By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
We're sitting in the Palm Court of the Drake Hotel, about as opulent as a room is going to get, and we're sipping tea.
It's just us — the dozen people attending Tea Extravaganza 2009, an independent tea tasting led by Chas Kroll of the American Tea Masters Association — and the clinks of teacups reverberate around the well-appointed room, even above the trickle of the centerpiece fountains.
Kroll is discussing the selection process for the fine, downy leaves that make up the Chinese green tea he's pouring into tiny "aroma cups." It's called Melon Slice (Top Liu An Gua Pian), from PeLi Teas, and it's a knockout — aromas of sandalwood, flavors of salt and smoke, a surprisingly bold expedition across the tongue.
"See?" says Kroll, smiling demurely. "You wonder why people still drink sodas at all."
At this particular tea party, that seems to be the rub. Around the table are 12 people who are passionate about tea — tea shop owners, tea sellers, tea lovers and three newly graduated tea masters from Kroll's ATMA course. These are people who want to affect that change, weaning people from sodas and flavored waters — even from coffee — and initiating them into the wide world of tea.
There's a lot of talk about "taking tea to the next level" and "bringing it to the masses." They mean the American masses, of course.
Almost everywhere else in the world, tea is ubiquitous, bested in popularity only by water itself. Here in the States, though, tea still largely means Lipton bags brewed in a large steel urn and dumped over ice with a lot of sugar.
"It's a challenge, educating people about it," says Daphne Jones, a Chicago marketing specialist who helped Kroll organize the Drake event earlier this month. She's also a newly certified tea master. "People understand some of the health benefits of tea, but that's about it. They don't see that there is this world of flavor and localization and customization, the same way they've discovered in their food over the last several years.
"It can be daunting, sure, but once people understand that you can have a beer-level tea or a Dom Perignon-level tea, they can start appreciating it like they do with wine."
That's where this crew hopes to help. Whether it's Kroll and his expanding tea master minions, or the many tea sommeliers cropping up at shops and restaurants around the country and throughout Chicago — all they are saying is give teas a chance.
Kroll, 62, hasn't just capitalized on the rising American interest in tea, he capitalizes it. He trademarked the phrase Certified Tea Master. Because, he says, if he didn't, who would?
"I created the American Tea Masters Association out of frustration, basically," he says.
Kroll ran his own tech company through the '80s and a tea company, Royal Dynasty Tea, in the '90s.
"Vendors would tell me all the time, 'You'd make a great tea master.' I didn't know precisely what that meant, but I liked the sound of it. So I went looking for the organization that bestowed such a title, and it didn't exist. ... So I created it."
A Chicago native "and still a die-hard Cubs fan," Kroll established the ATMA from his current San Diego home. He created the rules for becoming a Certified Tea Master and wrote the manuals for the 13-week course he teaches — over the Internet via Skype — to aspiring tea lovers around the country.
"A lot of people say you have to be in the industry for 10, 20, even 30 years to be considered a tea master," he says. "My students use accelerated learning techniques so they can at least come out of the starting gate running."
Kroll's program, he says, is aimed at the everyman. Still, the recognized professional route for aspiring tea business owners is through another program, the Specialty Tea Institute run by the New York-based Tea Association of the United States. The STI program features two foundation levels plus a professional certification.
Kroll's youngest graduate is Christopher Bourgea, 21. A student at Anderson University outside of Indianapolis, Bourgea sews his own tea bags and plans to use his certification as the backbone of his own tea company aimed at potential tea lovers his age.
"I am all about loose-leaf tea, but most people are nervous to have loose-leaf tea. I know that if I want to make tea popular with high school and college-aged kids, I'm going to have to put the tea in bags. It is pretty much the only way they will try the teas. I hope to get people hooked with the bags and then move them over to the loose-leaf."
LEARNING BY TASTE
Rodrick Markus, on the other hand, is just a dealer. He gets the good stuff, the pricey stuff — it comes by the kilo — and likes to offer prospective customers a little sample to get them hooked.
"I have friends and clients who tell me, 'Rod, just treat me like a drug addict. When I get low, you've got to get me more,' " Markus says while simmering his latest batch of quality pu-erh tea on a recent afternoon at the Park Hyatt's NoMI Cafe. "I guess you can call me a 'tea sommelier.' That term is big now, depending on which circle you're in.
"I don't see how anyone who's less than 80 years old and doesn't have a gray beard reaching the floor can be called a 'tea master.' But whatever you call me, I'm glad to be helping people learn more about tea."
Markus owns and operates the Rare Tea Cellar based in Chicago. After practicing psychology and hypnotherapy, he became an importer of wine and cigars, but 12 years ago he switched to tea.
"Tea has all the positive aspects of wine and cigars — the unique flavors, the pleasurable sensory experience, the terroir — without anything remotely negative," he says. "My old friends say, 'Aw, Rod, you've gone soft on us. We used to sit around and smoke cigars and drink wine, now you just sip tea.' Then they taste what I've got, and they get it."
The Rare Tea Cellar is aptly named. At NoMI, he doled out a delightful Emperor's Ceylon Platinum Tip tea, tasting of honey and pine, and a 1990 Vintage Reserve Silver Needle Pu-erh (yes, tea lovers, a white pu-erh!).
Markus loves the pu-erhs, teas that are pressed into bricks and aged for many years in cellars or caves.
"I'm always into the rarest of the rare, with anything. If I saw a $30 doughnut, I'd try it." Then again, he realizes he can't impose his grandiose designs on everyone. "You can't be too out-there or too much of a stickler, or you'll alienate everyone. We want to bring people into this experience, not push them away. So we try to make it as easy as possible."
RTC teas sometimes come sealed in five-gram packages, for instance, because who actually has a gram scale at home to measure just the right amount? He also sells many hand-tied display teas, which are tea leaves tied into a sphere about the size of a plump grape — simply drop them in the pot and pour the water over, then watch them unfurl beautifully.
Markus didn't pursue any tea certification. His education has come through his experience as a buyer.
"I learned more from tasting tea over and over and over," he says. "You learn more from bad tea than good tea. I've tasted the same teas 1,000 times. When I hit about my 100,000th cup, I started to finally get what was happening."
Does the average person have to try hundreds of thousands of cups of tea to get it, too? Of course not. But Markus uses his saturated experience to train servers and chefs at restaurants such as Chicago's NoMI and L2O (where he's planned 15-course meals featuring 15 tea pairings), so that the average person can sit down, ask and answer a few questions and be matched with the Goldilocks tea — the one that's juuuust right.
BEYOND BLACK AND GREEN
But what about those of us who rarely enjoy the rarified air of fancy restaurants? Who can we turn to for advice on which tea goes best with a chocolate bar or our favorite take-out sushi?
Sam Ritchey at TeaGschwendner is happy to oblige. His business cards say "tea sommelier," but he calls himself an ambassador. He, too, has an informal education in tea.
"I'm not a buyer, I don't taste teas to grade them for sale. I taste teas because I enjoy them," Ritchey says one afternoon in the clean, well-lit State Street shop. "I make it more tangible and appreciable for [customers]."
Ritchey organizes small tastings and other events at the German company's shop. He recently led an evening sampling of nine Himalayan Darjeelings.
"Granted, we're not to the point where the public is interested in something like the Himalayan tasting. That will always be a niche," Ritchey admits. "But people are now getting that there's a broad world here to explore, just like wine. There are options now for people who want to step beyond the box of black or green teas, and there are more people to lead them.
"We've already come a long way. Look at the sophistication of coffee in this country now. I'm not saying that Starbucks is a specialty company, but it's brought us a long way from Sanka."
Ready to bag the bag?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
To start sampling good loose-leaf teas, don't go it alone. Not only are there more tea sommeliers in town to guide your first steps, there also are numerous opportunities to join other tea explorers at events like these:
The Chicago Food Planet's strolling, lunchtime Near North Food Tour visits seven spots, including a stop at TeaGschwendner for a brief run-down on the basics of good tea. See it, smell it and taste it with your friends, or make friends along the way.
$42 a person, includes all food tastings; www.chicagofoodplanet.com
Local tea blogger Lainie Petersen (www.lainiesips.com) organizes frequent outings (five in the next month) to local tea shops and restaurants, bringing like-minded tea lovers together to sip and socialize.
Register at www.meetup.com/tealovers
In the cup
Tea sommelier Sam Ritchey organizes educational and sumptuous tea tastings at the TeaGschwendner shop. This fall he's got:
"The Extraordinary History of the Ordinary Teabag," Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.
"A Cultural Journey Through the World of Tea," Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.
"An Evening With Edmon: Premium Green Teas," Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.
$10 per person, reservations required; 1160 N. State, (312) 932-0639
At the table
Rod Markus of the Rare Tea Cellar guides diners through special tea dinners, pairing multi-course meals with great teas, at restaurants around Chicago. His next events include a Japanese Kaiseki Tea Ceremony on Oct. 11 at L2O, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, and a Slow Food Tea Dinner on Nov. 19 at the fusion restaurant Naha, 500 N. Clark.
See rareteacellar.com for details.
Local tea lover Susan Blumberg assembled a handy guide, All the Tea in Chicago (Desvoeux, $9.99), which outlines the basics on just about every tea shop and afternoon tea service in Chicago and some suburbs. Use it to plan some outings with your friends.
For details, go to desvoeuxpress.com/all theteainchicago.html.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.