Teas vs. Trains

There is a tension in the tea industry between accessibility and expertise. On the one hand, if the industry is to grow, more people need to be involved in tea in one way or another, so making it easier to get into tea allows for more people to be interested in, for example, starting new tea shops. On the other hand, the tea industry is not served by tea people knowing next to nothing about tea—some level of knowledge is required. To continue the example, you’d hope that your local tea shop owners could answer the question “What’s the difference between green and black tea?” without being completely flummoxed and racing to Wikipedia to look up the answer.

As a tea educator, I hang around the you-need-more-knowledge end of the opinion spectrum, a bias I admit and which is probably not unexpected. It is probably not possible to discover a “correct” level of knowledge or industry accessibility, but I think it is instructive to look at ways to address the tension between the poles.

It seems to me that the approach of the industry in the US, in general, is to try to have it both ways. Anyone can start a tea business, and with that as the only “credential” under their belt, start telling people about tea—sometimes sharing egregiously bad information. To satisfy the other end of the spectrum, there are certifications and awards to encourage and recognize (and ostensibly give a competitive advantage to) those who put more effort into getting it right.

But here’s the issue for me: what do you have to do for these marks of excellence? Do they really give the benefit they claim, and what is required to get them?

The Specialty Tea Institute (education branch of the Tea Association of the United States) is perhaps the most widely known certification, and they specifically claim to support not just tea education in general, but support of businesses in the tea industry, from deciding whether getting into the business is right, to providing accurate information, and finally, to having a tea certification program.

This certification consists of three levels, each requiring the candidate take their paid classes before testing to see if the requirements have been reached. The levels are:
LEVEL 1: An 8 hour class, including testing time (actually only a few minutes over 5 hours of actual instruction, according to their schedule posted here).
LEVEL 2: An 8 hour class, including testing time (5 hours instruction + breaks, review, and test)
LEVEL 3: A series of 5 classes—The “Black Tea” class is a two-day affair, offering about 12.5 hours of class time, while the other four (“Oolong Tea,” “Sensory Evaluation,” “Green Tea,” and the combined “White & Pu’erh Teas” each being 4.75 hours of instruction). This totals to 31.5 hours of instruction for the third level.

Across these classes, you will be exposed to industry brewing and tea evaluation methods, understand some basics of processing that differentiates different kinds of teas and influences flavor, and taste teas from the famous tea areas like China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka (though not much, if any, from the areas that where the bulk of US-consumed teas come from, such as Kenya and Argentina).

Assuming you complete all 41.5 hours of their classes, and can retain the material until the end of the day on which it’s presented (the certification test is given at the end of each class) you will achieve the highest professional certification the Tea Association of the United States and the Specialty Tea Institute can bestow: the Level 3 Professional Series Graduate title, and potential inclusion on the STI List of Recommended Certified Speakers.

That’s all fine and good, unless you start comparing that to other certifications. I’ll use as an example—because my partner is a dabbler in it—the hobby of model railroading. The hobby has an organization similar to the Tea Association of the United States, called the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA). They also offer a title to people that satisfy their requirements. To earn the “Master Model Railroader” title, one must satisfy at least 7 out of 11 subject areas, at least one in each of 4 categories. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just list an example or two from each area, but you can see the whole list here:

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AREA A: Railroad Equipment

  • Motive Power: Build a working, self-propelled model locamotive from scratch (individual components such as gears, lightbulbs, paint, etc. can be purchased and need not be made from scratch)
  • Cars: Build 8 operable, “super detailed” model rail cars based on at least 4 different types of prototypes

AREA B: Railroad Setting

  • Structures: Build 6 types of scale structures, including at least one bridge or trestle
  • Scenery: Construct a layout of at least 32 square feet (for HO scale), including specific requirements for terrain, structures, background, lighting, and realism.
  • Prototype Models: Build a model (animated or static) based on a real-world prototype, with photographs or plans of the real scene used as a prototype required for judging

AREA C: Railroad Construction & Operation

  • Civil Engineer: Provide model railroad track plan, in scale drawing, including scale, size, track elevation, curve radii, and turnout sizes.
  • Electrical Engineer: Wire and demonstrate electrical operation of various model railroad requirements, and prepare schematic drawings of propulsion circuitry.
  • Chief Dispatcher: Participate in the operation of a model railroad for over 50 hours total in the roles as Dispatcher and at least two of: engineer, yardmaster, hostler, and/or towerman.

AREA D: Serivce to the Hobby

  • Association Official: Serve at least two years as a regional officer or at least one year as an officer at the national level
  • Association Volunteer: Earn at least 60 “time units” as a volunteer (as an example, newsletter editors can earn 1 time unit per issue, as long as the issues are at least 4 pages and the club they are for include at least 10 members. Another example: judging a division-level contest earns 1 time unit)
  • Model Railroad Author: Earn 42 points earned from publishing related to model railroading (e.g., 3 points are awarded for each full page—defined as about 1200 words—of written article/column appearing in a national publication, only 1 point per page appearing in division-level or special interest group publications)

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Note that just the “Chief Dispatcher” option, which could be one of the 7 sections you’d need to satisfy, requires more hours of effort than the entire professional certification offered by STI. Another difference is that each of the model railroading sections, the candidate must actually do the work and have it judged by more experienced members of the association. It is a competency- and skills-based certification, not just being able to retain the “right answers” for an 8-hour classroom session.

If the same kind of standards of the model railroading hobby has were applied to tea, certification might have as an option, “Harvest and process tea leaves into your choice of processing style such that the finished product satisfies the minimum acceptable quality for the chosen style.” Or perhaps, “Successfully propagate five cultivars of tea plant (including at least one representative from sinensis, assamica, and hybrid varieties).” Or, if it were made a little easier, “You will be given five tea samples from the same processing family; properly steep each and identify its region of origin.”

Is the STI certification really the best that we can collectively do as tea professionals? Are we as an industry really rewarding excellence, or just some minimal level of effort? Should a certified professional be able to do more than someone who is particularly engaged in their hobby? What would you expect a certified tea professional to know be able to actually do?