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.

Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival

I recently picked up an accordion-bound copy of Zhang Zeduan’s famous Song dynasty painting of a scene during the Qingming festival. The painting is so famous that a New York Times article described it this way:  “Like the Mona Lisa, ‘Qingming Festival’ is to some extent famous for being famous.”  It has been copied, reinterpreted, and converted into different media.  (In fact, my earliest memory of it is recognizing the famous bridge as the same as the semi-3D wooden model hanging from the wall of a Chinese restaurant I used to go to.)  The reproduction that I bought has some variations from the original, but from what I can tell those differences are only on the ends and in an additional top margin area.  However, it’s possible that I’ve got a reproduction of a fairly, though not completely, faithful copy.  As of this writing, the Wikipedia article on the painting is pretty interesting, including information about the city supposedly represented, various translations of the title into English, and so forth.

Detail of Along the River During the Qingming Festival

I bought it mainly because the Qingming festival is so important, at least traditionally, to the tea industry in China.  This festival, occurring in the first week of April, represents something like the start of the “regular” spring season. Teas harvested before the Qingming festival (called “mingqian” teas) are considered to be exceptional.  These teas are the ones that are expected to have the most concentrated flavor compounds because the tea plants have been building up their nutrient reserves over the winter.  Teas made after Qingming traditionally decreased in value as the date of harvest got further and further from the festival, for much the same reason.  Later-picked spring teas would be second, third, fourth pickings from the same bushes and would, therefore, be ever so slightly less full of the stuff needed for a truly amazing cup of tea.

This traditional picture of Chinese tea is changing, however, probably due to global climate change.  Increasingly, more and more tea can be produced before Qingming because the growing season is lengthening.  Thus, second or even third pluckings from a given bush are becoming possible before the festival, meaning that “mingqian” no longer virtually guarantees a first-pluck-of-the-year status to the teas.  This doesn’t stop mingqian teas from being sought after, but it does suggest that the mingqian tea you may get today is not nearly as good as all the traditional stories might lead you to suppose.

My personal take-away, though, is that it’s another reason to do your part reducing climate change, like driving less, using sustainably produced products, eating smaller amounts of non-poultry meats, using energy efficient lighting and appliances, and so forth.

Also, Tea Geek Business Members can check out my reproduction of this famous painting through the Tea Geek Library Service.