Director of Global Tea Initiative at World Tea Expo

Katharine Burnett

Informed consumers make better choices and more frequently that choice is tea.

“Compare tea to the wine industry,” suggests Katharine Burnett. “The more knowledgeable the consumer is, the more s/he buys. And this puts pressure on the industry to provide better and better quality, which makes the choices even better for all, and even can make the farming more sustainable.”

Burnett is the founding director of the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science at the University of California, Davis. She is a featured speaker at World Tea Expo on Thursday, June 14.

Katherine Burnett is a professor of Chinese art history and author. Her research projects include an investigation into the development of tea cultures, marked by the exchange of tea wares between China and its southwestern neighbors, starting with Vietnam, and before 1700, when steeped tea became the norm.

She is overseeing the transition of the university’s tea initiative into a formal institute, a first in North America. Tea is better known and its impact on culture more pronounced in Asia. A key role for the university will be to help  “uncover” the thousands of years of history in a modern context, she says.

Cultural exchange and goodwill, medicine and nutrition, trade and commerce, plant sciences, humanities, social sciences, agriculture and the arts all come together in this extraordinary beverage.

“Although it is true that there’s much institutional knowledge dating back centuries within the most-recognized origin countries, it is surprising that knowledge about tea cultures outside of these is largely unexamined,” said Burnett, citing her new research project on Sino-SE Asia tea culture.

One task, she explained, is to make this knowledge available to readers of English. She comments that these insights will help consuming cultures better understand what tea “is.” “Our work addresses the issue of how culture is transferred and translated, from place to place. Sometimes societies absorb new cultural forms whole-hog, sometimes they resist it, sometimes they transform it, or some combination of these. Often these depend on political and economic forces (and other).”

UC Davis famously studies wine, beer, and more recently coffee. Its work has greatly enhanced the wine industry. Asked what practical information the institute will make available to tea retailers and wholesalers, she replies that “We aim to do the same for tea [as we have for wine]. A significant difference will be that UCD’s Global Tea Institute will engage the learner not only on issues surrounding science and health, but also culture and society.”

GTI will work with the tea industry to organize courses directed to its own communities and to consumers.  “Of course, we can lend our established expertise in farming, nutrition, and health to tea,” she said.

As its researchers further their own projects GTI will expand the international partnerships with other top-tier research institutes that are already well underway in developing. As it continues to work with tea producers, it will also be able to explain and educate the industry, including tea farmers.

Silver ingot in the shape of a tea blossom from Guizhou, China, early Qing Dynasty (1644-1735)

Burnett cherishes a beautiful ancient silver ingot shaped like a tea blossom. This suggests how tea influenced everyday life in China. Will the emerging tea culture in the U.S. do the same?

“Time will tell,” she says, pausing for a moment in reflection. “Actually, I think it already is doing that. Look at the lovely tea houses already established, whether they are in Asian styles or British or American, owners make every effort to make them attractive, comfortable and relaxing for the consumer,” she said.

What: Katharine Burnett on Expanding the Understanding of Tea Through a Global Perspective
When: 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m, Thursday, June 14
Where: Main Stage Expo Floor