Karen Hartwick is a certified tea sommelier, accredited by the Specialty Tea Institute in New York. More than a tea expert, this is a rigorous designation comparable to that of a wine sommelier. And much more rare.
Q: Karen, when did you decide to become a tea sommelier?
A: I’m not sure I could tell you. I received my certification in 2005 after a couple of years of study, conferences, seminars and exams. I had to take Level 1 and Level 2 with the Specialty Tea Institute, but I didn’t set out looking for the title – I was just looking for more and more information so I could learn more.
Q: How high can you go? Is there a Level 3?
A: Yes, I’ve already taken three modules, which puts me about halfway through it. The most recent finished with a seminar on black teas in Atlanta followed by another exam. The Institute is really pursuing their mission for education and they have plans for more levels and specialized courses for particular lines of tea, as well as some of the more rare types. Personally, I’m looking forward to the courses on white teas and pu-erhs.
Q: What’s the difference between being an expert on tea and a tea sommelier?
A: There’s so much to learn about the culture, the presentation, the origins and so on. I’d already learned a lot on my own, but beyond identifying teas and knowing the tasting profiles the next important level is learning to match teas to an occasion, a meal, a menu, an ambience... Much like a wine sommelier can amplify people’s enjoyment of a restaurant by selecting and stocking the ideal wine complements.
And then there are the rare teas that you wouldn’t otherwise come across without finding a way into that realm of the tea culture.
Q: How tough is the course to become a sommelier?
A: It’s a lot of study, but then you get to learn from some amazing people. Some of the instructors have been from places like Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China. One gentleman, for instance, grew up on a tea farm and has 35 years of working experience with farming, harvesting, processing, auctioning and distributing tea. And his family has been in it for generations.
Q: What’s been the best part of the studies?
A: Experiencing flavours that I didn’t know existed.
Q: Did becoming a sommelier change anything?
A: Perhaps, but what’s even more important is that I’m now in my 5th year of working with people’s palates, assessing where they’re at with their personal tastes and where to take them with different teas. Last week, a couple was here at the tea tasting bar – they were both into single-malt scotches and he was into cigars, and they were amazed by the tea tasting. That was fun!
You can learn some of that in a class, seminar or exam room, but working with people who are looking for something new and different is the real reward.
Q: And tea does that?
A: Absolutely! I get to see people’s lives change for the better every time I introduce them to a new tea experience. It happens all the time here at the tea tasting bar. And now with the online boutique and Tea LC internet community, it can happen anywhere in the world. And that’s exciting to me.
Q: You sound like a woman with a mission.
A: I am. Before pursuing this, I was doing well in the fashion industry and I was at the point where I was speaking to groups in the field, but I came around to realizing that tea is my real passion. So I got thinking, “How can I bring tea to Stratford? How can I make fine teas accessible for people?” And it’s gone from there. Tea is a very simple way of adding elements of serenity, inner strength, health and pleasure to your life.
Q: One last question: When you became a sommelier, did you get to wear a medal or a hat or an ermine-lined gown or something?
A: (laughs) No, no, but I did frame the certificate.