If you think your job’s fun, John Cheetham may have you beat.
Cheetham is one of a limited number of highly trained tea masters in the world. We met him at the media launch of Pure Leaf Iced Tea held at Toronto’s Malaparte in the TIFF Bell Lightbox last week.
We were educated on different varieties of tea and why it was paired with certain menu items. Menu items included everything from cold split pea soup to gourmet-style fried chicken and warm chocolate cake. Delish.
We were intrigued by Cheetham’s profession (he literally tastes hundreds of types of teas per day) and wanted to hear a little more about it. The Brit’s career began when he answered a newspaper ad seventeen years ago…
What’s a tea master, anyway?
It isn’t about sitting around and tasting tea all day (though that sounds pretty amazing to us).
“The closest analogy is comparing a tea master to a wine sommelier. It is a high level taster who is able to discern where the tea comes from and, more importantly, how to make a good blend. That perfect blend is a balance between aroma, flavour and tastes, of course – similar to a wine blend. I know the different tastes and what combinations work well together. It isn’t just about tasting.”
But you need more than a passion for tea to become a tea master…
“It takes years of training. To be called a tea taster, which is the first stage, would be the result of about five years training. I was a tea master after 10 years and have been doing this for 16 years.”
It’s more exciting than it sounds.
“Part of being a tea master involves travelling around the world to places where they grow tea and also living in a tea-producing country. I spent four years living in Sri Lanka as part of the training. I spent a lot of time in tea gardens with farmers and producers learning about teas – from plant conditions to cutting and drying. It also involves working with farmers to help them with good agricultural practices, making sure the environment is kept in a good state with a balanced eco system.”
There’s a growing market for it (and his job).
“Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world, so if there were something wrong with it, it wouldn’t keep growing the way that it is. The market keeps growing, and more and more people are drinking it each year. Now, people are discovering tea as a hobby in a similar fashion as wine. There are many tea bars opening up, which is great for the industry because it is more than just the tea – it’s about the experience. We are seeing really fun, colourful branding with companies like David’s Tea and Pure Leaf. The Pure Leaf packaging brings out the experience; very pure, honest and natural.”
But a tea is not just a tea.
Tea is more unique than many think.
“Some people still think in terms of black tea and green tea… and that’s it. That’s like saying wine is just chardonnay or a merlot and that nothing else exists. A chardonnay isn’t even just a chardonnay – a French is going to be much different than an Australian. There are an infinite amount of varieties of tea.
I was amazed when I was living in Sri Lanka. Every week I would receive thousands and thousands of samples of types of tea just from Sri Lanka and each would have its own unique characteristic. That’s something not a lot of people know – the abundance of variety. Maybe in Asia, but not so much in Europe or the Americas. Recently, this is changing and it is becoming the new wine. The beauty is more and more are people discovering the variety.”
Tea can be the life of the party…
…as we experienced at the event, when Pure Leaf was paired with bourbon, tea and iced tea to make refreshing cocktail bases for summer.
“With Pure Leaf, the real tea flavour comes through. It’s a distinct tea, made with real tealeaves, so it’s a real brewed tea put in a bottle. Characteristics of the tea pair well with things like the bourbon we had today. Bourbon has the same woodiness, hay notes, and hints of dried fruit – just the same as black tea. All these elements complement one another.”
What you learn as a tea master.
“The most surprising things I have learned throughout my career are the huge variety of tastes of teas, the health benefits – it’s full of anti-oxidants – and the expansive scope of how it touches the cultures and lives of so many in a positive way.”
We left the event with a new-found appreciation for the tea profession, along with a new favourite drink of choice both on its own and in a cocktail.
If you’ve tried Pure Leaf, you already know that it’s far from your sugary vending machine iced tea option. The all-natural iced tea is made with the freshest tealeaves picked at their peak and then hand-selected by their Master Tea Blenders. The distinctively smooth flavour says summer cocktail staple all over it.
Is it 5pm yet?
#LYNL | (Live Your Notable Life)