What Is A Tea Sommelier?

You may have heard of a wine sommelier – the person in a fine restaurant who curates the wine list and recommends wine and food pairings.  But did you know that it’s also possible to be a tea sommelier? 

If you love tea, it’s actually possible to become a certified tea sommelier and turn this position into a career. 

A tea sommelier has been trained to be able to identify different types of tea, is an expert at brewing using the proper techniques, and is able to recommend tea and food pairings.  A person who completes a certification program can be given the title “Tea Sommelier”.  

A person can be a tea expert without completing a tea sommelier certification. However, many choose to be certified to further their education, or to help start a career. In this article we will discuss what a tea sommelier does along with the process of becoming one.

Is A Tea Master The Same as a Tea Sommelier?

The names “tea master”,  “tea specialist”, and “tea sommelier”, can be used interchangeably.  All describe a person with an expertise in all things tea who has achieved an expert level of knowledge through classes, certification and experience.  

What Does A Tea Sommelier Do?

A tea sommelier is a master at just about everything related to tea.  A tea specialist must be a master in understanding different types of tea, brewing techniques and tea and food pairings.

Understanding Tea Types 

A key component and one of the foundations of building tea expertise is understanding the difference between different tea types and how to properly brew each of them.

There are actually thousands of different variations of tea in the world – over 20,000 according to the Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook.

There are six main types of tea that are known as true teas. This is because they all come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. The types of tea are:

  • white, 
  • yellow, 
  • green, 
  • oolong, 
  • black, and 
  • pu-er. 

Yellow and pu-er are more rare to find outside of China, India, and Japan. Within each of these 6 types of tea are hundreds of subtypes, each with subtle differences in taste and aroma.

A good tea sommelier should have a working knowledge not just of the six main types of tea, but of the subtypes in each category. For instance, green tea alone has several subtypes including Sencha, Matcha, and Tencha, according to tea production company Ito En.

Besides true teas, there is also an entire onslaught of herbal teas to be considered as well. Rather than coming from the Camellia sinensis plant, herbal teas are made from other types of plants. This includes flowers, roots, bark, herbs, and various leaves of other plants. 

Teas such as chamomile and hibiscus are two popular herbal teas that are both made from flowers. Other teas, such as ginger tea, are derived from roots. Rooibos and Yerba Mate are two of the most famous herbal teas that are often mistaken for true teas. 

Thus, on top of knowing all about true teas, tea sommeliers should also have a vast knowledge of the many herbal teas as well. 

Proper Brewing Techniques 

Another key aspect of being a tea sommelier is the ability to brew tea properly, understand the flavor profiles, and masterfully pair teas with foods. Teas can have many flavors, with most of the flavors of the earth such as smoky, floral, grass-like, seaweed, and bitter notes. 

When brewing tea, a tea sommelier must be conscious of what temperature and steeping time is best suited for specific types of tea. For instance, lighter teas such as white and green are often steeped for less time and at lower temperatures compared to the darker black and oolong teas. 

Pairing with Tea With Food

As far as pairing teas with foods, this is an art that has been practiced in places such as China and Japan for centuries but is still coming to more popularity in the western world.

The British were one of the first European countries to embrace food and tea pairings, as well as enjoying multiple daily cups of tea and observing tea times such as “afternoon tea.” According to Twinings, and English tea marketer teas pair with food generally as follows:

  • Black teas with more robust and heavy meals, like meat roasts or lasagna
  • Green teas with vegetable based meals and lighter meats like chicken
  • White teas with fishes, cheese, and desserts
  • Oolong teas with fruits desserts and smoked cheeses or meats

When pairing food with tea, it is important to note some of the benefits of doing so. Tea has many health benefits, one of which is boosting digestive health. Thus, drinking tea with meals helps the body to digest the food being consumed. 

Share Knowledge Of Tea

Tea sommeliers are expected to also have good communication skills and be able to properly describe and guide customers through the flavors and sensations of tea. 

This is especially true in intimate tearoom settings. Often traditionally designed tearooms will have a crew of certified tea makers who can speak with guests in-depth about the different teas available and help them to come to a decision. 

tea sommelier

Where Does a Tea Sommelier Work?

Those unfamiliar with tea culture may find themselves wondering just where tea masters and tea sommeliers work once they have earned their certification. In many cases, tea sommeliers work in tearooms or start their own tearooms. 

Being certified gives a certain stamp of approval that is appealing to customers who are visiting a tearoom. 

Tea sommeliers can also work in a variety of other jobs including tea specialist positions in hotels or restaurants. These types of jobs generally appear in upscale businesses, such as luxury hotels or fine dining establishments.

One such example, as reported by Fortune, is the tea sommelier position held by Gabrielle Jamal at Baccarat Hotel in New York City.

Some sommeliers start their own tea businesses, or consult with restaurants or markets.

Finding employment as a tea expert is likely easier with a sommelier certification. However, it also requires the person to have experience and expertise beyond a solid knowledge of drinking and preparing tea. 

Tea Sommelier Certification

It is entirely possible to build up expertise about tea through drinking and researching on your own. Certification programs to become a tea sommelier basically bring together the essential information about tea with the teaching of tea related skills by means of classes, tastings, and evaluations. 

Learning about all the intricacies of different tea types can take many years and devotion. Certification programs condense this information into an all-you-need-to-know formatted course.

These courses streamline the knowledge required to master tea and allow participants to earn certifications within weeks or months. 

According to Topic Tea, course work can include tea cupping, learning about worldwide tea culture, blending tea, food safety, and different brewing techniques. 

For many, tea sommelier certifications are ways to further their tea education. Simultaneously, this can be a good starting point for people who want to grow their tea expertise but do not know where to start. 

Certifications can be expensive, but so can learning and researching without the help of educational courses and tools. It comes down to the personal desires of the tea expert or future expert.

Are All Tea Sommelier Programs The Same?

As of the year 2020, tea courses and certifications have not been standardized, meaning there is not a set curriculum or specific examination for students to follow or for programs to offer.

Instead, tea sommelier programs offer courses designed by tea experts serving as faculty. This faculty is also responsible for examination and evaluation of the course participants. 

Despite this lack of standardization, there are some generally understood basics of tea that must be included in any comprehensive study of the plant and drink.

This includes differentiating tea types by color, taste, smell, and appearance. Knowledge of proper brewing and serving is also generally a major component of becoming a tea sommelier. 

Besides the basics, the faculty behind the creation of these certifications are given much more freedom in the creation of their classes than they would be if there were standards to follow. 

This makes for different courses that are each unique in their own way and can lead some people to seek out multiple certifications. 

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Tea Sommelier?

The cost of becoming a tea sommelier can vary greatly. First and foremost is the overall costs of tea sommelier training and certification programs. Almost all programs require examinees to take the courses before being permitted to take the examination.

This means you cannot just skip over the classwork costs and just take the exam. 

Certification programs can range in cost. Some provide an overall cost that covers all coursework, while others charge per class. In general, receiving a certification will cost somewhere in the $1200 – $2000 range, though this can still vary pretty vastly depending on the program.

An article published on American Specialty Tea Alliance criticizes courses for being too expensive, with some breaking certifications into levels and charging upwards of $4000 for the higher levels. 

There is certainly some debate on whether certifications are worth the money, as many tea sommeliers end up being self-employed. Ultimately, becoming certified is a personal choice and personal investment that each individual has to decide if they want. 

Do You Have to Have Tea Knowledge to Take a Certification Program?

For the majority of tea sommelier programs, prior knowledge is not required to qualify for the class. This is because these programs offer comprehensive coursework that covers the basics as well as the intricacies of tea culture. 

However, it may be unlikely that a person seeking out a tea certification lacks any prior knowledge on the topic. It is important for anyone looking to become a tea sommelier to research programs before choosing one and ensuring that they have the proper foundational knowledge.

Since courses have fairly high price points, they are likely to be accommodating to those with little starting knowledge on the subject. Nonetheless, there is generally an expectation that students are passionate and committed to the art of tea making and that they have a respect for the worldwide culture of the drink. 

Time Commitment and Personal Investment

While course instruction during a certification program is certainly a time commitment and a personal investment, there is even more time and investment that can be potentially put into a tea sommelier’s craft. 

Many tea experts choose to not only read about and try many tea types, but to also travel abroad to regions in China, India, and Japan mainly to learn about international and traditional tea culture. 

Learning about tea in these countries is certainly different from receiving education in the more western countries. This is because tea was first discovered in China, and the countries around this region have a much richer history and culture surrounding the drink. 

Thus, to get a fuller and more robust education and skill set about tea, many tea sommeliers choose to continue their education through the means of travel. 

tea master

How To Choose A Tea Certification Program

There are several certification programs available just within the U.S. and Canada, and hundreds more around the world. Some offer the tea sommelier title in their certification, while others call it such things as tea mastery. 

In truth, many of these programs are very similar in content. A tea-sommelier specific certification is more likely to involve courses on cupping, serving tea, and pairing teas with food.

It is important when choosing a tea program for future tea sommeliers to do research into each program, including looking over reviews of past students who achieved certification, to determine if a program fits their needs and desires in terms of education. 

Most programs will offer some explanation of their course structure and breakdown before requiring registration or payment. This can help you decide between different courses. 

If you have researched and are still unsure of what program is best, it could be beneficial to reach out to local tea rooms in your areas or in nearby cities and see what certifications they have or recommend. 

This can be a good starting point in deciding which program to go with, and it can point people in the direction of other similar programs. 

Programs Vary By Country

Programs for certification vary greatly between countries so it’s important to do your due diligence before you choose one.   

China has its own type of tea master programs. China even once had “tea master” listed as a state-certified profession, although this was removed after a vote to abolish around 114 professions from the registry, according to American Specialty Tea Alliance.

One of the more popular programs used is the courses and certifications offered by the International Tea Education Institute, also known as ITEI. ITEI offers a whole slew of courses, varying in skill level and ranging from a level 1 tea steward course all the way to masterclasses on specific types of tea.

Another popular program is the World Tea Academy’s certification courses. World Tea Academy currently offers six different types of certifications: tea specialist, tea professional, tea sommelier, tea health expert, tea blender, and tea aroma expert. 

Each of these certifications is earned after the completion of a certain set of courses, and most of the certifications require a prerequisite of the class below, meaning one must be completed to move onto the next. This tea sommelier course comprises 7 classes. 

Programs Vary in Length

In addition to different programs offering different coursework and certification titles, they also vary somewhat widely in program length. 

In some cases, the certification is earned through completion of specific classes that happen multiple times throughout the year. This means that a student can complete the courses immediately back to back or take breaks in between courses.

In other cases, programs are built to be completed all at once over a span of generally between 8 to 12 weeks. These certifications programs can be both in person or online and will likely have a set schedule or syllabus that they follow. 

The length and structure of a program is another important consideration for future tea sommeliers to keep in mind. Some may have the time to take a class that requires an 8 week time commitment, while others may need to have the option to break down the courses into individual classes that they have multiple chances to attend. 

Training and Final Evaluation

As you can probably imagine by now, the training, evaluation, and examination of tea students will differ depending on what program is being used. As we have mentioned, there should be a general coverage of the basics including differentiating tea types, brewing tea, and pairing teas with foods.

More expensive classes will likely have a wider range of teas for students to sample throughout the course. In many cases, final examinations that earn the certification will involve the blind taste testing of several teas and having the students identify them only by scent and flavor. 

In most cases, the program will not allow someone to only take the exam and earn the certification that way. Certification is generally only given to those that have not only passed the exam but also have completed the coursework laid out by the program. 

Whatever You Choose to Call It:  Tea Sommelier, Master Or Specialist

Tea lovers know just how seductive a good cup is.  It’s not surprising that tea continues to gain popularity throughout the world. 

If you think you’d like to take it to the next level and become a tea sommelier, you have a multitude of choices.  Just make sure you check out each program, talk to previous students, and do your research before you choose.  

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!

tea sommelier certification