March was a very busy month in the tea world for me. I arrived back into London from North American Tea Championships in Las Vegas at the beginning of the month and set off a few days later to Spain to join my Argentinean friend Victoria Bisogno. Throughout the rest of the month, I was then involved in training days for several big companies and ended the month in Blackpool at a catering conference where I was speaking to groups of Food and Beverage managers about how important it is to offer good quality tea in restaurants, coffee bars, snack bars etc.
Spain does not have a very big tea market and in the past was more influenced by Moorish culture than by European tea drinking habits, so the more popular version of the beverage was minted tea served in little glasses in Moroccan style. But just over 22 years ago, Per Sundmalm set up his East West Company and established the first of the country’s modern tea stores with its brand name ‘Tea Shop’. He now has 42 shops all over the country in Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Pamplona, Tarragona, Valencia, Zaragoza and Mallorca. Some are owned by him and his family, some are franchised and others are run as joint ventures. Madrid is a town that loves its food and wine and since people have begun to recognize the attractions of great quality loose leaf tea, the market is growing.
The reason for my visit was to join Victoria Bisogno who has a tea business in Buenos Aires and runs El Club del Te and teaches a Tea Sommelier course, a Tea Blending Course and a Sensory Evaluation course. Her company Charming Blends is making inroads into the Latin American market and her courses are making tea education available to people from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and other Spanish-speaking Latin countries. People love her and her classes and she is setting everyone alight with a real passion for tea.
In her enterprising and visionary way, she decided to take the Tea Sommelier course to Spain and approached Per Sundmalm’s about the possibility of working in collaboration with her and her husband Martin to publicise and organize the events. She organised a whole week of classes, tastings, theory, brewing practice and lots of practical exercises and I went to Madrid to teach one of the classes with her. It made sense for me to be there to support Vicky and to teach part of the class because I have worked with her on the development of the course content and because together, we are publishing The Tea Sommelier handbook in Spanish. We’re hoping this will help Spanish speakers to expand their understanding of tea.
Students were a mixture of passionate amateurs and tea professionals who work in or run their own tea stores. Tearooms as we know them in the rest of Europe and around the world don’t really exist as yet in Spain, mainly because of legislation that makes it quite difficult to run such an establishment, but hotels and restaurants are beginning to understand tea better today. That is mainly thanks to Per who has talked to the owners, managers, and buyers, trained their staff, helped them to choose teas for their menus and has taught them how to brew and serve the teas well. And this Tea Sommelier course will have given a lot of very useful information and experience to some key players in Spain’s tea world.
Vicky’s Sommelier course starts with all the basics about the tea plant, what it is, where and how it grows, how tea is harvested, the manufacturing processes to make all the different categories of tea, tea history, tea’s ingredients, tea bags and loose leaf eta, how tea is bought and sold, blending, tea ceremonies from around the world, cupping and tasting techniques, designing a tea menu, organising tea parties and events, the correct brewing and serving of tea, pairing food with different teas, and the etiquette and protocol of tea.
The course really equips people with all the skills they need when working for a tea business or setting up their own company. To date it has been hard for Spanish speakers to read and study tea as there are few books published in Spanish and it’s hard to learn in another language. And now, as the Spanish market grows, they will be able to teach others about what’s available, how to enjoy the different teas and how to build tea drinking into their everyday lives. We’re hoping that a second Tea Sommelier course will take place in Barcelona later this year. Vicky is also planning to take it to Brazil soon as interest there grows.