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North American Tea Conference 2018

It's been on my calendar for several months, always way off in the future, at the end of the summer. And now it has come to fruition. I just spent a few days at the Hilton in Niagara Falls attending the North American Tea Conference. Every other year the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada (THAC) hosts the conference. Tea USA hosts it in the States in the alternate years. I make it an annual educational update and networking experience, and as usual this year's conference was just as packed with new ideas, connecting with tea colleagues and being inspired as it always is. Though it is called North American Tea Conference, in actual fact it is attended by representatives from every tea producing country in the world.

For me, it started with a session under Kevin Gascoyne, co-owner of Camellia Sinensis in Montreal. I signed up for 'The Rare Tea Experience' a few weeks earlier since attendance was limited. Kevin lectures all over the planet, runs two tea schools, does workshops, conferences, field consulting and trade development. He has been buying teas from Asia for 25 years and has a reputation for finding some of the rarest and most unique teas on his travels. He is also the author of several books and a founding member of the Tea Studio, an experimental tea factory in South India. Needless to say, I was intrigued by his humble presentation of 10 different teas that I have never tasted before nor would would ever be able to purchase because of their cost! It was a treat to taste a green tea harvested from a single 130 year-old tree with a big root system on the Phoenix Mountain in Southern China. The infusion was so clear, pure, light and golden. I loved every sip.

Another tea that he shared with us was a China black tea dated 1986, aged by one of the three factories that survived the cultural revolution, Xiaguan. I have never tasted anything like it before and to be honest aged teas like puerhs are generally not 'my cup of tea' as they tend to be very earthy, dark, barn-yardy and a bit heavy for my liking. The aroma of the sample he shared with us reminded me of a freshly ploughed and manured field! The only reason I tested my palate was because it was considered a rare and exotic tea! 

I was pretty full by the end of the 2 hour session, but also mesmerized by this world of mysterious and mystical teas.

I moved on to the Gold Medal Tea Competition where over 50 teas from various estates around the world were being cupped by master judges. While that was going on we heard reports from Kenya growers who exported 415 million kgs in 2017, Sri Lankan growers, whose teas have the reputation of being the cleanest tea in the world and Rwandan producers who exported over 16 million kgs primarily to Pakistan.

While all of this was going on we sipped Virgin Lapsang Caesars, mocktails made with infused smoky lapsang souchong tea, tomato juice, pickled bean and a slice of bacon. The rim of the glass was dipped in a combination of salt and ground lapsang souchong. Did I like it? No! But I'm all for trying something at least once!

More educational sessions followed before we were ushered into a fun evening of food and music! A pub-like buffet was our supper fare and then an evening of karaoke! The new chairman of the THAC got the ball rolling with a musical welcome.

On Wednesday, the AGM of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada (THAC) was the first I have sat in on in the 10 years that I have been a member. What an honour to be a part of this organization! It keeps us up to date on topics of government and CFIA regulations, Fair Trade and sustainability across the globe, as well as offering seminars and workshops to its members. The Tea Academy (from which I am finishing the Tea Sommelier program) is active and thriving. Regular newsletters and a quarterly online magazine called Sip are just a couple of projects that keep us informed. I am appreciative of the devotion and commitment of the Association and its board. 

One of my favourite sessions was held in the Myst lounge on the 33rd floor of the hotel. Kristina Inman, faculty member of Niagara College hosted 'Perfect Pairing,' a Wine and Tea with Cheese hour. I am quite excited about hosting one of these sometime in the near future. The ambience with the view of the falls provided the perfect setting.

Kristina paired Niagara Chardonnay and Darjeeling 2nd Flush with a beautiful creamy brie. Then she had us taste a Niagara Merlot with an aged smooth cheddar. The tea that she used to compliment the cheddar was Keemun, not unlike the Merlot in that it has a rich berry taste. Lastly she served a Niagara Icewine (berries stay on the vines until a temperature of -8 is reached). When they are picked (in February) they resemble frozen raisins. This wine was super sweet and definitely needed a strong cheese to balance the palate a bit. So she paired it with a Stilton blue cheese. Her tea of choice was the Lapsang Souchong - a pine-smoked tea that one either loves or hates! It was quite interesting to taste how the tea paired with the blue cheese - two distinctly strong flavours.

The day closed with a gala five course dinner and the announcement of the Gold Medal Tea and Sustainability Award winners. 

On our last morning we got to enjoy the tea that had won the overall award at the conference with our breakfast. It was a China black tea from the Sichuan province. It was light with a complex flavour. Two presentations followed: The first an introduction to Botanicals, and the second an overview of the value of 'Influencers' and social media; what's trending, and how can we as tea promoters have a role in the growing movement. And with that, it was time for me to go!

As I headed to the airport on the Niagara Air Bus I was in brain overload! So much information given! It was an informative and challenging conference. I am thankful that I will be receiving all the lectures in my dropbox before too long and I can sift through and review the many ideas presented again.

In the meantime, and on a completely different note, I am currently experiencing a much anticipated event- meeting my new grandson, Owen, in Texas. Life is good. Life is beautiful. I shall return to Prince Edward Island ever so happy! Wishing you all a beautiful fall as we move into October! 

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1 comment

Melanie Mountan

Thank you for the overview of your trip! Sounds so fun, and interesting. It is on my bucket list to attend both a session with Camellia Sinensis and the North American Tea Conference.

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