; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Top o' the Heap, or the Problem of Tea Master-y ;

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Top o' the Heap, or the Problem of Tea Master-y

In an article focusing on the history of tea sommeliers and practical problems with obtaining tea training, "The Problem with Tea Sommeliers," blogger Jordan Hardin underscored the continuing “problem” behind the definition of who is really a tea master, or a tea “sommelier.” I particularly enjoyed the bits delving into the world of wine tasting, but the main focus of the article is to point out the practical difficulties for persons interested in becoming a tea sommelier, from the definition of the term to one very real problem: who is the final arbiter, the one who gets to decide who is a tea sommelier? In answering this question, Hardin narrows down issues of certification and practice relevant to what I suppose most people want to know, the nuts and bolts of bona fide training that leads to a corporate job of some kind. I think we have larger philosophical and cultural problems which are at the heart of the issue of tea masters, and who gets to “be” one. Specifically, 1) the modern irrelevance of medieval notions of “master,” 2) the problem of “apprenticeships; 3) cultural relativism and the emergence of individual ideas of expertise; and finally 4) the inherent tension between rejecting the idea of someone at the “top ‘o the heap,” and the cultural “wish” to get there.

The idea of a “master,” specifically a “tea master,” evolves from a medieval and even pre-historic role of religious master, or shaman, or abbot, or novice master. The idea of a master was codified into both eastern and western monasticism. By this I mean communities of monks, nuns, tribes where a religious “master” achieves some ideal, or manifestation of progress in a rule of living or a rule of religious practice. The leader is then elected in recognition of mastering the rule of practice, whether this practice is meditation or some sort of holy living resulting in superior personal qualities which are the end goal of the practice. Maybe the master has the cleanest room. He certainly never wanks or sleeps, at least not when anyone is looking. Or perhaps the master has had a revelation of some kind which is recognized by his peers as a goal or reward of the practice of a rule or lifestyle. Usually the practice involves sufficient repetition over a period of years, and to some extent age is a factor in garnering the necessary respect to be elected by one’s peers or designated a master by a majority of the community. So, the ideal of a master is some sort of demonstration of an end goal as a result of years of practice, and exhibiting personal charisma or a revelation that “proves” one’s worth or eligibility for office.

I belonged to a medieval religious order of nuns, which had entered a period of “post-monastic” ideals of leadership. While as a whole, most Catholic religious orders still retain at least the trappings of a medieval hierarchical leadership, in practice most orders follow what is considered a “collegial” process of selecting leadership. To a large extent, personal qualities are the greatest consideration, that is, the elected leadership generally are indeed persons recognized for exemplary behavior in the rules of the lifestyle, and qualities which are deemed to stem from the lifestyle, such as graciousness, a contemplative and prayerful quiet to one’s demeanor. Now today we add on corporate leadership qualities, the ability the follow complicated laws governing relationships between the orders and their taxable or non-taxable businesses like hospitals or schools, meditation centers, or retail enterprises. 

Nun Pu

But the actual leadership today is not so much a master with a stick as a person voted to lead from the membership as a whole. The process of electing a religious leader is often called “discernment,” wherein the entire community discusses and prays over potential candidates who think long and hard about whether or not God is “calling” that person to lead. The leader may not have direct authority over individuals as in medieval times, when a monastic leader decided who got to scrub the latrines much as military leader does, but rather the monastic leader governs the corporate structure and assists the community as a whole in determining the governing philosophy or vision. The point here is that a religious “master” is no longer necessarily a “master” of anything in particular, but rather is a charismatic person with skills in interpersonal relationships and possesses some knowledge of corporate and political processes.

This is not to say that personal qualities are any less important, because taking down a religious leader who violates rules is a public sport. In fact, this sport happens every day to the point where most cultures now have a degree of cynicism about religious leaders, or even the idea of a “master.” Given a master, people immediately look for ways to take that person down. People even confuse politicians with religious masters, and somehow expect politicians to hold to moral codes on the same level as a religion, but in public service in a secular state. The same expectations are applied to corporate leadership, and disillusionment results when a business leader acts in a self-serving manner, or fails to consider the rank and file workforce, when no rule exists within the company requiring the leader to follow any moral code. The problem may not be the politician or business leader, but rather this carryover of a medieval religious idea of moral worth of a master, the divine right of kings.

Medieval practices in monasticism flowed into trade guilds and apprenticeships which saw their full flowering in the renaissance era. The idea of mastering a trade through apprenticeship gives us the notion that prolonged practice of a skill set leads to “mastery.” Even more so if the apprentice starts out at an early age, childhood even. We still see the idea of master/apprentice in trades such as plumbing or woodworking. And of course tea masters today in China are those with skills in tea roasting, which is very much a trade skill. The problems of tea roasting, however, don’t really translate so well over to tea brewing. Regardless, we still expect somehow that a tea apprentice or “sommelier” will spend time in the presence of “master” of some sort, even if we don’t know where that master is, or who he is. It’s a carry-over of the idea of expertise deriving from some kind of hands-on supervision by somebody better, someone elected by peers or designated by peers in the way of the medieval abbot. I am designated an expert because someone else who is more expert tells me that I passed his tests.

"the queen" by Leland Streubig (graffiti makeup by Cwyn)
The academy itself is another conferrer of degrees or expertise. Of course this is our system where professors are both abbot and master, and students are monks and apprentices. Expertise is conferred by peer-reviewed full professors/abbots at the end of a period of training and testing. Some pieces of paper may be better or worse. The same piece of paper from Yale is worth more than the one from the University of Mary Online. Still, notions of “better or worse” with degree certification are more cultural than anything, we culturally accept the idea that Yale is better and may even have “good” arguments for this idea, usually invoking the better apprenticeship, that my professors at Yale are better masters than at Mary Online. Or maybe they recycled the same article more times resulting in more publications of the same idea, simple numbers like book sales or talk show appearances or who got the film deal. Or notions of class or wealth, the master is the one who made the most money or whose family descended from the Mayflower. In fact, one of the current presidential candidates in the US derives all of his expertise from making money and even codified his expertise with his own TV show called “The Apprentice.”

Set up a master or a golden idol and the crowd gathers to take him down, side by side with the followers who are set for disillusionment at the unmasking of their ideal. The greatest challenge to the idea of mastery today is the emergence of the individual person, or individual knowledge. What we might call cultural relativism, which is the recognition that truth is relative to the individual, and that the individual may be the expert of his knowledge. And this idea is, I think, the one which underscores the real problem with tea certification and “mastery.” We are at the stage where you can set up the “certified” tea master or sommelier, and place a tea drinker side by side with his gram scale, his milliliter beaker, and both will obtain the same results with the same tea. We might find a “tea sommelier” at 52 years old, but then a 32 year old tea blogger has brewed her own way through hundreds or even thousands of tea samples and both serve a decent cup. Both might agree in blind tests over a tea and choose the same adjectives. What then is the point of a “tea sommelier” when anyone can practice their way into brewing the same cup using nothing more than a scale and gaiwan? The only difference is, the guy with the piece of paper or the Tea Abbot in his background may seem more convincing to an employer, but the reality is no difference at all.

The problem with tea brewing is anyone with a gaiwan or a teapot can do it. This is what makes the tea classes and schools such a joke to anyone who brews tea. This was the idea behind my blog post “Tea Sommelier” last year, that anyone can easily out-drink or out-brew someone else simply by practice, even an incontinent old lady, without any training whatsoever. Now, that might not mean I can roast tea, because as I noted tea roasting involves equipment and another sort of skill training. But tea BREWING… how is tea brewing a skill that someone needs special classes or an abbot/master to learn? A shopgirl or barista paid minimum wage or less can do it. I can do it. The knowledge of the individual easily rivals that of a master. Who then is a master? Someone who knows more history? Read books, plenty of books out there on tea. Someone who wandered the mountains of Yunnan and ate bugs? That trip is out there for anyone with the money and gumption to go. The heart of this is cultural relativism, the idea that any individual can master the knowledge and nobody can tell him he is wrong. Or if you are political, social democracy might be the theory, or communism, that the worker at the bottom is the real expert. And anyone can start a Tea School if they want, and confer any piece of paper to the “Graduates” as long as students are willing to pay. Right?

Now, while I can think my way through cultural history to get my own brain past images of Abbot Master and Apprentice, working this idea out of the culture takes much longer. We all may be in the age of individual relativism, but somewhere in our heads that idea of Master Sommelier still lingers. We still long for the Master, oh you wise one who will confer upon me when I have Made It, when I am Certified, when I am as holy as You, when my robes are washed clean. Then I can take my place among the masters. We want Masters not because they exist but because we want to be one. While every politician starts out with ideals of serving their electorate, without exception they all feed at the trough not just because they are beholden to business interests, but because they worked so damn hard, they started at the bottom, and now it’s my turn to feed. The temptation to do so is impossible to resist.

The only reason we need and want Masters is because we want to BE a Tea Master, we want our turn at the top ‘o the heap. We want to get paid and have people recognize us as experts, even while we know, we KNOW, that the people in these jobs got them because of luck, because of self-presentation skills, because they had a boyfriend in the company, or were in the right place at the right time. So this is the tension, while we as a culture have largely abandoned the idea of Abbot Master, and have no real system of apprenticeship and while we recognize that so-called experts can be largely self taught, we still want a system of Sommeliers and Masters because we want it as a perk for ourselves. We want a system we know doesn’t exist and when it does we will immediately debunk it, but when it applies to me I am happy to accept it.

For anyone who wants to be a Tea Sommelier, I say call yourself one. Set up a blog or tea classes even if nobody shows up. Design your own certificate. If you succeed then it is your own ability at selling yourself that matters. If you really feel the need for “credentials,” get a graduate degree, in whatever you like. Maybe things like language skills or history or art will help sell your career idea better, or maybe those degrees just give you more confidence or feelings of legitimacy though really your professors don’t care a fig what you got up to with your degree. I can tell you living long enough helps tremendously, and at fifty something you won't give a rat's arse what anyone thinks because most of the people who once mattered are gone and everyone else is younger than you.

I’m not sure Tea Brewing as a skill will gain the centralization to a single body that certifies people as Tea Sommeliers. I have a feeling the school that sells the most program certificate classes, sucking the most people in to pay may establish some sort of primacy. In the meantime, enjoy this time period when nobody owns the profession, because now is the best time for a “nobody” to work in the tea world. Once people realize that no one needs to go to school to brew tea, restaurants companies won’t bother to hire an expert because we will all know how to brew our own tea at work. History and the death of the master will win out, because short of a god the Abbot is truly dead and he isn’t coming back.

Requiescat in Pace, Sir Master, sir (and you too, Mother/Father Superior)


  1. Thank you for this. I've been job hunting and was asked for my liberal arts degree GPA from a decade ago. As if those 3 digits mattered more than the work experience I've had since. I'll now go to bed thinking about how I'll probably be an expert in outliving them all.

    1. The biggest detriment I've found in the work world is having a doctorate. Apparently people have all kinds of feelings about PhDs.

    2. I can imagine it makes you both terribly under qualified or overqualified depending on who you're asking.

    3. People either perceive it as a threat or asking for special treatment, neither of which is the case.

  2. You know, it never occurred to me to think of the "x-master" role (where x is "roast" or "tea" or "brew," for coffee-, tea-, and beer-making, to name three examples) as relating to the European tradition of guild hierarchies. I will have to consider that.

    When I see the modern American fascination with calling people "masters" or this or that, the vibe I get is of a mutated form of the notion of Zen "mastery." The "master," according to this notion, is a Yoda-like enlightened figure who always does the right thing without thinking about it. I believe the trope entered common discourse with the writings of Alan Watts, was reinforced by early American Zen practitioners' writings about Shunryu Suzuki, and became mainstream with depictions of "kung-fu masters" and the Jedi Masters of Star Wars.

    1. Oh that the culture might be so literate...but I doubt anyone under 65 remembers Alan Watts. At least, not so many as saw the latest Star Wars installment. Thanks for commenting!