It is finished. I have taken the challenge test to pass levels one and two of certification from the Specialty Tea Institute (STI). The test will be mailed out to an instructor and I should receive the results within a week. If I pass, I will officially be a huge dork.
In addition, I’ll have the closest thing to objective credibility that exists in the tea world today. There are a handful of classes that purport to teach tea, and many of them are led by instructors who are trying to recoup some of the massive investments they’ve pumped into marginally viable tea rooms. (Last month a kerfluffle erupted on the list serve of the Tea Entrepreneurs Association (membership required to read). Apparently a respondent who had paid the $2,000 course fee for one such program was subsequently shocked to see the teacher prepare artificially-flavored “Cherry Sencha” in an unglazed Yi Xing pot, but was forced to give a positive testimonial as a condition for receiving a completion certificate.)
The STI, meanwhile, is a trade organization that has to answer to tea growers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers worldwide, so it has the best claim to impartial universality. And if I’m not technically correct I can hardly be blamed: there’s the Tea Association USA, the Tea Council, and the Specialty Tea Institute, all of which share an office, a website, and a president, in Joe Simrany. I spent an hour in the office and never saw Joe, but perpetually heard his telephone murmurings from around a corner. A half-dozen young adults fill out the administrative capacities. It’s always useful to contrast the perspectives of those inside and outside an organization: perhaps there are aspirants to the cult of tea who would endure ridiculous hardships simply for the chance to address envelopes to major players in the tea industry, but one employee I spoke to says it’s just a job, isn’t particularly interested in tea, and wants to become a physical therapist. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say Joe Simrany IS the Tea Association USA, Tea Council, and Specialty Tea Institute.
So surrounded by bound volumes of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, I bushwhacked through the seven-page exam. (I’ve been having “back in high school” dreams ever since.) To STI’s credit, all the Anglo-centric tea history I studied just in case, was not on the test. I was not asked that the first shipment of tea arrived in England in 1658 during Cromwell’s reign, and became popular there three years later upon Charles II’s ascension, via his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. Neither was I asked about worldwide tea production and export leaders, which had been worrying me, because in recent years China has out-produced India, and Kenya has out-exported Sri Lanka, but God knows the age of any tea information someone’s quoting. And I was not asked how many “main” types of tea there are, and thereby spared from guessing whether the STI counted white, pu-erh, and/or yellow.
Instead, the test was restricted to unambiguous processes of tea’s growth, chemical composition, manufacture, grading, and evaluation. I was caught unaware of the Chinese and Taiwanese grading systems, and I was definitely tripped up by the large section on the four flushes of Darjeeling. Is it fair to describe frost flush as “crappy?” I hope my proctor has a sense of humor.