Suzette Hammond brings more than 13 years of experience in tea retail and wholesale to the Global Tea Championship. She founded Being Tea, an independent consultancy offering training and program development. World Tea News asked her more about her background.
What sparked your interest in tea?
Initially, my professional background was journalism, as a broadcast news producer. I later worked with coffee and tea, both as a break when I decided to change career direction. Immediately, I knew I found home pursuing tea as a life path. Tea’s connection to thousands of years of history, communication and culture, spirituality and mindfulness, ecology, culinary and food traditions, and unquestionably global presence all drew me in. I knew I could go on amazing journeys because of tea. I also loved that it challenged me to use my skills as a researcher and journalist to tell a more meaningful story. Right away, I saw an enormous need for education and access to training and education with tea. Fourteen years later, I’m still committed to the mission of teaching tea. It’s the only thing I’ve never questioned in life.
How did you learn about tea?
I was with my first company, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, for seven years and worked as a field trainer in multiple markets across the US. As trainers, we worked very closely with Director of Tea Eliot Jordan, my first mentor. He later encouraged my involvement in organizations like the Specialty Tea Institute and World Tea Expo. Along with working for several other tea companies, organizations and education programs since then, I also study applications for tea in personal and community well-being, such as tea ceremony traditions (chanoyu, etc.), tea meditation/mindfulness and tea for trauma/mental health.
What are your criteria for judging hot tea at the Global Tea Championship?
We stick quite strictly to the category definition, of course. Each word was chosen very carefully. This helps align us and reinforces using our entire depth of experience with that particular tea to serve as a basis for where this one stands in comparison. For me, additionally as I approach each tea, I am asking myself, “What would make this a 9 or 10?” This helps me in the feedback process, because knowing why you received a 4 or 5 is just as important as why you got a 9 or 10. It comes down to how the tea plays out in the entire experience: The visual first introduction of dry leaf, the leaf aroma when hot, the cup color and clarity. The aroma should be fresh and should linger, evolving as it cools. The tactile palate perceptions, like body, should feel like the tea has genuine presence—you would notice if it walked in the room. It has intent, it has opinion. The finish should be purposeful and memorable; not dry, chalky, stale or hollow, but a more inviting characteristic like lingering, juicy, aromatic, succulent, mouthwatering, satisfying, etc. It’s surprising how many teas may start out strong, but don’t cross the finish line in a very elegant way.
For how many years have you been judging this competition?
I’ve been involved with the competition since its inception, actually. The first year at World Tea Expo this competition was done, it looked very different. We’ve come a long way since then.
What are some patterns you have seen in this competition over the years?
The very best teas, the true cream of the crop, tend to standout right away on the table. They go obviously above and beyond in quality; this is often seen in the open entry type Steamed Green Tea categories and sometimes the Oolong categories. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that the number of entrants in some of the Classic categories—Darjeeling, Assam, Dragon Well—has been dropping. As judges, we’re hoping to see a balance in the marketplace of new tea and innovation, as well as celebration and devotion to classic teas. It’s actually quite sad when only four or five Assams are entered. Typically, on any given day, we are likely tasting much more than that. So we know they’re out there. Maybe there is a perception they are not as flashy or special, but as representatives of such a huge part of tea heritage and history, that couldn’t be further from the reality. There is a big opportunity to standout in the Classic categories right now.