Viva Las Vegas! It is always an industrious time at the World Tea Expo.
It was a fast paced trip to attend the World Tea Expo, recently held in Las Vegas. I arrived extremely late the night before my first early morning workshop would begin. No matter what time I fly into the city, the airport is filled with activity, and crowds. I made my way through the throng of people to a car that would take me to the hotel.
The hotel room was clean, well lit, and aesthetically organized. The dishes in the side cupboard of the kitchen suite were perfectly arranged. I like to think I am organized, but this was perfect. Even the cup handles were aligned in the same facing direction. I am having difficulty articulating this successfully, but after a noisy and crowded plane and airport, to arrive at a quiet hotel room, where everything was simplistically organized, I felt a sense of serenity and calmness. I made a mental note to look up Feng Shui, a technique of arranging items to produce harmony in an environment, and put into practice tips and suggestions in my own home. After unpacking the essentials, it was lights out for this Las Vegas tea sojourner.
I grabbed a light breakfast and a cup of tea and was out the door for an early morning badge pick up time. I texted my friend to let her know I would have to meet her around lunch time. My first workshop was immediately after I picked up my badge, and would last until lunch. The workshop centered around tasting numerous teas and cataloging the tastes.
During the workshop all attendees sat either at long tables for the lecture section or, once we were split into groups of approximately four or five people, we would meet at our designated tasting table with tea, cupping sets and a gram scale. A cupping set consisted of a white cup with a lid, and a tasting bowl, and was used to steep the tea. The gram scale was utilized to ensure accurate and consistent amounts of tea would be steeped throughout the workshop.
If my group of tea tasters were not cupping tea, then we were writing notes while listening to mini lectures regarding the teas that we were tasting. We cupped approximately twenty five teas in roughly four hours. We each took turns cupping a set of five teas simultaneously. Cupping a tea includes measuring the tea, steeping the tea, decanting the tea, looking at the dry and wet tea leaves, and then tasting the tea. Everyone at our tasting table would taste the teas, then jot down notes regarding each tea. We would write down our observations relating to the dry leaf, wet leaf, the color and taste of the liquor of the steeped tea.
Throughout the workshop we were reminded to stay clear of spicy foods, and beverages while tasting the teas. The addition of spicy flavors could adversely affect the taste of the teas that we were cupping. The workshop moderator also suggested having clean hands that were hand lotion free, and free of any soap or chemical smells. The aroma of soap, cleaners or hand gel could potentially affect the taste and aroma of the teas that we would be steeping. The workshop was intense and demanding work trying to focus on what I was tasting. Several times the teas tasted exactly the same and it was almost impossible to pick up subtle nuances surrounding potential differences of taste in the teas. By the end of the class my brain was on sensory overload. Each tea began to morph into one homogeneous tea flavor. It was a fantastic class cupping numerous teas in a condensed period of time. Talking to fellow tea cuppers about what they tasted and how they would categorize and describe the tea was an invaluable experience. My tea tasting skills were honed in and sharpened being surrounded by tea cuppers who were well versed in describing their experience of tasting tea.
Workshop Number Two
The second workshop was the following morning, and lasted until lunchtime as well. The time was spent discussing the sensation of taste and the mechanics of taste. The instructor discussed how the five basic tastes (bitter, sour, sweet, salty, and umami) register on different parts of the tongue. Tables were set up to aid and foster discussions of exactly what tastes we were sampling. We sampled over 40 different flavor profiles; everything from lemon, mint, rose, to a hay flavor. Word descriptors to define what was being tasted were all over the spectrum. For example, we sampled salty water and had to describe the taste. Some people said the saltiness reminded them of potato chips. For others, it reminded them of salty pickles.
We were encouraged to cluster our descriptions of what we were tasting by using a flavor map and not a flavor wheel. A tea flavor wheel has basic flavor profiles in a wheel format with the primary wheel flavors usually including fruity, spicy, sweet, floral, vegetal, earthy, and charcoal. A flavor map is comprised of flavor bubbles clustered together, or near each other, with similar taste profiles. An example would be a cereal flavor would be clustered near a nutty and a hay flavor on the flavor map. To me, the flavor map, or flavor clusters, were easier for me to link certain flavors together. When I tasted something “vegetable” (like a green tea), it was easier for me to draw an association to “green” and “herbaceous” because the flavors are clustered near each other on the flavor map. We were challenged to stretch our vocabulary in describing the tastes that we were experiencing. To describe something as “umami or brothy” was met with a challenge of describing it further as possibly a beef broth, or a briney shrimp taste or a fresh water taste from a lagoon or bayou. A description of something tasting like “ice cream” was met with the challenge of how to be more specific in the description. What kind of ice cream; sugar free or whole milk ice cream? Did the ice cream taste like vanilla bean ice cream, French vanilla or vanilla with honey? The workshop was a lesson in becoming intentional with specific descriptive words to describe the tastes in tea. By the end of this workshop my mouth was on flavor overload and all I wanted for lunch were bland crackers and a glass of water to neutralize my taste buds.
After the workshops ended each day, I met my friend at the Expo floor for food, and of course, sampling tea.
Walking The Expo Floor
The Expo floor was a busy place to be. There were tea vendors from all over the world at the Expo. India, Japan, Africa, Sri Lanka, Canada and Nepal were a few locations representing their teas and products. Colorful displays of dried tea and spices were on display at various vendor booths. Unique tea steeping methods were presented at several tea booths. A state of the art automated Boba tea maker robot was on display. In fact, the crowds surrounding the machine were so dense, I had to wait my turn to get close enough to take a picture of the robot. Wellness type teas with botanicals were prevalent at numerous vendor booths. One vendor that I stopped at had a display of beautifully crafted double walled glass travel mugs in perfectly muted earth tone colors. I think the most exclusive products that I saw were decorated pressed sugar encased tea bags. At first I thought they were candy bon bons, but upon closer inspection, I found out they were actually tea bags inside a sugar ball that you put into boiling water.
My friend joined me for a walk around the Expo floor, and we went in search of a cup (or taste sample) of tea. A tea bar was set up at the back area of the Expo floor showcasing different tea vendors’ blends of tea. It was a chance to sit down, enjoy a cup of tea and discuss all things tea.
Here’s to another fully packed year at the World Tea Expo, learning new things, and learning from others.
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!