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In Hot Water: Steeping at the World Tea Expo

The brew that is true
Peter Brattander

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.”

“Oh, yeah,” agrees one man, as if about to devour a stack of pancakes.

 

The word in the exhibition hall is that the tea to beat is likely to be found in the Rishi or TeaGschwendner booths, two of the titans of the specialty-tea world.

“I think people are placing bets,” says a man at the Rishi camp. “I can’t. That would be insider trading.” He feels strongly that Rishi’s white teas from Fujian have as good a chance to dominate.

Asked at TeaGschwendner to identify the company’s strengths, the lady at the booth says, “Can I say everything?” The Germans are heavily invested in plantations in India and eastern Nepal. They sweep the awards every year. The lady swirls a small dish of Rooibos Crème Caramel with her finger and inhales. “This is like gold, almost.”

But even the small operators are giving it their all. I come across a tea called “Swamp Water,” by East Indies Tea Co., which brews a murky, twiggy liquor. Its “Read My Lips,” a flavored black tea with minuscule red-sugar confetti lips, was a finalist for the previous year’s top prize. “We lost by one point!” cries the woman at the booth. “Things were a little disorganized last year. ”

A crowd has gathered at the nearby Qtrade booth. People sniff and paw the bowls of dry tea ingredients, letting the leaves run through their fingers. “They’re judging the iced teas right now,” someone says.

“Are they?” Pedro Rosas, purchasing manager for herbal teas, says fretfully. “We have a hibiscus lemon in competition.”

Several booths over, as people are sticking their noses into his Ancient Forest blend (notes of cedar and honey) and Biodynamic Breakfast (notes of maple leaf) and Dragon Crisp Gen Mai Cha (notes of popcorn), Art of Tea CEO Steve Schwartz is asking visitors to keep fingers crossed for his iced teas.

 

The usual trade-show hucksterism is in full effect. In one corner of the exhibit hall, teahouse owner Thomas Shu is attempting to translate for a strapping Taiwanese man doing an oolong rolling demo. The man packs the wet oolong in canvas cloth, squeezes it until the juice runs out, thick and sticky. “Okay, Mr. Fang has to smell the tea all the time,” Shu says. “He looks for nuts aroma.” Mr. Fang is a third-generation tea master. According to Shu, oolong manufacturers use machines now, but in ancient times the process was done using hands or feet.

Speaking of feet, for all the healthy antioxidant, energizing benefits of their favorite drink, attendees are plenty tired. The Japanese businessmen are snoozing in the sofas, shoes off, jackets on, ties still knotted at the neck. My mouth feels woolly. Some here have given up on leaves and hot water and have absconded to the buffets to consume a cardiac ward’s worth of prime rib and shrimp.

Elsewhere, the hardcore are sampling rare teas: one brewed from stems that look like deer antlers, from an estate in Malawi. The exact moment at which the leaves are removed from the tender stems is a trade secret. A twig tea grown by descendants of ex–Cultural Revolution troops who fled into the mountains. A tea that looks like a sparrow’s tongue when wet.

One idiosyncratic $2,000-per-kilo tea transports tasters to the Tregothnan estate in Cornwall, England. “The Tregothnans are pure aristos,” murmurs instructor Jane Pettigrew. “A few very rich Russians materialize each year and buy up this tea, so us Brits don’t get to taste it.” The only pests the aristos have to contend with are pheasants who love to swoop down and eat the fresh buds.

A green tea takes people to a pond in Vietnam. Each evening, women row boats across the waters to the opposite shore to pluck the tea, which they then wrap inside the petals of ancient lotus flowers so the scent of the pollen transfers to the tea overnight. In the morning, the women harvest the dew that gathers on the lotus flowers, brewing the tea with it. Two thousand lotus blossoms are required to make one kilo of tea, a drink originally sipped by the emperor.

“It tastes like ... kindergarten paste,” says one woman.

“It’s horrible,” declares another, happily.

At the awards ceremony, I share a table with tea Web site owner Cynthia Yoshitomi. “She’s more fit. She’s skinnier than I am,” says Yoshitomi, searching for a friend she hadn’t seen since the last championship.

“She must be so skinny,” says her husband, Jerry. Cynthia shoots him a look. Yoshitomi and her husband have been married for 40 years and are reformed coffee drinkers, “real Type A types,” who have switched to tea for its soothing properties. Yoshitomi has a theory that one can correlate the rise of road rage with the rise of Starbucks franchises.

The Vegas venue is a contested one. “A lot of tea people don’t like Las Vegas,” says Yoshitomi. “They comment on the dichotomy.” The predominant theory is that it’s done here to lure the Asians and South Africans because they love to gamble.

“I went looking for coffee this morning at Starbucks and saw kids wearing fancy clothes and you know they’re just getting back from the night before. It’s depressing,” says Jerry.

Wait. He went out for coffee?

Jerry looks away guiltily and changes the subject. Soon, the winners are announced in two-dozen or so categories and subcategories. Those ideal darjeelings and assams and senchas and pu-erhs and dragonwells, all those endless varieties of the single plant Camellia sinensis that gave birth to a $10 billion–a-year industry.

The last day of the championships, Pedro Rosas, Qtrade’s herbal-blends guy, is presiding over his bowls of rose petals and safflowers. Rosas was optimistic about his competition entry. “Coco Star” — a pretty, trail mix–like mélange of, among other things, rooibos, cacao, coconut, cinnamon, safflower and stevia — had taste going for it, but lost points for appearance because of a star anise big as a ninja shuriken. Usually star anise is cut up, but Rosas, a rebel, left it in whole for “visual interest.”

“Is it really a blend?” judges asked. “The density doesn’t match.” The tea lost. Didn’t even place. Oh, well. What do you do? Do you chop up the star anise and compromise your artistic integrity, or hold true to your vision?

His iced tea took second place. “Not bad for a company that only got into herbals two years ago,” he reasons.

Qtrade are wholesalers, which means they sell their raw ingredients and blends to other tea companies, who then market the product under their own name. Manjiv Jayakumar, the 30-year-old son of Qtrade’s owner, sees mounds of raw ingredients in their countries of origin: China, Japan, Sri Lanka. The typical American experience of tea is sterile by comparison.

“The industry is very fractured right now,” says Jayakumar. “It indicates the state of growth we’re in.” There is no Starbucks of tea at the moment, one company that rules the market. “Starbucks raised the standards for coffee. What happened in the specialty-coffee business 15 years ago is happening now in tea. It is an exciting time.”

On the plane back to Los Angeles, after sipping and slurping and peeing more than I could have thought possible in a three-day span, I see oolong-tea master Mr. Fang sitting a few rows ahead. He leans against the window, exhausted. The plane ascends and the cabin lights flicker. At last the flight attendant comes by with her rolling cart of beverages. “Would you care for something to drink, sir?” she says to Mr. Fang. “Some coffee?”


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