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:

= = = = =

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)

= = = = =

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?

7 thoughts on “Teas vs. Trains”

  1. I’ll confess a bias of mine that plays heavily into this – I can’t muster the smallest bit of interest in tea that isn’t from China or Japan (ok, i tried a few sips of this “Zealong” silliness), although American tea industry seems to view these as fringe cases. I have a feeling I’d be more likely to be educated and tested on tea from Kenya than from Kagoshima. With the stuff that passes as puerh knowledge at most new American-owned tea houses (certified or otherwise), I wish they would just leave it off the menu.

    So there you have it, I’m a tea racist. If people joined my closed minded club, they’d at least be rewarded with better tea.

  2. I think it is far from the best we could offer in the United states, but as a country we are so tea illiterate I feel many people think spending 40 some hours in a classroom learning about tea is incredibly excessive, and must be quite redundant. Then there are those of us, who know many many years can be spent delving into certain area’s, which in the end will likely only leave us with a more questions we want to look into.

    But yes it is amazing how tea illiterate our nation can be, for instance I heard a story about someone buying tea from a coffee shop, that also sold tea. They started asking questions one of which is “What do they mean when they say Orange Pekoe?” To which the sales person replied that Orange Pekoe is an orange flavoring they add to the tea!

    Being someone who highly values knowledge, and as an extension some form of validation of that knowledge through a certificate, diploma, etc. I have wanted to look into tea certification programs, but they have to me, as you seem quite anemic in nature.

  3. An excellent post! I’ve been tempted to “legitimize” my tea knowledge by taking STI certification classes, but you hit the nail on the head why I’ve never taken that step. It irks one a bit to have gained considerable tea experience through years of tasting sessions with a wide variety of long-time tea professionals, yet without spending thousands of dollars (not including travel costs) for a certification of limited meaning one is somehow not considered a professional tea expert in the US.

    I know some of the STI instructors and have taken other courses with them, so I do not doubt their experience nor their ability to teach well. I just wish that STI certification had more meat and meaning behind it. And while I’m wishing, I wish US universities offered at least a couple of graduate level tea course sets!

  4. I think this sort of certification is problematic and has some potential downsides to it, and I think this is especially true in the tea industry.

    Tea culture is incredibly diverse, and there are many different tea cultures that are, to some degree, relatively disjoint. Just because we’re human, any sort of training is probably going to hold some sort of cultural bias. If everything becomes standardized and there’s some fixed canon of knowledge that is considered “necessary” to enter the profession, then this will result in a uniformity of the cultural knowledge about tea in society.

    This effect can also filter down to producers, in a negative way. There’s a limited amount of material that can enter a curriculum, and of this, a limited amount enters the public consciousness. For example, far more people have heard of Tie Guan Yin than have heard of varietals like Mao Xie, Huang Jin Gui, etc. Is Tie Guan Yin better? The whole notion of “better” is subjective. Standardization starts to define tastes…and define prices. And this filters down to producers, makes some richer and some poorer.

    There’s a degree to which more people being educated about tea results in the companies doing the most to promote quality production and sustainability being rewarded. But I think that it is personal, individual exploration that ultimately leads to this effect, not standardization and taking classes. If someone takes a class and they taste a lot of teas in the class, and they pay attention to what the teas taste like, and they think and reflect on the material presented to them in the class, they will learn about tea. Another person might take the class, study, pass a test, and get nothing out of it. It’s just like with degrees in higher education, the degrees mean little. I have two master’s degrees and I’ll say it, they mean little…different people get different things out of education.

    Someone somewhere might be reading wikipedia, reading journal articles, and tasting teas, and someone somewhere else might be traveling the world tasting teas at their point of production. And these people might learn far more than anyone taking any class or certification.

    This is why I’m skeptical of certifications, standardizations. I’ve spent 3 years in graduate education, I’ve taught at a college level…I understand that there is so much of any educational system and system of credentialing that, deep down, is basically a load of B.S. In the end, people’s knowledge and experience speaks for itself, and it’s the knowledge and experience that I think is worth promoting, not the whole credentialing system.

  5. This is such an interesting post! The comparisons you made are very telling in terms of the lack of legitimacy for tea certifications in the US. I have wondered about this, but have not done to research to figure out what is offered and what it really means. Thanks for putting it out there in a way that really makes sense.

  6. I think it’s important to remember this is America we’re talking about. I would certainly hope that “countries of origin” have much more involved courses of study, because that’s where tea production is possible. But a lot of those countries’ trade knowledge is inaccessible to us, or is only leaking out in drips. In America, what are we training people to do? Really, only resell, prepare and drink a marginally popular beverage. It’s a tiny industry populated by a large portion of minimum-wage workers. Compare that with the countless professionals and skilled laborers who have innovated, manufactured, operated, and maintained for the railroads in America.

    In the end, I think you nailed it by naming it “the tension between accessibility and expertise.” This is a dynamic tension, whose equilibrium will change as the industry grows (or contracts). STI is on their 4th level of classes now, and there are other tea education outfits that will grow and compete. The truth is still getting its boots on.

  7. I think this is to be expected in the US. This is a country where the word “tea” conjures up images of “Sweet Tea” in a large portion of the population (basically the whole south). It is only natural that the requirements for certification would be laughable in comparison to the amount of study needed to attain “tea master” status in Japan, for example.

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