Steeped in history: Asheville gets nerdy about tea

ART OF TEA: Dobra Tea General Manager Miles Cramer teaches workshops on the history and traditions of tea and the cultures that have cultivated it for thousands of years. “All that we know about tea is usually through the lens of the English," says Cramer. "I like to take that lens and focus through China and Japan because it opens up a much bigger world of what tea is and what it has been.” Photo by Luke Van Hine

Asheville is a coffee town. Looking for a perfectly extracted espresso? Not a problem. Pour-over? We’ve got that, too. Local roasters? Nitro cold brew? Bulletproof coffee or CBD oil? Check, check, check and check — we’ve got all of that in spades.

But how about something for those in search of a subtler buzz? In recent years, the success and expansion of Dobra Tea, the launch of new businesses such as Asheville Tea Co. and 3 Mountains and an increased number of tea-focused event offerings signal the emergence of a fledgling tea culture in Western North Carolina.

And local educational opportunities for beverage geeks prove that tea drinkers can get just as nerdy as the caffeine-crazed coffee drinkers. But unlike coffee’s wealth of trendy gadgets and hipster techniques, tea culture embraces practices that are thousands of years old.

“The steps that coffee has made in its development, and the transparency of the trade, and the nerdery that has happened in the coffee industry kind of helps us, because it sets the stage for us to be nerds as well,” says Dobra Tea General Manager Miles Cramer, who is starting his second year of teaching tea classes at the shop. “So you have these coffee people that are already doing cuppings and already sourcing coffee themselves, so it becomes a lot easier for them to get into tea. There is a market for people that want to get nerdy.”

Although coffee has long been king among Western beverage preferences, tea has a rich history that stretches back 4,500 years, Cramer observes. “This beverage has been through way more,” he says. “All that we know about tea is usually through the lens of the English. I like to take that lens and focus through China and Japan because it opens up a much bigger world of what tea is and what it has been.”

Historically, tea was more of a staple in the American diet than coffee. But when wars and strained relations with England made the tea supply unreliable, coffee was an easy substitute. By the time the percolator became mainstream in the 1900s, the traditional ritual of brewing tea seemed old hat.

Mixed bag

“The U.S.’s major contribution to tea has really been its simplification,” says Cramer, noting the only significant American tea industry development was the tea bag, a wet sock of shredded tea leaves that, to tea connoisseurs, is essentially the instant coffee of the tea world. “We simplified the process and marginalized the process and cheapened the process in a way, I guess.”

Frankee Muller, the only International Tea Masters Association certified tea master in the Carolinas and owner of the import company A Thirst for Tea, agrees. “Nine times out of 10, if you walk into a tea shop, they just serve regular tea in a tea bag, and even when it’s not just tea in a bag, it’s English Breakfast or Earl Grey,” she says. “What you really want is whole-leaf tea, not just loose-leaf. There is such a dramatic difference in the aroma, the texture, the taste and all of that.”

Each time a tea leaf is cut or broken, it loses antioxidants, oils and aroma compounds, she explains. “Those other teas are grown on huge plantations where they are mechanically harvested, and it cuts and tears and curls the leaves, and so what you get is a robust cup of tea, but you lose all the flavor, you lose all the subtleties and you lose a vast majority of the health benefits,” she says.

Muller, who recently moved her company from Bozeman, Mont., to Oriental, N.C., plans to host a tea sommelier training for the ITMA in Asheville in early February (details are yet to be decided). She explains that, similar to wine, there are tea sommeliers and tea masters, but unlike wine, tea requires knowledge of preparation methods and techniques.

“With wine, sommeliers have to know the grapes and where they are grown, how it is made and the dates, and then they pour the wine,” she says. “They have to know all of those same things about tea, but they also have to be able to know how to prepare it — what temperature water to use, how long to steep it — and it’s not the same with every tea. It’s an entire ritual.”

As an introduction for students, she likes to use the Chinese Gongfu method, which involves rituals of warming and emptying each vessel, rinsing the tea and, finally, precise steeping, dousing the pot and all in hot water, draining, straining, testing in the aroma cup and serving. “It focuses on examining the tea leaf in every possible way so that we can get a feeling for every aspect of the tea,” she says.

Tea sommelier training courses can cost well over $1,000 and can include on-site seminars along with extensive home study and blind tastings. They are aimed mainly at employees of high-end international hotels and restaurants that serve only the finest, handpicked teas. In many countries, tea sommeliers are as revered as wine sommeliers.

Tea party

Muller says that in identifying cities for hosting ITMA sommelier trainings, she looks at demographics such as age, education level and socio-economic data. “We look for a relatively affluent population that is health-conscious, because specialty tea is both expensive and is known to have significant health-enhancing properties,” she explains. Millenials, she notes, are probably the biggest market.

Although she sees Asheville as an area with a growing interest in tea — she points to Dobra’s multiple local locations as evidence — she hasn’t observed business owners yet clamoring for their own tea sommeliers. “I’m not aware of any restaurants or hotels in the area that have been seeking tea sommelier certification for their employees, but I suspect that is because they don’t know it exists,” she adds. She hopes to gain the attention of the several hotels and restaurants in Western North Carolina that serve formal afternoon tea, when it comes time to promote her Asheville sommelier training.

Sara Stender, owner of the Asheville-based 3 Mountains tea company, views tea as a market with great growth potential in the U.S. “In the U.K., the tea market is very saturated, but it’s a very, very new industry in the U.S., so there is a huge opportunity,” she says. Her fair trade company imports organically grown, non-GMO, loose-leaf teas from Rwandan farmers and markets them under the brand name Tima Tea.

After learning about the Rwandan genocide and developing a passion for the recovery of the affected people, Stender moved to Rwanda in 2007. After returning to the U.S., she founded the Africa Healing Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting resilience, trauma recovery and entrepreneurship in Rwanda and other countries. Tima Tea was founded as a way to create economic opportunity for farmers in northern Rwanda, where she notes that more than 100,000 people are impacted by the tea industry.

Tea was only introduced as a crop in Rwanda in the early 1950s, but it’s already developed into one of the country’s main agricultural commodities. “It’s still a much smaller market than coffee, but it’s growing at a faster rate,” Stender says. “I did a little digging and found that new generations really look at food as medicine. We want to live longer, we want a better quality of life, so we are demanding more out of our products. And the sky’s the limit with tea. There’s so many opportunities for blending, putting it into sauces and using it as an ingredient for baking. It’s becoming more trendy and popular in the culinary field.”

A taste of culture

Part of the responsibility of tea shops and those trained in appreciating teas, says Cramer, is to highlight the history and efforts of the regions and cultures that have spent thousands of years growing and brewing them. “When we are talking about Chinese culture or Korean tea, we don’t want to claim that culture; we want to point the way to that culture, to be presenters,” he says.

“Here, you’ll find [a type of Chinese tea called] longjing, and you’ll see it hidden behind pomegranate and blueberry in a Western tea,” he continues. “And I want to push all of that aside and focus on how good the longjing is and maybe suggest that you might not need that pomegranate, because when you get a well-made, straight-leaf tea, it is an amazing experience. To brew it, to smell it, everything about it —  it’s about keeping that 4,000-year-old culture alive.”

Cramer, who has traveled to Japan, Thailand and China to select teas for Dobra, will offer a series of tea classes this winter that, at $20 each, are a bit more approachable than a full sommelier course. The series of workshops will include a look at the overall history of tea plus cover the four main tea varieties — green, black, oolong and pu’erh — with full overviews and tastings of 40 different teas.

“You can get really nerdy about the tea itself, but it’s all reflective of the commerce at the time; the Chinese needed horses, so they would trade tea to the Tibetans, or the Mongols kept invading, so they would placate them with tea, and it was really the bartering tool to keep peace all throughout history,” says Cramer. “The addiction to the beverage is at the core, but there are all these socio-economic issues alongside it that are so much larger than the beverage itself.”

For updates on Muller’s planned tea sommelier training in Asheville, visit athirstfortea.com. Details on ITMA trainings are available at teamasters.org. For a full list of Dobra’s upcoming tea classes, visit dobrateanc.com.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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