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Inside Job: tea sommelier

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: tea sommelier

No, you can’t drink tea in your hotel room. ‘It’s no place for drinking tea. I suppose there are teabags in the room, but they’re… a little bit not the same as experiencing tea,’ Master Xie informs me in a screened off area of Yu, the fancy Chinese restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton.

His job is to help guests unwind, disconnect, go offline. His weapon is tea; or rather, tea is his decoy. It’s all about the environment he creates around drinking the tea. It’s so effective that ‘you shouldn’t have to even drink the tea itself,’ he tells me.

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So how does he do it?

Guests summon Master Xie’s services, or he’s on standby in the restaurant at meal times for pairing teas with guests’ needs. He also has a tea room. So he’s pretty available, but he doesn’t come to your room or big public areas – the magic doesn’t work that way.

We set up in a private area of the restaurant to run through the basics, of which there are many. It turns out I have inelegant fi ngers, which is particularly apparent as he opts to teach me the girls’ way of holding the teapot (fi nger holding down the lid, as ladies are more scared of it falling off when pouring, apparently). My fengcha (奉茶), ‘offering of the tea’, is also wonky and full of tension.

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To help guests choose their tea we start with the season. It’s winter so people should be drinking black tea as it raises your body temperature. Green tea is for summer. Qing teas are for autumn (think tieguanyin). Jasmine tea is for foreigners all year round. Good.

For matching with food, tea differs from wine, I learn, in that you should only drink a little with the food; it’s best drunk after. Master Xie says that pu’er teas are good for cutting through oil and Qing teas can counter the sugar in a dessert. There’s another factor: health. If you’ve any digestive issues, no green tea for you. But do drink it if you’ve got any of the ‘three highs’: blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol. Can I ask about these things? Yes, if the guest wants to go down the health route.

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Master Xie is to take care of the technical side (tea-specific water temperature, quantity of tea leaves, choice of tea set) while I attempt to create the immersive experience of the tea service.

I approach, brimming with knowledge, and hoping I’m gliding across the room like my master. Green tea is requested. I’m immediately able to inform the guest that as it is winter, they shouldn’t be drinking green tea. And I’ve already failed. ‘If the guest already has a preference for a type of tea, then that’s the right tea,’ points out Master Xie, emphasising how the atmosphere is more efficacious than the tea. I’m that waiter saying ‘You’ve ordered fish so no, you can’t have red wine.’ I’m that guy. Everyone hates that guy.

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Continuing to learn from my mistakes, my next faux pas is assuming that guests will share the same pot of tea. Again, I’m trampling through the moment with my own wine and tea idiosyncrasies. It turns out that tea drinking is one of the few times in social dining when Chinese people will happily do their own thing. It’s the opposite of ‘renao’, where diners eat and share together, as the moment we’re trying to recreate is in fact a quiet visit to a teahouse of yesteryear. The drinkers share the atmosphere and contemplative togetherness, not the tea.

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The presence of an ignorant foreigner isn’t entirely conducive to being at one with one’s tea. It might help if I speed things up so that the tea I’m inelegantly offering isn’t cold, however.

I leave feeling totally sold on a service I thought was a novelty. So if you’re on a health kick for January, take a leaf out of Master Xie’s book and swap the booze for tea: pay attention to it as you sip (or just hold it) and it’s equally as relaxing and way better for you.

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By: Frank Hersey
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