By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As soon as the 2009 World Tea Championships got under way in Las Vegas, in came the hot water and wildness. Here, there is tea made of jellybeans and lychee and chocolate and banana and pink peppercorns, and tea made of cactus and mushrooms and mugwort. There is tea that isn’t made of seaweed but tastes like it. There is tea named for monkeys. And tea that smells like monkeys.
The competition is part of the World Tea Expo here in Sin City, a place more suited to hookers and one-night stands than to the planet’s seemingly most sinless beverage. Thousands of manufacturers and mom-and-pop shop owners have converged on the Mandalay Bay Convention Center to have their best teas judged and to attend seminars like “Romancing the Leaf: Myths & Legends” and “Tastefully Small Finger Sandwiches” and “The Many Tastes of Chai.”
Despite this, some devotees still have a chip on their shoulder. “Tea is the second beverage, really,” says the woman sitting next to me, a representative from the Tea Association of Canada. To tea lovers’ everlasting consternation, the Western waking experience is dominated by coffee. In numeric terms, tea is the second most popular drink in the world — water being the first. In perceptual and emotional terms, it is a distant second to a steaming hot cup of joe.
Asked what kind of tea she drinks, the Canadian woman says, “It depends on what time of day it is.”
It is morning, and the conference hall is tranquil, except for the lobby area where people are whisking away packets of complimentary English Breakfast in a frenzied but contained way, as marketing consultant Lynn Dornblaser gives her Tea Trends Report.
The big buzz this year is teas that blossom in the cup. You drop the tea pellet into your cup, and it unfurls in the hot water in the shape of a flower. Last year was a banner year for European loose teas. Before that, green and white teas had serious heat.
After assuaging people’s fears about the recession — one need only remember the surge in gourmet chocolate and mustard during the economic downturn of the 1990s for evidence that consumers will not forsake their small, fancy treats — she advises tea makers to be vigilant about searching out new sources of inspiration. A Japanese maker, for instance, is experimenting with blue tea derived from a semifermented oolong with bamboo, persimmon and loquat leaves.
“Leave it to the Japanese,” says one woman.
“Look to other beverages,” says Dornblaser. “Think of interesting ways you could leverage appletinis or cosmopolitans.”
In the seminars, the mood is sober. “Let’s talk tippyness,” says instructor David De Candia. “This one has notes of asparagus. If you can zone in on the vegetable, fine. Though you may run into someone who hates broccoli. Oh, and get yourself a crayon box, or a color wheel, because people get tired of saying honey, amber, honey, amber. ... This one,” he says of a green tea, “is light lima bean in color.”
“Show off,” someone mutters.
A guy in a Hawaiian shirt is making loud slurping noises in a way that would be rude in polite company. Or, really, any company. He gazes deep into the cup, observing the liquid intently. “There’s, like, a longer astringency that tends to last and last,” he says. “It has great staying power.”
“And a slightly choking finish,” a woman says, coughing.
“There’s definitely fruit sort of lingering there,” says De Candia as Hawaiian-shirt man nods vigorously. “It’s very, very light on the grassy. The package on this next one says brew four minutes, but let’s back it up to three because we’re dealing with a paper cup. I don’t want it to be offensive.”
Being good at “cupping” or evaluating tea is a function of one’s sense of storytelling as much as one’s taste buds. When De Candia describes a tea as woody and wet, he means, “It’s like you come out to your patio after a rain.”
The corresponding danger with tea is that it’s often so subtle that people tend to be unable to get others’ experiences of it out of their heads. De Candia declares a tea’s leaves to be big, and the guy in the Hawaiian shirt says, “They’re like oar paddles!”
Of an oolong that he suggests smells like bread straight out of the oven, one woman says, “Is it roasted? Toasted?”
“Or maybe crusty? Bakey?” says another.
“I don’t know any tea tasters who just fell out of bed and became a tea taster. Other than myself, of course,” says De Candia. “When you go back to your world, you need to not rush this. You need to turn off the phone and take your time.” He steeps the next tea. “You guys might be getting a little maple syrup in there, too.”