The rise and rise of the Hong Kong tea sommelier

There's as much excitement now about speciality tea as about coffee, and restaurants now employ experts whose sole job it is to oversee the preparation and serving of the beverage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:05am


A sommelier is usually a person who helps choose a fancy wine to go with your dinner, but Hong Kong now has sommeliers for quite a different drink: tea.

Kelvin Ng Chi-chuen's full-time job is to guide customers at the InterContinental Hong Kong's Chinese restaurant on which teas to drink with their food. He's also such a connoisseur that even when he goes to Chinese restaurants with his wife and children, he takes his own tea leaves with him.

"Of course, they might not be willing, but I'll say, 'This is the kind of tea that my family and I are used to, so just give me a pot of hot water'. If it's a walk-in, then of course I won't do it, but if it's near where I live and the restaurants that I'm used to, then they know what I like."

Like many Chinese tea lovers, Ng has his own set of teapots, tea cups, and a tea tray that includes a draining rack and trough at the bottom. When he washes the pot and cups with hot water before he brews the tea, the trough catches the excess water. He even has miniature versions of this gear that he takes along whenever he travels.

The thirty-something Ng has been the tea sommelier at Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental since April 2014. Now he scouts tea shops in Hong Kong for new supplies, writes the descriptions in the restaurant's tea menu, and talks to customers about what to drink with their meal.

He's got this position at a time when more and more people are getting interested in tea, including in the US. There's so much interest in tea that even at Coffee Fest, a trade show for speciality coffee, "there was equal excitement about tea as there was for coffee", according to the market research firm Euromonitor International. From 1990 to 2014, the market for tea in the US has gone from just less than US$2 billion to more than US$10 billion, according to the Tea Association of the USA.

There hasn't always been this much interest, and even Ng developed his taste over time. When he was young, his favourite drink was cola.

"If a child tells you they like Pu'er, they're lying. Every child likes sweet drinks," Ng says. "When we went out for dinner, I always wanted Coke, but of course my parents and grandmother would say that's bad for me, so I could only have tea. That was the only option. At that moment, I couldn't have Coke, so I drank tea, and maybe if I was well-behaved, I'd get a toy.

"Even though I didn't like it, the moment was conducive to me being exposed to tea. But I didn't truly like it until I started working."

Ng had to drop out of secondary school to provide for his family because his father, the family's sole breadwinner, got sick. Ng was an office worker and a waiter at restaurants before arriving at the InterContinental. But he didn't get interested in tea until one day 15 years ago, when he came home frustrated with work and decided to make some tea with his grandmother's prized teapot and Pu'er tea leaves.

"That was genuine; I really wanted tea of my own accord and that was the first time it happened."

The experience calmed him down, and since then he's been setting aside an hour or two each week to drink tea.

Ng started at Yan Toh Heen as a waiter, but the management realised that he liked tea and drank a lot of it, so they asked him to manage the restaurant's tea collection and later gave him the title of tea sommelier.

The restaurant has a varied collection. The house teas cost only HK$24 per meal, but the premium Chinese teas can cost around HK$100 per person, and the 53-year-old fully fermented black Pu'er tea will set you back HK$328. Ng says he buys blocks of Pu'er tea leaves every year (a block of tea leaves is good for between 30 and 50 pots) and he now has several hundred at home. An extensive range of high-end teas can also be found at the branch of Singapore-based luxury tea house TWG Tea, which opened in Central, a few years ago.

Ng isn't Hong Kong's only tea sommelier either. Kate Chang Lok-ki, 27, an assistant head waitress at the Palm Court restaurant at The Langham Hong Kong, became a tea sommelier after receiving training last August, when she learned about various kinds of tea and techniques to brew them for the best flavour.

She started working as a tea sommelier soon after, helping customers figure out what kind of tea best suits their tastes and pairs well with their food. For example, she might suggest something stronger like red tea as a palate cleanser with a sweeter dessert.

Chang admits that she wasn't much of a connoisseur before receiving training, but has since developed a finer palate for tea, though she will still drink bottled tea from convenience stores if there's no other choice. Like Kelvin Ng, Chang says her training has changed her habits: if she is served tea that isn't at the optimal temperature in a Chinese restaurant, she'll ask for a hotter batch.

There is no independent, internationally recognised body to verify the knowledge and training of tea sommeliers, comparable with the Court of Master Sommeliers overseeing wine experts.

The interest in tea has gone far beyond Asia. The International Tea Masters Association is a group based in California that offers tea master courses where you can learn about the growing regions of the world (including China, Japan, Nepal and Kenya), the tea ceremonies of various countries, how taste and aroma works, and how to serve guests properly. Becoming a certified tea master involves evaluating mystery samples, an oral or written dissertation, and a final exam.

One of the faculty and tea masters in Asia is 30-year-old Shana Zhang. She grew up working for her family's tea company, and says that the international interest in tea comes at a time when younger Chinese people are turning to other drinks. Last September, The Washington Post reported that America is slowly but surely becoming a nation of tea drinkers, referring to spikes in the consumption of green tea, as well as teas such as oolong and white tea. Zhang says she has also noticed America's turn to tea.

"More and more young Chinese people … are more interested in wine or coffee than tea, but in the US and other Western countries, the people are much more interested in tea," Zhang says. "People are interested in what they don't have."



Whole leaves are better than chopped leaves

American tea master Jay Hunter (a business partner of Shana Zhang) says finely chopped leaves are probably factory processed and dried industrially, whereas whole leaves with buds are probably artisanal and make for much better tea.

The second and third brews are the best when it comes to Pu'er

Tea sommelier Kelvin Ng says this is how he explains tea to his nine-year-old son: "Brewing tea is like life: we climb to the top then we go downhill towards the end." The first brew is young, with mild flavours; the second brew is more mature, with stronger tastes; the third brew is the best you'll ever get; by the fourth and fifth time, it starts going downhill.

How to pair tea with food

Ng says tea pairing can be quite like wine pairing. Appetisers such as jellyfish and steamed fish or prawns go well with mild teas (white tea, shoumei, or green tea). Meaty, spicy or more flavourful dishes go well with stronger teas such as Pu'er or Iron Buddha, because those help burn fat and make you feel less full. Desserts go well with flowery, sweeter teas such as chrysanthemum or orchid teas. Ng says that as with dessert wines, dessert teas should be fruity and sweet.