Alice in Camellialand: Advice For Tea Ambassadors
We've all been there before. One or more of your friends has asked you to take them out for tea.
"I know how much you love tea. Will you take me out sometime so I can have good tea and learn more about it?" But where do you start? Do you begin with your latest and greatest favorite tea (currently mine is Zhang Ping Shui Xian!), or do you ease them into this amazing world of flavor and aroma with something very well-known like a Ti Kuan Yin?
I'm not a tea expert, but some of my friends treat me as if I were, because I have a small obsession (lifestyle choice) with tea and tea culture. When friends ask me to take them to my favorite tea shop, or ask me for a recommendation, I freeze a little. What should I tell them? If I recommend the wrong tea, maybe that will put them off tea forever! What if I drone on and on about region, flush, and oxidization? Then they will get bored, and miss out on all of the wonders that being part of this world has to offer! This is a very serious amount of responsibili-tea to handle.
So where do we start? I believe we should start by understanding what people really desire when they ask you to introduce them to your wonderland of tea. What they really crave is to ride on your rainbow wave of passion for all things tea. They want to experience it as you experience it, because you love it so much and that kind of passion can be quite appealing and contagious! They yearn to be guided through their first steps into this magical world of Phoenix Mountain, Bai Hao, and Jing Mai. They want to understand and enjoy tea with all of their senses, but they are looking for a kind and gentle guide into this magical land of Camellia sinensis who won't cause them anxiety.
How can you be this kind and gentle guide for your friends? I have a few recommendations. Firstly, remember that taking your first steps into any new world can be very intimidating. I find the key to guiding somebody else into your world is to take it slow. Perhaps avoid conversations that might look like this:
Tea Enthusiast #1: Oh how wonderful! I prefer to drink Phoenix Mountain Gongfu style as well. Have you already woken the dragon?
Tea Enthusiast #2: (responds heartily) Oh yes, my good friend. This is actually the second steeping. In my opinion, it's always the best. This is from Chaozhou, only third generation from the Song Dynasty.
Tea Enthusiast #1: Most excellent! 40-50% fermentation, am I right?
Tea Enthusiast #2: Definitely. It's had a full fermentation process: from harvest, to
dancing, to charcoal firing.
Tea Enthusiast #1: Truly enchanting. I love the honey orchid notes.
Tea Enthusiast #2: Indubitably!
To people who are new to the world of tea, this conversation is as comprehensible as the Hare asking the Mad Hatter for a half-cup of tea. Their conversation continues on, but your neophyte Alice is most likely very confused and thinking "You're all mad! Wake the dragon? Are we talking about Game of Thrones or tea?" So, let's help Alice to feel more comfortable, and less overwhelmed by her trip down the rabbit hole to Camellialand. She needs to have a good time and be able to enjoy the tea party.
While avoiding jargon-laden conversations like the above, the first thing I tell people when I bring them to my favorite tea shop is that it's okay to like what you like. It's also perfectly acceptable to describe that which you like using adjectives that already exist within your active vocabulary. We are not all sommeliers, and may not choose the words "bamboo and orchids" to describe the accents of a Bai Hao Silver Needle. The important thing is to enjoy what you are drinking, no matter what language you use to describe it.
To ease anxiety about this particular aspect of tea, I usually tell my friends a story of when I first started my own journey to Camellialand. I was sitting at the tea bar of my favorite tea shop and was struggling to name what I tasted in a Mao Feng. It was the first time I'd had this particular tea and I used the only adjective that popped into my head. Before I knew what I was saying, the word "chewy" tumbled out of my mouth. That's right, chewy. To me, that's what it felt like on my tongue. It was like I wanted to grab the leaves, stuff them into my mouth, and chew on them for a while (maybe I am the White Rabbit?) The employee behind the tea bar burst into a fit of laughter, and then helped me out by suggesting the tea was chestnut, grassy, and slightly vegetal in flavor. (To this day, I still consider Mao Feng to be kind of chewy rather than grassy.)
So, as an ambassador representing Camellialand, please feel free to share my "chewy" story while explaining a little bit about tasting notes. It may help friends to feel less intimidated by the grand world now at their feet. If they develop a passion for tea as you have, they will dive further down the rabbit hole, needing little encouragement and bearing a high level of excitement. They will relish learning all about tasting notes. You can even provide them with a handy-dandy glossary of terms from the http://www.teausa.com/14656/glossary-of-terms The main point is that they enjoy the experience, no matter what language is used to describe the tea. Remember, you are there to help them through the awkward adolescent stages of "chewy" versus "grassy."
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Alice in Camellialand: Advice For Tea Ambassadors Continued!