Alaskan Sommelier Wins Tea Infusion Challenge

LAS VEGAS, Nev.

Steven Downer of Sipping Streams Tea Company in Fairbanks, Ala., showcased his tea expertise and steeping abilities on the last day of the World Tea Expo by taking the top spot at the 2011 Tea Infusion Challenge.

Tea Infusion Challenge

The Tea Infusion Challenge is an annual, competitive event that determines the best Infusionist — a tea professional (non-manufacturer) that has comprehensive product knowledge, a high level of brewing skills and the innate talent to best express a tea’s characteristics and its intended cup.

The challenge packed the Special Event Pavilion at the Las Vegas Convention Center as four contestants prepared to impress the judges with their unique skills and knowledge of bringing out the best in tea.

Downer described the competition as  “a Bach four-piece fugue” just as the pot in front of him was coming to a rolling boil. He and his wife, Jenny Downer-Tse, own Sipping Streams Tea Company.

Contestants prepared four cups in 15 minutes, presenting their take on 1st Flush Darjeeling, provided by G.S; Haly, Matcha, provided by Aiya America: Oolong, provided by ABC Tea; and Pu-erh, provided by QTrade Teas & Herbs. A representative from each company judged the preparation of the product the firm provided.

How do you wow the judges? It goes way beyond just steeping times and water temps. It takes strategy and skill.  Would the final product hold up until the judges get to taste it? What type of equipment would work the best given the space and time constraints?

Winner of the first Dutch Tea Sommelier competition in 2010, Kasia Vermaire chose to prepare the Darjeeling first and presented it in a champagne flute, playing off the its reputation as “champagne of teas.” Her blue sari cloth covering her work station caught the eye even of those in the back of the room. “I showed the teas how I like them,” Vermaire told the judges when asked about her choice of preparation techniques.

Amy Lawrence, owner of the Afternoon to Remember Fine Tea and Gifts, brought her favorite winter Matcha bowl to keep the tea at the perfect temperature and compensate for the air-conditioning in the room. “Tea is so personal,” she commented.

Jonathan Munsayac, owner of Tranquil Tea Lounge, was able to put together an impressive presentation even though he had to borrow some of the equipment at the last moment and bravely endured hot water seeping onto his shoes during the preparation.

As the judges evaluated each take on their product based on taste, aroma, brewing and steeping skills and the overall product knowledge, emcee Suzette Hammond, the last year’s Top Tea Infusionist, led the discussion between the audience and the contestants, as well as shared deep understanding of each product and her personal take on the tea culture around the world.

The judges complimented each contestant for being up to the challenge as they named Downer the winner. When asked about his winning strategy, Steven said that his goal was to blend the art of tea with the efficiency of business and also to show his staff that it’s possible to produce quality product quickly and efficiently. Steven gets to emcee the next year’s challenge.

QTrade Teas & Herbs’ Manik Jayakumar, one of the judges and a tea purveyor, said, “Steven was really outstanding during the Tea Infusion Challenge. He brewed the tea really well and had a lot of product knowledge. It was clear that he had a lot of practice in the craft of brewing tea, and he served beautiful, perfect cups. He brewed at the correct temperatures and at the right quantity for each of the four teas he prepared in the competition – and some competitors did not do that right. Steven was also asked a lot of tea questions and he really knew his stuff, answering everything correctly.”

Tea Infusion Challenge judge Fumi Sugita, Aiya America, noted that Downer, a student of tea for more than five years, prepared a brilliant matcha. “It was the perfect balance of water and tea,” he said. “Another competitor, for example, had a stronger, bitter matcha. However, Steven’s teas had great flavors and excellent aromas. I gave him the maximum points – 10 out of 10.”

After the competition, Downer explained, “Whether you have a $100 per ounce tea or a $10 per ounce tea, the steeping technique shouldn’t be the bottleneck to quality and taste of the tea. The point is to do the best you can to get the taste out. We’re in an instant culture, and we want everything in a hurry. However, we need to pay attention to the art of tea and still keep in mind that we live in a fast-paced society. The Tea Infusion Challenge reminds us of this and melds these two ideas.”

Vermaire came in second place. Lawrence who once owned a tea room that was named Best Small Tea Room in the U.S. in 2006, was third. And Munsayac of Tranquil Tea Lounge, who has more than 10 years of experience in restaurant management, came in fourth place.

The highly competitive, interactive Tea Infusion Challenge demonstrated how the same tea can taste drastically different depending on the method used to steep the tea. Tea Infusion Challenge judges rated each contender on: quality of infusion, such as color, taste, smell and leaf agony; technical skills, such as timing, volume and overall presentation; and tea knowledge.

After judging, Jayakumar noted that while presentation is a key element, the overall idea of the competition is to “serve a very pleasant tasting tea.” In fact, he compares tea sommeliers to chefs. “Some chefs are flashy and some are just focused on their craft. It can be the same with tea sommeliers, but there was no flashy stuff with our champion, Steven.”

According to Vermaire, “Tea is all about knowledge, dedication and, most of all, sharing. With the 2011 Tea Infusion Challenge, competitors inspire and share with the audience, while telling the beautiful and complex story of tea.”

Lawrence says, “Tea is my life and my passion. The more you learn about tea, the more there is to learn. Competitions, such as these, show people the many different facets of tea. The right water, the vessel you use to steep the tea, the temperature and time all play a unique role in the outcome of the infused leaf into the cup. And everyone has different tastes – neither right nor wrong; tea adapts to you, and you make it your own by how you prepare it.”

Fourth place contestant Munsayac added, “The Tea Infusion Challenge is definitely beneficial for the tea industry, the competitors and the audience or tea lovers paying attention. By competing, I was able to more fully understand that there are so many variations to steep the different teas. Overall, I was happy to be a part of the competition and hope to compete next year – as I want to win.”

Even with just a couple of hours before the show wrapped, the aisled were still filled with attendees placing last-minute orders. Runa Founder Tyler Gage was busy giving out samples at his plantation-inspired exhibit and said that the quality of traffic has been excellent. “This has been one of the best of shows for us,” he said, “And the sense of community is very distinct.”

Attendee Jessica Yueh with Immaculate Leaf also noted that it was the community and its willingness to share information and expertise as the key value factor for her. A new distributor, Jessica is banking on the growth that the tea industry has been experiencing. She said, “This is a great time to get into this business.”