Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Graduating to Guru-ship

A week or so back, two relatives passed on a pair of Craigslist ads. They were “casting calls” of sorts – a survey company looking for tea gurus and tea fans for paid interviews.  As in, they would reimburse the interviewee for his/her time for pontificating about tea on camera. It took me a day or two to sleep on it, but I eventually bit. The problem I had was that there were two ads to possibly answer. One was looking for “tea fans” with a loyalty to a particular brand or type. The other ad was asking for gurus –  tea vendors, teashop owners, and major enthusiasts.

I had absolutely no clue which category I fit in.

First there was the loyalty issue. While there were some vendors I favored above all others, there wasn’t a particular one that stood out in my mind. Part of that was the way my mind worked. (Or didn’t work.) I can’t even do Top Ten lists for fear of leaving something out. Second was the implication of the word “fan”. Some small part of me felt like I’d graduated from fanning…and by extension, leaf fannings.

That left the “guru” ad. I knew it was a long shot because of their emphasis on tea industry professionals, but I felt I could play up the “enthusiast” angle. After all, I had four blogs and four hundred teas tried to my dossier. Granted, I still considered myself an amateur appreciator of the leaf, but I was an experienced amateur, damn it. I answered the tea guru ad.

And waited.

The ensuing period of time was akin to waiting for a phone call back from a potential job or date. On some days, I would literally wait by the phone. At work, I would often sneak a peek at my “other business” e-mail to see if there were any new chimes. It was sheer agony.

The time of the deadline came and went, and I received no call or e-mail. I wasn’t too surprised. The guru bit was a stretch, and I knew it. That wasn’t what bothered me. What had me riled was: Where the heck was I on the tea community totem?

My tea appreciation began in 2005; I became a tea reviewer in 2008, and I started my own website devoted solely to writing around the same time. In 2009, I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon and cavorted with other likeminded tea souls – vendors and sippers alike. In mid-2011, I joined Teatra.de to mirror the “Steep Stories” category of my website to broaden its audience and see where it took me.

That’s six years of palate appreciation. In that time, I’ve also guest-blogged for a major vendor and was even recognized by the only plantation in Great Britain. Some circles valued my opinion, some didn’t. Of course, there were far more experienced people out there. I’m no Norwood Pratt, Pettigrew, Harney, Coffey or Goodwyn, but I liked to think I’d carved out a bit of a niche. Not enough for “guru” niche, though.

It begs the question: What qualifies someone to be a guru? Are there set standards in place that determine this? Do you have to be a certified “tea sommelier” first before you can join those ranks, or do you need some practical experience in the tea vendor trenches?

By extension, how does one become a tea sommelier? That moniker is a wine term reserved for people that can identify brand, type, year and grape varietal on a blind taste-test. Is the same thing even possible with tea? I don’t know about you, fair reader, but I certainly can’t. (I mistook a Wuyi oolong for a Rose Congou once.) And what forms of certification are considered the Gold Standard for the industry? I can name at least five tea sommelier certification classes off the top of my head.

I suppose the biggest (and possibly only) conclusion I came away with was that I’ve got a long way to go still. I’ll enjoy my cup of whatever as I see fit in the meantime, sipping away noisily. Content in my amateur appreciation – label or no.

lazyliteratus

Tea blogger, professional cleaner of toilets, amateur people watcher.

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16 Comments

  1. Excellent questions to ponder. For me, the people I look to as true tea gurus and sommeliers are the people whose opinions are respected not so much by the different labels and brands, but in the enthusiast’s circles. There are tea sommelier classes that, at least from what I can tell, are more about getting people’s fees than going into much depth of knowledge. And there are brands who will play up any good review in order to promote what they’re trying to market (not at all a jab at your Earl Grey feature mentioned above).
    I think you’re well on your way to guruship. My tea gurus are the people who can write with certainty not only about taste and quality of tea, but the origins and conditions from year to year. Much as a wine sommelier in France will know what a grape from a particular field in Bordeaux will taste like compared to that same variety grown in Lorraine. It only comes from experience. The experience of being curious about what you’re drinking, learning, researching, asking questions, making the kinds of assumptions and mistakes you mentioned above, and putting the lessons to better use.
    You never know when those Craigslist folks might call back!

    • Good points all around. Do you know folks that can identify the year of a Darjeeling just by tasting it? That is truly “super-taster” territory if they can. I would think , personally, that my definition of a guru would be someone who has published a work of note. But what do I know.

      • I can’t imagine being able to do that year-to-year thing personally, for a tea leaf, because there would appear to be so much variation in processing and preparation from field to cup vs. wine, but I don’t doubt there are people who know their stuff that well. I’m just an appreciator, and that along with $4.25 gets me an excellent pot of Gyokuro at my local tea shoppe.

        • Hey, it’s admirable that you can appreciate a good gyokuro when ya see one. That should speak volumes in the gray area that is the tea hierarchy. I treat it as another nerd fascination among the many I have.

      • While differentiating years of Darjeeling isn’t always straightforward, it’s not all that difficult, either. At least for high grade teas, the harvests vary substantially from year to year in an estate and that’s the reason why different estates produce ‘the best Darjeeling’ tea each year. The big names got big because they manage to produce consistently very high quality teas – not because they produce the best tea each year.

        • I noticed that. For instance, I would actually put a case forward to say that 2011’s batches were pretty good. Heck, I’ve even used the phrase, “2011 was a good year for Darjeeling.” Complete with effete snobbery. However, I would be hard-pressed to be able to identify common traits between the different years. I’m not that good. And I certainly tip my cup to whoever can.

  2. Well deserved pontification sir. We started and have grown at perhaps similar rates.

    Whereas you started your blog(s) to grow your tea knowledge, I started mine to take a deeper look at the industry from a business perspective as well.

    I don’t think even Norwood Pratt considers himself a guru. Neither do Harney, Coffey or Goodwyn.

    Frankly, all students of the leaf come away at some point understanding that anyone who studies the leaf has more than 5000 years of history, growth, meaning, change and culture to sift through to truly understand the leaf.

    None of us can do that.

    As far as consumers are concerned, we’re all gurus. We know so much more than the average individual we’re six pedestals up. That simple fact makes it difficult for us to understand why they’re less interested and daunting for them to even consider approaching the topic with us.

    I’m not sure who was seeking the guru, but it’s unlikely anyone in the industry wise enough would cop to such a title. We all have plenty to learn from each other, and the leaf.

    Guru is a title to serve consumer interest, and should be treated as such.

    • Great insight, Chris. I rather like the term you used – students. Maybe “acolyte” should be the adopted term. Acolytes of the Leaf…or maybe just “Acoleaf”. I dunno. I’m not rather fond of the term “guru”, but I was wondering what made someone exactly that. Well…other than a long, graying beard and sackloth underwear.

  3. m huthcinson

    Sorry you got no reply……it was worth a try.
    I think you are a guru

  4. These are good questions you’ve asked, Geoff. I appreciate this.

    What is the value of being able to identify a tea’s estate of origin and year of production, if that’s even possible? Working in fraud detection? Entering sniffing competitions? I can’t quite see it.

    That said, taste memory, the ability to draw comparisons, the knack for placing aroma and flavour responses in a meaningful context, and general savoir faire—these things matter to a tea writer, and these are the qualities I imagine you wish to hone.

    I honestly don’t know how ‘qualified’ you are, and I don’t care much for reviews, either, yours or anyone else’s, but if you’ve had hundreds of teas, you probably know more than you think you do. And you certainly know more than the casting call people think you do. And you certainly (×2) know more than I do.

    Beyond a certain point (a point that, as Chris points out, none of us have reached), you have to pick up knowledge for its own sake, because it won’t help you appreciate what you have in front of you, will it? It pains me to say this, because I speak as an anorak-of-all-trades, but it’s true.

    I think that when talking food stuffs, writing well is the most important thing, more important than having a bionic palate. When Frank Bruni reviewed restaurants for the ‘New York Times,’ he was both cult hero and laughing-stock because of his prose style. I always envied him a little.

    I don’t think he could have hoped for much more.

    * * *
    By the way, ‘guru’ is such a wanky term. I’d rather be a ‘life coach’ than a ‘guru,’ and that’s saying something.

    • Thanks, Erik. I appreciated your reply as well. And I think you brought up an interesting point of bringing comparisons to the fray. Critiquing should have its own vernacular that is related to the medium of emphasis. For instance, movies should be compared to other movies; dishes compared to other dishes, etc. The ability to write analogously is the true goal, I suppose. Still getting the hang of it, though. And you’re right, “guru” is a wanky term. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  5. Who on earth DID end up getting this job I wonder?
    YOU ARE A GURU. Although, guru is a lame word cut and pasted from Silicon Valley.
    I have a feeling whoever was doing the hiring for this particular position wasn’t very internet savvy. Anyone familiar with the internet would have snatched you up in a second. They probably went with some jagoff that’s been managing a Teavana for 10 years. You know, “real world” experience. 🙄

    • I think you nailed it. I believe what they were looking for was someone who had some industry experience. They were potentially representing a vendor who wanted to test out brand logos on a “teaducated” public…or something.

  6. I don’t trust gurus. Why? Simply because taste is a personal thing: I may like this peculiar tea while you will hate it.
    Who am I to tell you that I am right and you wrong? And who are you to tell me you are right and I am wrong?

    As for sommelier, I see this more like an adviser that asks the right questions to help you find the right tea, the one that will suit what you like, your mood, your food…
    And I think there are classes for that but I am not 100% sure.

    • I believe you’re right. There are classes one could take to improve their palate and/or learn to identify certain taster notes. Not sure to what extent they go to. My palate is…unusual…and un-trained.

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