The dictionary defines ‘sommelier’ as a waiter in a restaurant who serves wine but today you hear about a tea sommelier and even some other food and drink sommeliers. To become any kind of professional in tea, like other fields, devoting time for study is important, whether it is from books, online resources, or even real life experiences. There are also some courses related to tea that you can gain knowledge from and earn the title, but finding the right education can be overwhelming with the various options out there.
The Tea Association of Canada (TAC) has a program recognized by the Canadian tea industry. In fact, it was one of the first tea sommelier programs I learned about when I started tea blogging several years ago. If I wasn’t already enrolled in another college program when I first learned about it, I probably would have applied. But even so, at that time, there were not as many locations teaching the program. Fortunately, it has grown immensely since then.
Shabnam Weber is the Chair of the Education Committee and Head Instructor of their Tea Sommelier program. At just 24 years old, Shabnam had restaurants in Bermuda and Germany. Residing in Europe, she found her initial passion for the beverage from visiting local tea shops. Her return home to Toronto was when she decided to share her love for teas from around the world and founded her own specialty tea boutique, The Tea Emporium. In addition to her shop and teaching, she speaks about tea at numerous events, including the Toronto Tea Festival.
I had the opportunity to interview Shabnam Weber in regards to the Tea Association of Canada’s certified tea sommelier program. We discussed the process of becoming certified, the term ‘sommelier’, life after graduating and more.
Hi Shabnam! Congrats on your recent World Tea Award nomination and thanks for taking the time to chat. Let’s begin with what makes someone a certified TAC Tea Sommelier.
A certified TAC TEA SOMMELIER Professional® is someone who has mastered an understanding of the tea industry in regards to tea types, production methods, tea preparation, history, food pairing, etc. I think that a person holding this designation not only has a knowledge of these aspects of tea, but is also able to effortlessly communicate it to the consumer/guest.
How long has the Tea Association of Canada been educating aspiring tea sommelier?
We began the program in the early 2000s, but to me it sometimes feels like yesterday that we started, and other times…a lifetime…because of all that we have accomplished with it. From starting with just one college to expanding to colleges from the east coast to the west cost and then taking it online.
What is the process of becoming a certified Tea Sommelier with the Tea Association of Canada?
The TEA SOMMELIER® Certification Program consists of 8 courses over 46 weeks. Every class has an evaluation process at the end which includes a presentation, blind cupping and written exam. Once all 8 courses are completed successfully, students can register to take the final certification exam with the Tea Association of Canada. The exam is a multi-part exam which includes tea preparation, oral presentation, written exam and blind cupping. Students must have a score of 75% plus in order to pass, and they must pass the blind cupping. The official designation earned is Certified TAC TEA SOMMELIER® Professional.
Who should be interested in pursuing this career?
We have had students from all walks of life over the years. From people who are interested in advancing their knowledge of tea to those that are looking for a second career, or even starting a whole new career in the tea industry. I do believe however, that this is a course that the hospitality industry needs to pay attention to as well. Consumers are looking for more knowledge on the products they consume in restaurants – and having an in-house expert is an added element to any establishment.
Why do you believe the tea industry needs certified professionals?
Tea is a complex subject, with a long history as well as tea growing regions that span the globe. It’s important, as consumers look for more information on a product, that they are being given information that is consistent.
Can you share some of the opportunities that have been presented to grads from the Tea Association of Canada’s program?
Many of our graduates have pursued a career in the tea industry – working for existing tea companies for example, making appearances on television programs as tea experts and consulting. What I think is truly exciting however, is the number of our graduates that have gone on to thriving entrepreneurship – starting their own business’ and committing to their passion in tea.
Most people recognize a sommelier as someone who is in the wine industry.
I think that that word, ‘sommelier’, has taken on the meaning of expert in a given subject. It isn’t associated just with wine anymore. In a world where we are understanding the complexities behind the food we eat, I think it ‘s quite natural that the word ‘sommelier’ take on a wider meaning besides the traditional usage with wine. We now see cheese sommeliers, mustard sommeliers, water sommeliers, etc.
Speaking of which, you just launched the program at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute at Niagara College. What are some similarities you notice with wine sommelier and tea sommelier?
Tea and wine share a lot in common. Wine and tea are both affected by their terroir – climate, soil, altitude, growing conditions. Both wine and tea sommeliers have an understanding of how the terroir affects the end product. They also share in common how their product reacts to and compliments food. Specifically, how to use their product in pairings to either emphasis flavours in the food, or in the beverage.
With many tea courses available online and in person, what makes the Tea Association of Canada’s program different?
The most important element that differentiates this program from any other is that it is the only trade supported program offering this designation. It is not a program being offered by a private company, but rather one that is backed by the Tea Association of Canada, whose members and Board of Directors, represent the global tea industry. We put this program together to provide education on tea with no agenda on promoting any particular brand or style.
Some courses are referring to themselves as tea sommeliers, with little to no relation to each other. They have the idea that someone can learn all about tea over a weekend. Our program does not fall into that category. This is a fundamental problem within our industry and precisely the reason I worked together with the Tea Association of Canada to develop the Certified TAC Tea Sommelier program.
You can learn more about the Tea Sommelier program with Tea Association of Canada on their website, and more specifically, their FAQ page. The program is available across colleges in Canada and also online (with the exception of in person exams). Like most professions, the tea world is always evolving and you should be with it. Don’t stop learning from the leaf, even after you may have graduated from a program.
Did you take any tea related courses before? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.