A voyage through the world of tea with tea sommelier Felix Bürklein

2017-10-13 Tea is a work of art, and only an expert can bring out its noblest qualities,says Japanese writer Okakura Kakuzō. That’s right: making the perfect cup of the brew that cheers but does not inebriate takes study, experience and wisdom.
To find out more, we talked to German tea sommelier Felix Bürklein, who works in a fairy-tale location: the Teekontor Keitum on the island of Sylt in the North Sea: the perfect place for a steaming, fragrant cup of tea. To meditate on life and breathe deeply the aroma of adventure and poetry.
Felix was born in 1972 in Wiesbaden (Hesse) and lives in Klanxbüll, on the North Sea, not far from Sylt. After training to work in the hotel industry, because he has always loved making others comfortable, he decided to begin a new career specialising in the promotion and sale of wine.
When and why did you start to work with tea, Felix?
After taking a break. Six years ago I left wine management behind to work in a field I already had a private interest in: tea. After training as a tea sommelier, passing the state examination at the TeeGschwendner Akademie in Meckenheim / Bonn and obtaining additional qualifications as a tea sommelier and nutritional scientist, I now work in this profession.”
What is “living tea” all about?
Living tea in all its forms is an expression of quality of life, style, emotions and, above all, pleasure. Tea is a highly varied and very complex beverage. Tea and wine have a lot of things in common: terroir, climate, location and handling are essential factors for both. These parallels represent a challenge for me, as I already have a personal affinity for them.”
What does a tea sommelier do?
A tea sommelier advises customers and guests, in prestigious stores but also, as in my case, in exclusive teashops.”
What is the question you get most often, since you became a tea sommelier, and how do you answer it?
There isn’t really a typical question. Everybody asks different things. Infusion times, types of tea, what they taste like... but in the end, it’s not the questions people ask us; for a tea sommelier, what really counts is to convey our enthusiasm about one of the world’s oldest beverages (people have been drinking it for five thousand years!) Tea is the world’s most popular beverage, after water, which explains its socio-cultural importance.”
What is your role in your workplace?
In the Teekontor in Keitum, on the island of Sylt, I am in charge of advising guests: helping customers choose the best kind of tea for them. I have to make tea properly, using the right amount of tea for the quantity of water, the right infusion time, and the perfect water temperature. All of these are essential keys to the perfect tea tasting experience, just like perfect presentation, which is also my concern.”

A voyage through the world of tea: how to make, serve and store tea

The best tea leaves must bend like the leather boots of a Tartar horseman, curl up like the horns of a powerful bull, open up like mist rising up a cliff face, sparkle like a lake caressed by the breeze, and be as soft and damp as the earth after a rainfall,” said Lu Yu, the Chinese author of the world’s first monograph on the ancient beverage, written in 758.
If you are fortunate enough to have tea leaves like these, all you need to do is learn how to store, make, and serve tea. Felix Bürklein, tea sommelier at Teekontor Keitum on the German island of Sylt in the North Sea, tells us all about it.
How important are the chemical properties of the water in making tea, Felix?
The chemical properties of water are very important in making tea. Flavour, fragrance and aroma improve if you use soft water, and the freshness of the water is important because of its oxygen content. Calcium and hydrocarbonate content should be low, as they form limestone when making tea, which increases pH. Distilled water is no good. Hard water will make tea taste “furry”.”
What utensils do you need to make a good cup of tea?
The “right” things for making a good cup of tea are: tea, water, temperature and time. The best solution is to use a glass teapot, with loose tea leaves. Then add water, wait for the required or desired infusion time, and then pour the tea through a filter into a second teapot. I always recommend an infusion of leaf tea, so that water can surround the tea leaves on all sides for optimal extraction and pure flavour. Then filter the tea through a tea strainer, as certain types of tea can become bitter. Quality green tea is different: it requires a second and even a third infusion.”
How should tea be served? With sugar, or “black”? With or without milk?
How should tea be served? It depends whether you are a “mif” or a “tif” person. “Mif” means “milk in first”, while “tif” means “tea in first“. It’s practically a matter of religion. Milk or cream will bind the tannins in tea and, in my opinion, make it much “softer” and “smoother”. This makes it boring; the character of the tea is covered over by the addition of milk. Of course this doesn’t apply to tea from the supermarket: you can drink that however you like. But when drinking top quality leaf tea, in my opinion, there’s no question about it. Who would add liqueur to a Dom Perignon Champagne, or add sugar to a Sauternes?.”
How should tea be stored to make sure it doesn’t lose its properties?
There are four requirements for optimal storage of tea: it must be cool, dry, protected from light and sealed in the right container for the amount of tea. Because oxygen changes the flavour of tea: the aromas interact with oxygen and can be volatilised.”

A voyage through the world of tea: which tea to choose at which time of day

 It's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles,” said the Mat Hatter to Alice. That’s right: the first cup is for the taste and energy, the second is for pleasure, to be enjoyed alone or with friends, the third is for the beauty of the ritual, which also satisfies the eyes, and the fourth is to relax, if possible over a good book.
We end our interview with Felix Bürklein, tea sommelier at Teekontor Keitum on the island of Sylt in northern Germany, by asking him for some advice on the teas to choose over the course of the day and the most precious blend currently on the market.
Is there a tea for every time of day, Felix?
I don’t think there is a tea for every time of day. In my own case, in the morning I prefer an intense, malty Assam, or an excellent Darjeeling “secondflush”, to aid the circulation. Green tea lovers might enjoy a bitter, flavourful Japanese Kukicha or the smoother Sencha... During the day a light tea such as a half-fermented Oolong is advisable, possibly flavoured, or perhaps a light Japanese green tea such as Bancha, or, why not, a “white” tea. Toward evening, fruit infusions, available in all kinds of varieties. A “must-have” in summer, because fruit tea can be used as a base for making non-alcoholic cocktails. Then there are the classic herbal infusions, of course. Add a couple of ingredients, some lime and sugar to a top quality mint tea, nice and cold, to make an excellent non-alcoholic Caipirinha.”
What is the champagne of teas, the most valuable of all?
Calling one tea the champagne of teas is a highly subjective matter. We normally call Darjeeling the “champagne” of teas for its terroir in northwest India, on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, with tea gardens between 800 and 2000 metres above sea level. In this region there are only 80 gardens (I wouldn’t call them plantations) including the top gardens, Castleton, Steinthal, Margaret`s Hope, Soom, and Phuguri. In the Indian state of Assam, on the other hand, the world’s biggest tea-growing region, there are about 2000 tea gardens, including such famous names as Mangalam, Mokalbari and more.”
Which is your favourite?
The most refined tea, as far as I am concerned, is a Japanese green tea, Gyokuro. It’s a 100% shade-grown tea, which means the leaves are kept in the shade for 3 weeks prior to harvest under bamboo or rice cane mats to increase chlorophyll content. This lowers the content of bitter substances, and the result is a highly aromatic green tea which is also very soft and sweetish. It has needle-shaped leaves, in a bright moss green: sweet, fruity and full of subtleties of flavour, a true “must-have”! This tea is served only on special occasions in Japan. It costs about 20 euros per 100 grams, even as much as 180 euros for 100 grams. This definitely makes Japanese Gyokuro the world’s most expensive green tea, and its cost is justified by the way it is produced.”
Mariagrazia Villa

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