The Art of Tasting Tea

14 Mar

In YYZGourmand’s 2014 Food Forcast, I declared that 2014 would see a rise of the tea sommelier. My reasoning was that how could you see a rise in popular tea culture with brands such as David’s Tea and Teavana popping up at speed of Starbucks, without the emergence of the experts. I would argue that stand alone coffee houses and espresso bars flourished at the same time that Starbucks did – while Starbucks introduced so many people to the ritual of expensive coffees and lattes in the morning, others searched for something that was more “authentic” and free of the ubiquitous brand and lingo. I would say that now something similar is happening with tea culture in North America (or atleast Toronto!). Many people appreciate tea and yet not many of us know much about the traditions, rituals and cultural practice of drinking tea.

So, what does a budding tea enthusiast do? Find a way to learn – and consume!- more.


On February 18th, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted an Introduction to Tea workshop, presented by Diane Borsato at the gallery’s FRANK restaurant. It was as instructive and interactive as you would hope an adult class at the AGO would be, and as delicious and memorable as any culinary experience at FRANK has proven to be. Diane Borsato was the perfect instructor for the class. An artist, who was the artist-in-residence at the AGO in the fall of 2013, she is also a tea enthusiast – one who is actually pursuing becoming tea sommelier. Her interest in tea has steeped into her art practice, and informed her views on cultural practice and values.

Diane Borsato’s workshop didn’t start with drinking tea, she opened by sharing a brief history of tea and made us confront a number of our tea stereotypes and understand its spiritual beginnings. By giving a deeper meaning to our everyday consumption, we we were ready to reassess and better appreciate what we would otherwise down mindlessly.

Tea culture has allowed for many tea enthusiasts to forgo tea bags for the richer taste of full leaf tea. Diane had selected to focus on mostly Chinese teas (except for one Japanese tea), all full leaf. Much like with wine tastings, we started with the lightest of flavours, white, followed by green tea (both Chinese and Japanese itierations), Oolong, Black (or red tea as it is called in China!) and Pu-erh.

My friend Ian's first try at pouring us tea. By the end of the class the linen was soaked!

My friend Ian’s first try at pouring us tea. By the end of the class the linen was soaked!

As much as I like it think that I love tea, it was the first time that I had taken the time to take note of the appearance of the dry leaves, the colour of the brew, the aroma and the taste… and discuss it in a group. Elevating the tea drinking experience to that of a wine tasting almost made more sense. After too much wine, my taste buds are dull and my mind is less sharp… with tea, the caffeine sharpened everything.

Would you like that steeped?

Would you like that steeped?

The tasting, while lead by Diane Borsato, was an active experience that encouraged each table to share their ideas and participate in creating the teas. First, we heated the water in kettles that had more temperature settings than “boil” – and measuring the water temperature with a thermostat. We practised the chaou brewing method: placing the water in a porcelain cup, adding the tea, letting it steep and pouring it with the use of a lid. This proved to the difficult for the inexperienced!

Of course, the experience wouldn’t have been complete with out complimenting food. We were at FRANK, after all.

FRANK food! :)

While I love scones with tea, it was a relief to go beyond the confines of the typical “Afternoon Tea” foods. Instead, we were able to enjoy a small seaweed salad, dimsum and a fried pork belly. This was appropriate as we were focusing on Chinese teas, and absolutely delicious! It was paired thoughtfully with the green tea.


At the end of the tasting, light headed on our caffeine consumption (I perhaps indulged in the teas I liked best!), came dessert. I’m ashamed to say that by this point I was no longer taking notes about the food, but instead the art which has been inspired by tea culture, class, and the place of women as tea consumers. The most famous of which is Meret Oppenheim’s Object. It was perhaps the first time since a 2nd year Art History course that I had seen the image. I would be doing Ms. Borsato a disservice if I shared all of the artists and artworks which she shared, but she did successfully introduce me to my new favourite artist, the mischevious David Shrigley.

David Shrigley's Anti-Psychotic Tea Blent

David Shrigley’s Anti-Psychotic Tea Blent

Overall, the event was well executed, well thought out, informative and remarkably fun. I was fearful of writing about a one off event and making other Toronto based tea drinkers jealous, but I found out that Diane Borsato will be hosting a second Introduction to Tea class on Tuesday, April 8th. If you’re a serious tea drinker and you are able to book the afternoon off, I strongly suggest checking this event out!

Unable to meet with Diane Borsato in person and take part in her class? I strongly suggest that you check out her tea blog, TeaCloud. It is best enjoyed with a cup (or pot!) of tea.



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