I am constantly amazed how the food world has exploded to such a degree that one can now become an expert in so many different fields — pastries, bread, chocolate, cheese, coffee, olive oil, and, of course, tea. I met my good friend Sina Carroll while we were both slinging cheese at Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building, and even then, she was more knowledgeable about tea than your average Brit. You laugh, but I got my tea smarts from To the Manor Born, Jeeves and Wooster, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Upstairs, Downstairs, and everything else on Mystery! and Masterpiece Theater. Currently, I’m addicted to and primarily drink Earl Grey. Out of a bag. I mix it up a bit with some Lemon Lift, Darjeeling, Constant Comment, and even English Breakfast. However, I am quite willing to learn what I’m missing. Luckily, Sina is quite willing to teach what she knows. Here is the first part of my interview with her.
Tell me, Sina, what exactly do you do?
I am a teabar tender and tea educator at Celadon in Albany. I serve premium grade, seasonal, whole leaf, loose leaf pesticide-free Asian teas (90% Chinese, 5% Indian, 5% rest: Taiwanese, Japanese) all in a traditional Chinese tea style of service using a Gaiwan (gai = lid, wan = bowl). I use other tea tools, like a strainer to pour the tea through, a server to pour it into, tongs to pick up cups with, a water pitcher to rinse everything with warm water so all teaweares are pre-heated, and little coasters to serve the tea on. I educate people about where tea is grown, harvested, processed, how people on tea farms live, how tea is imported, graded, bought, stored, made and served. I also help people choose specific teawares for appropriate teas, and [I inform] them [about] specific steeping times and temperatures for over 70 teas. I have been learning to do this for one year.
So, you must have massive qualifications — what are they?
I started liking and learning about tea two years ago, after I was ill and unable to drink coffee or alcohol. I specifically wanted to learn more about tea, so I made a deal with teahouse owner James Labe (the first tea sommelier in the country for the W hotel in NYC, and now owner of Teahouse Kuan Yin in Seattle): his tea knowledge in return for me merchandising his store and helping to brand his product.
I moved to San Francisco rather spontaneously, but also with a mission to learn more about tea. When I came here, I didn’t have a job, but I did have a few contacts. Alice Cravens, who provides Chez Panisse and Cafe Zuni with their tea program, was instrumental in my meeting Angela Justice, the wholesale representative for Teance (the name of Celadon’s tea). Angela asked if I would consider a tea-internship. Winnie Yu, the owner of Celadon, agreed to take me on simply because she was impressed that I had struck out on a quest for knowledge and would give up a more or less easy life in search of my true passion: tea.
How and when did you get into tea?
My parents never drank tea. The first cup of tea I remember having was in France about ten years ago — it was a vanilla-linden flower tisane (herbal) tea. At one point, I was working for a coffee company in London and I attended the Birmingham Good Food Show with the coffee roasters. It was there that I saw huge bags of bulk wholesale tea for the first time. I was impressed. A few years later, I ran the Teuscher chocolate shop in Seattle and I was in charge of the wholesale ordering of Mariage Frères teas. That was the first time I ever brewed whole leaf, loose leaf tea — it was the highest quality tea I had experienced yet. However, I was still a pretty dedicated coffee drinker. But then, I got ill and was unable to ingest certain foods and, since coffee was among them, I drank herbal tea and subsequently discovered white tea and oolong tea.
Why should more people drink tea?
I don’t advocate trading coffee for tea, rather consider including tea in your day. Open yourself up to seasonal, whole leaf, loose leaf, premium grade quality tea and incorporate them into your repertoire of delicious drinks to enjoy. Personally, I still enjoy a cappuccino…
How do you feel about “bagged tea”?
I feel really sad when I think about bag tea.