Secret Lives: A steamy look at the world of tea

This is the fifth in a series of "secret lives" stories, showcasing the breadth of interests and hobbies that York staff pursue in their free time.

Steeped in history, culture, ceremony, ritual and even politics, tea can be a reminder of times past or a way to unwind and relax. It is so much more than just a hot beverage to guzzle on the way to the office, says Nora Gubins, director of communications and external relations for the Faculty of Health.

A steaming cup of tea with its spicy, sweet or delicate aroma and taste, can be an individual pursuit or a social experience. In Gubins’ case, it evokes her time spent in India, Nepal and Japan, and the tea ceremonies she participated in and observed while there. “It was really interesting to see how they dealt with ritual and ceremony,” says Gubins.

North America has its own rituals. When someone is having a difficult time, it isn’t uncommon for a friend to offer a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear. What Gubins likes to call a mental cup of tea with hints of empathy and understanding.

“The cool thing about tea is you share, you tell stories,” says Gubins, who is known as the TeaQueen. She is a tea sommelier, a rare breed in Canada, having been one of the first graduates of the tea sommelier certificate program offered through George Brown College. It’s a rigorous 140 hours on everything from tea preparation, consumption, sensory development, evolution, influence and various varieties to menu design, food pairing and tea garden management. “It was just a lovely way to understand tea,” says Gubins, who will write the exam in September to become a certified tea sommelier.

Right: Nora Gubins, the TeaQueen, will become a certified tea sommelier in September. Photo by Matt Skujins.

Her path to tea originally came about through her avoidance of coffee, the caffeine being more than her system could handle. With tea, unlike coffee, the caffeine is released slowly into the system for a much gentler ride. But her interest in tea also encompasses her appreciation of history, art and culture.

Gubins has a deep respect for the ceremonies and traditions surrounding tea as well as the “tea equipage” – the brewing vessels, cups, saucers, cream jug, canisters, strainers, sugar bowl, spoons and more – some of which can be found in museums around the world, including in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Tea containers have been found in tombs in China from as far back as the Han dynasty, which began in 206 BC.

Through seminars offered at the World Tea Expo, Gubins continues her training as a tea sage. A member of the Tea Association of Canada and the American Tea Masters Association, Gubins blogs, writes, lectures and presents workshops on tea, and is always on the lookout for new tea shops. “There are some hip and groovy tea shops now in Toronto,” she says.

Left: Darjeeling first flush dry tea leaves

Her Green Tea Discoveries seminar with green and white teas from China and Japan, offered through the TeaQueen, discusses health benefits and green tea processing. Participants are able to taste and compare a variety of green teas, while tea ceremonies from around the world are discussed. She also offers a Tea & India class, which reviews the history of tea in India, as well as the influence of the British. It includes tastings and an overview of black tea and its processing. Through TeaQueen, Gubins offers a variety of workshops. She is also looking for new ways to pair tea and food, and is currently developing a workshop pairing tea and cocktails. And she’s also interested in the new tea rating system similar to fine wine ratings.

“I’m aligning tea with wine a lot in terms of understanding tea like fine wines. I find that tea usually gets positioned as either Victorian or Zen and there’s a lot room in-between and that’s what I’m looking at,” says Gubins.

She gets a kick out of sharing her knowledge of tea, such as the fluke of the tea bag. In an effort to get people to drink more tea, a tea shop merchant in the United States sent samples out in hand-sewn silk muslin bags. The idea was to empty the loose tea from the bag, but people dunked the whole bag in hot water not realizing the proper way to brew tea, and the tea bag was born. This was in the early part of the 20th century, but the British did not widely adopt the tea bag until the 1970s.

Right: Silver needle white tea

Another thing people don’t realize, says Gubins, is that orange pekoe (pekoe meaning silky hair in Chinese) is not a type of tea, but a grade of tea. It originally came from the House of Orange tea colonies on the Dutch island of Java in the mid- to late-1800s.

The different varieties of teas come mostly from different manufacturing processes, she says. “One plant with different manufacturing processes can yield literally thousands of different teas.” White, green, oolong, pu-erh and black tea all come from the camellia sinensis plant, but each is processed differently to produce different levels of oxidation. There is also the camellia sinensis sinensis plant and the camellia sinensis assamica plant, where the black tea Assam comes from.

With white teas, the most delicate of teas, the plant leaves are simply allowed to wither slightly. With green teas, usually the top leaves of the plant are harvested in the mornings, when they contain the highest amount of water. Most green teas are then sprayed with a jasmine scent, although the original method was to allow the water from the buds to drip onto the leaves, infusing them with the scent of jasmine.

A Lapsang souchong tea has a smoky flavour because it used to travel from the mountains in Somalia to Russia, and when the caravans stopped at night, the tea absorbed the smoke from the fires. Nowadays people smoke the leaves or spray them with a smoky flavour.

For a tea sommelier like Gubins, the world of tea is a royal brew steeped in centuries of history.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer