Welcome to Odd Jobs, a feature in which Eater sits down to chat with those individuals who have some of the more unusual jobs in the food and restaurant industries.
[Photo: R. Lopez]
There are mixologists and bartenders, beer brewers and wine directors. And your favorite coffee shop has a slew of baristas. But what what do you call the person in charge of selecting tea for the discriminating drinker? At a place like the Park Hyatt Washington, which is known for its tea cellar, it's quite an important position. Eater sat down with Robert Rex-Waller, the assistant food and beverage manager and tea sommelier at the hotel's Blue Duck Tavern, to ask him about his work and what goes into the perfect pot of tea.
What made you become a tea sommelier and how did you become one?
I was a Chinese Language and Literature major at Connecticut College. Chinese language and tea culture are so intertwined. When I was studying abroad in China, there was a custom of drinking hot, boiled water, and for me a cup of hot water just doesn't do it for me. So I started drinking a lot of tea when I was over there. I had started studying Chinese when I was in high school and slowly I just started to kind of get this base in knowledge of tea. And then living over there, of course, my knowledge just grew exponentially.
Where did you study abroad in China?
I studied abroad in Beijin and Harbin, which is way up north.
What made you stick with tea after studying abroad?
My classmates and I all came back from studying abroad and everyone brought back tea from India, tea from Sri Lanka, tea from the Azores, yerba matte from South America. All of a sudden we had this really impressive collection of tea amongst our friends. So we started drinking and learning. I did take some classes at the Specialty Tea Institute of America. They offer classes to coincide with the Fancy Food Show in New York. They're a good base, but once again, you just have to be drinking a lot of tea to learn.
Is there a tea certification like there is with wine?
I've taken the first level of the wine sommelier exam. If I take the master sommelier exam in the Unite States, I'm a sommelier anywhere. But unlike wine, there is no board, no world certification or governing body for tea. There are classes available. But what needs to happen is all the different groups need to get together and say, "This is the exam we will administer as a community to say you know tea." The Tea Institute of America has theirs and they say, "Well, once you've done this, you're good to go." But they don't give a certificate to say you're a tea sommelier.
A sommelier is a steward of wine. And the reason we use that term is we're stewards of tea. So we're caring for the tea, making sure the tea is served at the right temperature, with the right amount of water and the tea is stored properly.
What types of tea are there?
White teas are teas that are just plucked and dried. I hate to admit it, but there was a Snapple commercial a few years ago that actually did a very good job of describing it. There was a backpacker who climbs up to a mountain to a monastery and he holds out the Snapple bottle and says, "How do you make your white tea?" And the long-bearded, Mr. Miyagi-type monk says, "We pluck the baby tea leaves. And that's it." So there are levels of oxidation. The white tea is just a tea leaf that's plucked and dried. There's very, very little oxidation that goes on with green teas. Often they're plucked—the top leaves and the bud—they're plucked and dried and then usually some sort of heat is applied. Chinese green teas are going to be pan-fried usually. Japanese teas will be steamed. And then black teas are fully oxidized. So they're cut, chopped and they're left to completely brown and oxidize. And then they apply heat to stop the oxidation process and that's how you get whatever tea you're making.
How long do they let the tea brown, on average?
It depends. There are black teas from China, though most come from India, so it depends on the leaf and how dry it was initially. A day or two. It's very quick.
How many teas are on the menu at Blue Duck Tavern?
We have about 85. And that fluctuates. Over the Christmas season, I usually have a gingerbread tea and it's very festive. It's a bit of a "cocktail tea" and the tea purists are going to turn their nose up at it. But people come in looking for something fragrant, looking for something seasonal. It has fresh ginger, orange, rose hips and a little bit of cinnamon. It's a comfort and people enjoy it. There's always a point at which what I call "cocktail tea" gets silly.
So for wine sommeliers, mixologists or beer directors, they think about pairing beverages with food. How does a patron's food order factor into what direction you steer them with with tea?
I could pair 95 percent of our dishes with some sort of tea.
Savory or sweet?
Savory or sweet. Actually, I could do all of them. But if I'm coming in and ordering our 32 oz. rib eye, I'm not going to want a pot of hot tea. But there are some really fun pairings that we can do.
I usually drink wine with dinner and then move into tea for dessert. But if someone were looking for a little bit of salinity, say a tea with fish, I'd usually push them towards a Japanese green tea. They tend to have a more seaweed-y flavor to them, whereas Chinese green teas usually have a more spinach flavor to them. So I would probably push someone more in that direction—a gentle push.
Usually my first question when pairing is, "What do you drink at home?" And that's going to immediately give me a sense of how developed their tea palate is and how adventurous they might be in terms of a pairing.
What are some examples of fun pairings you've done?
I really like chamomile and sweetbreads. A couple of years ago, we were doing chamomile-poached sweetbreads, so we actually took chamomile tea and poached our sweetbreads in a tea. We also do all our own infusions in the bar.
Do you have any cocktails on the menu that have tea in them?
The blood orange martini is vodka, blood orange and triple sec. It's a green tea that's infused with blood orange fruit and peel, and then we use that to infuse a triple sec, and then we add in blood orange puree and rhubarb bitters. It's quite literally tea leaves put into a bottle of triple sec and then overnight it will be ready. I've done it with Earl Grey-infused bourbon before. That's a lot of fun. That only takes an hour.
What's your favorite tea?
It changes, both on the season and from morning to night. I love the tie guan yin mid-afternoon. It's not too heavy and it's a bit of an appetite suppressant. I work long hours so it tides me over until I can grab a bite to eat. In the evenings, I usually like to drink pu'erh teas, which are fermented teas. They have a very, very earthy flavor to them, which is to put it lightly.
More like soil. That's the first sense you get, and then there's some fun caramel, almond and nut notes that come through after that. Pu'erh teas are cave-aged. Those are the only teas that age well.
What is the price range for teas at Blue Duck Tavern? And what's the most expensive?
The range is $8 for relatively traditional teas: English breakfast, Earl Grey, chamomile. Once they start getting a little fancier, such as competition tea which means it's sat in competition and won some sort of award at some point, it could be around $16 on our menu. Most of my teas range from $8 to about $18. And then there's a little jump and it goes to $28, and then there's another little bump to $150, then $180 and $300.
What makes the $300 tea cost that much per pot?
That is an aged pu'erh tea. It is from 1983. There are tea farms and then there are native tea plants. Some of those are like old vines for wine. They're not new. They've just been there for a long time. So there's not a lot produced. So it is much more of a question of its rarity and its quality. Which are the two factors that really take that tea to that price.
It's also a challenge to get it out of China in the first place. There were only about 70 pounds made in total that year and we've got about a third of it. There's not a lot left. I have some ideas, though. I'm talking with some people about finding other high-end editions.
So how do you go about that? About sourcing tea?
I have a purveyor that gets a lot of it for me. Usually I call him up and I'll say, "I'm looking for x, y and z," and then I'll get an email back saying, "I've got this or I've got this." Or "Give me some time," which is usually, "I've got no idea where to find this." But there's a lot of, as with the wine industry, there are a lot of forgeries going on. Da hong pao, which means big red robe, is an oolong tea and there are people that claim to be serving it everywhere. If someone can imitate the flavor well enough, you never really know.
For the tea novice, how should they get started with finding a tea they like?
There are a couple of really great tea places in the city, here being one of them. I have some people that come in and say, "I know nothing about tea." And we'll sit and we'll talk to get a basis. There are some really great books out there. The specialty tea institute of America is not something that needs any kind of pre-testing. If you have the money and the time to do that, you can.
If someone comes in and they don't know what they want to order, what are some of the questions you ask them?
What do you drink at home? And how do you want—it's kind of associated with what a massage therapist might say to you—how do you want to feel after this treatment? Do you want to feel invigorated? Do you want to feel calm? Are you looking to focus your mind, your body? Or are you looking to let go? And along with that you need to ask about caffeine levels. Are they looking for something black, green or white? That's a very easy question to ask. I find that people usually know what they want, they just need to be kind of led down the path and they'll be able to get there on their own. And sometimes I have people that come in and say, "Just surprise me."
Do you guys have tea regulars?
Absolutely. I have a chef, who I won't name, who comes by after his service with his laptop just to get some work done. It's what I call the third place. He's got work, he's got home, and he's got here where he can just have a pot of tea and do what he needs to get done.
What are some of the factors that affect the taste of tea?
Terroir is absolutely a big one. Tea will absorb flavors start to finish, from bush to cup. Once a wine is made, it's made and it's in the bottle and it's going to change there. But you could stick the bottle in a fridge full of black truffles and the bottle is going to smell like truffles, but the wine is not going to be affected. Tea is more like butter in that it will absorb whatever flavors are around it. So we don't store tea in open-air bins with a scoop in it. Everything is air-tight and sealed so, for example, the lavender isn't going to seep into the oolong.
Is there anything else that affects the tea?
Environment, as well. I think part of the reason that Japanese teas have that seaweed-y flavor is there's just a natural ocean breeze that comes across the islands and the tea naturally absorbs that. I've also had teas from some very polluted areas of China and you can tell. I think the same is true of most crops. Tea is very, very sensitive to that while it's growing. And then after it's been plucked and dried, it's very, very sensitive to light, heat, water and air. So it basically needs to be kept in vacuum-sealed, UV-protected bags.
How does the temperature of the water affect certain teas?
Certain teas, such as Japanese green teas and Chinese green teas, are very, very sensitive to heat and become very astringent when the temperature is too high. And there's a certain point to which that's enjoyable, but too much is too much. Growing up, I grew up with English Breakfast tea in the morning and I learned that the water can't be boiled. It quite literally has to be boiling out of the spout as you're pouring it onto the leaves. That's the best way for black, English breakfast tea. White teas are even more sensitive. So the lighter they are, the lower the temperature should be. There's always an exception to that, though.
What about steep time?
It varies by each tea. It also varies by each person. I usually like to tell people, keep trying it as you go and when you find your perfect spot, you should take the tea leaves out. And these tea leaves can go for a second and third infusion. So once this is done, we can refill the pot and it can go again. And the tea will change. The tea, especially pu'erh teas, will change with each infusion.
What about adding things to tea? Is that a no-no?
I always say, whatever you would prefer. I don't presume to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't add in their tea. I do always say, "Try it first." One of my biggest pet peeves is for someone to get their English breakfast and for them to dump sugar and to dump in cream and then say, "This is too sweet for me." All the restaurateurs are going to know what I'm saying. It's like the person that comes in and says, "Can I please have some salt and pepper?" And you can see the salt garnish that the chef has just put there. It is garnished perfectly and the person just sits there and shakes the salt shaker over it. And then the person sits there and says it's too salty. So try the tea first. I actually prefer honey. I think sugar adds a touch of artificiality to it. I think honey can enhance certain teas. Chamomile, with a little bit of lemon and honey, is lovely. I drink my lapsang with a touch of cream. We have a chocolate tea which is cocoa nibs and black tea that is really lovely with a little cream or even some heavy whipping cream as well.
Is there anything else you want to tell readers about the menu or anything they should know before they come in and order at Blue Duck Tavern?
We do all loose leaf tea. Nothing is bagged. Especially paper bags will take some of the essential oils out of the tea and make it not what it was meant to be. But tea drinking here is not, "I'm replacing my morning coffee and then I need to get to work." We're here for the tea experience. If you need a tea to go, we're more than happy to do that. But we do tea by the pot for the person that has the time to enjoy it. Saturdays and Sundays we have a tea buffet. It's like a high tea, but it's been Americanized. Rather than the traditional scone, we've got a mushroom, scallion and bacon scone. We've got
mini apple pies, corn soup. It will change from week to week, and it will change seasonally, but we do that Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. We do recommend reservations for that.
— Marissa Bialecki
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