Nonprofit International Specialty Tea Association brings rare brews to US tasters

On June 16, 60 attendees were able to try a gourmet dinner at Alize French restaurant at the Palms, 4321 W. Flamingo Road.

Tea Pairing in the Sky matched fine dining with specialty teas. Diners paid at least $175 to try seven courses and seven specialty teas. One example from the menu: Foie Gras Terrine (Smoked Duck & Artichoke Crepe, Orange Marmalade, Candied Pecans & Basil) paired with Bai Long Xu White Dragon Whisker Sheng Puer Tea.

Outside the Alize kitchen, Zuping Hodge of Tucson’s Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas carefully brewed the teas that had been paired with each course. She and the restaurant’s executive chef, Mark Purdy, had spent hours deciding which teas were best with each of the foods featured.

Attending the dinner were tea fanciers from around the world who were in town attending World Tea Expo 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The host for the event was Austin Hodge who, during dinner, explained the names and origins of each Chinese specialty tea served. One of those teas, he said, had leaves that were picked only during one seven-day period every year.

Though Hodge and his wife now run a tea house, that wasn’t the case several years ago when Hodge, then a database designer, had met a Chinese graduate student who offered Hodge a kind of Chinese tea he had never experienced. He wanted to buy some of the tea and found it was not available in the U.S. Hodge says he loves a challenge and subsequently went to China and learned that although China supplied most of the tea consumed in the U.S., many of the country’s best teas were not available here. The discovery eventually led Hodge to a new business, Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas.

Not content with just owning a tea shop, Hodge is now encouraging the recognition of specialty teas through a new nonprofit organization called the International Specialty Tea Association. His association hopes to set standards for specialty teas similar to the standards set for specialty coffees.

Prior to the dinner, the association also presented awards to outstanding individuals in the specialty tea world. Presenting the awards was Barbara Fairchild, former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine. Fairchild admitted she was not a tea expert but said, “I think the time has come for North America to give tea the recognition it deserves; we are generally very behind in our knowledge of fine teas.”

One of the award winners was Rajen Baruah, who came out of retirement four years ago to enter the specialty tea business in the state of Assam, India, where most Indian teas are grown. He works with 500 small growers, motivating them to use good practices to produce quality teas. “I teach them to make a cup of tea from the heart,” he said.

Another award recipient was writer Dan Bolton, who used a Kickstarter campaign to establish a new glossy magazine for tea fanciers called “Tea Journey.” The color publication features articles and photographs from throughout the world.

Among the dinner guests was Linda Gaylard, who calls herself a “tea sommelier” after about 250 hours of classroom time studying teas at George Brown College in Toronto. She often lectures on teas, their history and their contribution to a stylish life. If Gaylard is using a large enough purse, she said she will carry her favorite tea and a tea diffuser with her to a restaurant. If she’s lucky enough to order a pot of hot water to use with her tea and the teapot has a strainer, then she’s fine. Or, she laughed, “I’ve found a way to use my fork to skim tea leaves from a cup of good tea.”

Although planning and hosting Tea Pairing in the Sky was a great deal of work, Hodge said he will definitely host a “second annual” dinner next year.

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