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Behind the scenes with the UK's first Tea Sommelier

18th March 2010

When you venture out for afternoon tea it's easy to pick your favourite blend - but if there's a special menu of exotic teas it'd be a waste not to explore them further! But where do you start? A tea sommelier can help.

We caught up with the UK's first dedicated Tea Sommelier, Karl Kessab, at former Top London Tea-winning venue and current Award of Excellence holder - The Lanesborough Hotel.

As well as drawing guests from around the world, the landmark hotel is one of the capital's key destinations for tassophiles. Fans of traditional British afternoon tea flock to the elegant Apsley's restaurant to indulge in delicious tea-time treats. Having undergone a recent refurbishment the restaurant is filled with light and cleverly manages to mix classic elegance with bold modern design. It's the perfect venue for a relaxed get-together with your girlfriends or a civilised power tea (scrap the power lunch - tea is the new time to do business, don't you know?).

There are several scrumptious set teas to choose from… The Lanesbourough Tea is served with finger sandwiches, pastries, toasted teacakes, scones (served with home-made fruit preserves and clotted Devonshire cream) while The Belgravia includes all of those treats along with a bowl of strawberries and cream and a glass of champagne. Gluten and dairy free afternoon teas are available too and every meal is accompanied by your choice of tea from the extensive menu, which is where Karal Kessab can help.

At The Lanesborough your tea will be served in silver samovars, inspired by Russian urns of the same name which were originally used to heat water. Karl Kessab - the UK's first Tea Sommelier - on the UK Tea Council websiteSince the 1700s a fire fuelled by pinecones would be lit in the bottom of an urn to boil water. The British adopted this method to make tea during the late 18th century and now the tradition has been revived at the hotel. The samovars also help the tea to be brewed at it's optimum temperature - different blends require specific temperatures for best results. To ensure that you receive a cup at it's absolute peak, all the teas are tasted every day too. As tea is a natural product it can vary throughout the seasons so a daily check ensures it's still in perfect condition.

It's when it comes to deciding on which brew to choose that you could get into difficulty! The mouth-watering descriptions on the dedicated tea menu describe dozens of tempting blends. We've seen indecisive guests plunged into blissful confusion! Some of our favourite descriptions include…

"Long, soft and downy, Silver Needle is composed of hand-picked, first spring buds of the Da-Bai tea plant. It comes from Fuding, a serene region with waterfalls and clear lakes. The peaceful setting is reflected in the flavour: soft, mellow, with the freshness of honeydew melon and the soothing sweetness of a ripe cantaloupe. It’s an easy-drinking tea that’s ideal to relax with."

"Only 200kg of Iron Buddah Tieguanyin (Rare), a medium fired Oolong, are produced every year. It is fired and oxidised in the traditional way to give a beautifully satisfying flavour of roasted hazel and Autumn fruits."

"Dragon Well Green Tea is one of the most sought after green teas in the world. After picking, each individual leaf and bud is hand-pressed and shaped in a wok to achieve the perfect level of roasting. This process creates a tea with an emerald infusion that tastes of sweet chestnuts."

And that's only three out of the 30 teas and tisanes currently on the menu! The only option is to call on Karl Kessab to guide your choice… But how can a tea sommelier help? You'll have probably come across sommeliers advising on wine in restaurants and it's the same concept - just without the alcohol! When a guest asks for Karl's expert advice he is on hand to "guide people and help them match up to four teas a sitting with their food, as well as informing them about the history of a style (of tea). I'm also able to craft something else to suit a guest’s mood by shuffling some leaves and applying the magic touch." Brilliant!

Karl revealed how he became at tea sommelier to Tea.co.uk. Having grown up in Algiers, Karl admits that it's "ironic" that a non-Brit has nailed the very British tradition of afternoon tea so perfectly. "Tea is an inherent part of the culture in Algiers but I refined my interest in the UK. Throughout my career I worked with brokers and suppliers and, over time, I acquired the standards required to become a tea sommelier. It's also with the help of The Tea Council that I have been able to progress in the industry by attending workshops with The Tea Council, as well as through my own research."

Having worked in the food and beverage business throughout his career, Karl has run The Lanesborough's restaurant for over 15 years and was integral in introducing the Tea Sommelier service. "It's very satisfying to have been a part of the innovation in the tea service at the hotel," he admits. The introduction of a dedicated tea sommelier has also inspired other tea venues across the country - several members of The Tea Guild now employ tea sommeliers to advise guests around the country. But how can a passing interest in tea become a career? Karl has a deep passion for the nation's favourite drink. "I have always taken a great interest in tea – there are so many mysteries that are still to be unravelled about it and I am continuously learning about it every day."

Interior of a tea hall at Apsleys - on the UK Tea Council websiteBut what does a tea sommelier do during an average working week? Karl works between 12 and 14 hours a day and often takes his work home - although he does find time to relax by running and playing polo. We took an exclusive peek into Karl's diary to find out what happens during a typical week… Every day starts with Karl being on duty during breakfast service. On Monday, this is followed by a meeting with the hotel's pasty chef to work on tea-infused pastries for the afternoon tea menu. After the lunch service Karl meets with tea suppliers to take delivery of a batch of teas and taste the samples. Later, he's on tea sommelier duty in the restaurant, dealing with guests and advising on their tea choices. After breakfast on Tuesday Karl has time to work on new blends for the breakfast and afternoon tea menu. Lunch follows before a stint of tea sommelier duty while late afternoon sees internal tea tastings take place. In between tastings, service and tea sommelier duty Karl also finds time to research emerging trends through contact with suppliers, books, the internet and The Tea Council.

With all that tea surely Karl has a favourite? He does - it's the connoisseur's choice - darjeeling, "I consider it to be the ‘champagne of teas’ and love it because it's an all-day drinking tea. It's not complex and can also be blended with other teas." Karl is a passionate drinker of fresh mint tea too, "I drink it religiously!" he admits. Karl also drinks plenty of filtered water each day to cleanse his palate between his daily tea tastings.

In the future, Karl has said he'd love to own his own tea place where he could continue to work closely with rare teas but Karl still loves his current role, "I am passionate about my job and I happily get out of bed each morning! (Even) fifteen years ago we knew so little about tea and there was so little on the market but today we know so much more and have access to a wealth of teas. I love the fact that everyday I am still learning and discovering something new." So do we!

The Lanesborough, Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7TA / 020 7259 5599 / www.lanesborough.com


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