producing regions. Paper & Tea sells pure tea rather than tea in bags, as the latter usually comprises a blend of several varieties, colours and additives. “More and more customers are interested in the quality and origin of products”, says Ana Kotar.
The detox trend stimulates tea consumption
The concept of this Berlin-based company is definitely timely: Global tea production has been increasing constantly for years. Currently, five million tonnes are produced each year, which is an increase of three million tonnes compared to 1995.1 Half of this tea is consumed in Asia.2 However, interest for high-grade tea is growing in Europe and the US. Although tea consumption in Europe has declined by 3% since 2011, the value of tea sold has increased by 5% over the same period.3 According to Ana Kotar, this is due to heightened awareness of health: “Green tea, for example, is very popular with detox treatments.” This ties in with a marketing concept, whereby antioxidants in green tea are associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases or certain forms of cancer.4
Tea masters consider themselves as ambassadors and seek to promote drinking tea in its original form, rather than brewed in industrially produced bags. Allison Dillon explains that, “Tea is a very complex product. The main varieties, such as black, green and white tea, as well as Oolong and Rooibos, each offers a wide range of flavours depending on the harvest period, the climate and the quality of the soil in their place of production. Even tea from the same plantations differs from one year to the next.” Three years ago, this Australian tea specialist set up her online shop Cup Above Tea, selling over 80 kinds of tea. She sources her tea in small quantities from family-run plantations in Sri Lanka, India, China and Japan. Before founding her online shop, she travelled for two years around various tea plantations to forge contacts with suppliers. “Often, the plantations are so small that I can only buy 20 kilos of tea and can therefore only sell it in small quantities.”
How do you become a tea master? Well, there is no official qualification. It’s often a matter of being particularly interested in tea, as was the case for Allison Dillon. She then furthered her knowledge by participating in a three-day seminar organised by the Australian Tea Masters Association on the particularities of different varieties of tea, the conditions in which they are grown and how to prepare them. The seminar concluded with a test, part of which involved a blind tasting where Allison had to name different varieties of tea correctly. Established tea distributors, such as Ronnefeldt a German company founded in 1823, organise similar seminars. To earn their ‘Tea Master Gold’ certificate, participants have the opportunity to go on a seven-day trip to Sri Lanka to learn more about where tea comes from and how it is grown.