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Beyond Karak: A tea sommelier reveals the secret to a perfect cup

Follow the author on Instagram: @yru_here

The preparation of tea has to be particular because if you’re not doing it precisely, there is an after effect — it can be on the taste, it can be on the colour or the flavour.

These words stayed in my head as a series of ingredients were presented before us by Kenyan tea sommelier Maureen Karyuky. The ingredients were placed on crystal containers paraded on a wooden board and came in different forms — some recognisable as leaves while others were processed just like those you see on tea bags sold at the grocery stores.

“Not a lot of people know that there are different brewing methodologies to get different results. There are many factors that affect the flavour including what water you use, how long you boil it and at what temperature. The quality of the tea is dependent on how well you know your tea’’, she explained.

Under the calm, breezy sky of Dhofar and overlooking the relatively calmer Arabian Sea, the more she talked about the details of the proper tea making process, I can’t help thinking of how simple my friends usually make karak tea whenever we go on camping.

Karak tea is an addiction whenever we go on long road trips. We know where to pick the best karak from Fins all the way to Ras Al Hadd. If my Omani friends make it, it’s a simple process of boiling water, dumping a bunch of random teabags, a tonne of evaporated milk, a cup of sugar and yes, mostly, cardamons.

I’ve never really paid attention to what goes into the boiling pot. All I know is that I have a particular flavour profile of karak tea that I like and absent one of those ingredients, I complain that it’s not up to the standard. Only when Maureen deconstructed the whole process did it make sense what true art tea making is.

I really did not understand tea before coming to Oman. In fact, I always ended offending people when I say that there’s no big deal about it since it’s simply putting tea leaves on boiling hot water. The Japanese and the Chinese will totally be embarrassed by me being Asian at all. On an untrained palate, all tea tastes the same — watered down, sometimes bitter and only made sense when there’s sugar. What’s a good tea? Before Oman, my answer will be milk tea with bubba. Two years in Oman, it’s chai and karak.

“When someone prepares a tea and I taste it, I can tell you many things about it and whether the person knows how to make one very well’’, Maureen shared. All I can think of is that we can never bring her camping.

Maureen has been in Oman for 3 years. Now based in Mirbat, she is the tea sommelier for Alila Hinu Bay providing guests with some of the most memorable tea experiences one can have in this part of the country.

Tea is just a tea, NOT

With Kenya being one of the world’s top producers of tea, Maureen’s passion for it did not blossom until she started working in Dubai. As a lifestyle and events hostess, she was given an opportunity to work in the Lobby Lounge where high tea was usually served. While her country was an exceptional source of tea, she also didn’t have an idea what the difference between black and green tea was.

“For me, tea is just tea. I struggled when guests were asking for green tea or black tea as I didn’t know the difference. With curiosity, I decided I want to learn more about it and that’s when I fell in love with the whole process and the art of tea making’’, she said.

“During my time learning about tea, I discovered that it’s a vast vast field and that there’s a wealth of knowledge that I have to learn and know by heart. I went on to study almost everything about tea — their sources, their origin, how the ingredients are processed, their flavour profile and what food they usually go well with. It’s really interesting having to go through the whole journey‘‘, Maureen added.

“My becoming a tea sommelier started out as a self-study. Eventually, my then manager at a resort became my mentor. She was a certified tea sommelier that trained in a Canadian School of Tea. It became an apprenticeship of sorts and it’s from that hands-on experience that my knowledge grew and expanded. If you put a series of ingredients in front of me or make me taste a tea, I will be able to tell what that ingredient is, what’s its origin and what its flavour profile.“

Other than Kenya, China, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey are the largest producers of tea usually ranking as the world’s top producers. Japan and Indonesia are also two of the countries producing the best teas in Asia while Turkey and Iran are notable within the MENA region.

Maureen comforted however that just because you don’t know about the art of tea yet that it’s totally out of your league.

“There are a lot of people out there who have a problem differentiating between teas. In fact, this is a common concern that they can’t really tell the difference. But to appreciate tea, you have to either learn about it or grew up in a household that has a high appreciation for the whole concept. It was upon my study that I learned what I learned. This knowledge comes with practice and exposure’’, she said.

How to make the perfect cup

“As a tea sommelier, I have tasted over a thousand different ways how to prepare and mix and match tea. Teas are actually very flexible. If you love pomegranates, we can make a concoction that blends the tea well with pomegranates’’, she added.

The most common teas, Maureen explained are white, green, oolong (a mixture between the green and the black) and black tea. White is the unprocessed one while black is the fully processed, fully oxidized tea.

“Those who are really into tea, they might ask for really premium quality ones or well-processed ones that come from specific regions. There are teas that are expensive because they are only produced in small quantities and come from a specific region of the world’’, she said.

“As a sommelier, my goal is always to ensure that I brew the perfect cup of tea’’, Maureen shared.

Asked how that is made, she explained, “There are many people who complain that their tea is bitter. Tea making is about understanding a lot of different factors including the temperature of the water and the ingredients used. To get the perfect cup, I would suggest identifying which type of tea you love. Once you have identified the ingredient, you can do a few readings on what temperature works well with your chosen ingredient. You can also expand your knowledge on what mixes well with that concoction and what its effects are. As an art, it takes patience and understanding. But the more that you dedicate time to learn what works for you, the better your tea experience become’’, she said.

“Or, I can gladly recommend and show the process to you. But that would require a visit to Dhofar and in our property where we have afternoon tea available for our guests’’, she invited. You can follow Maureen on Instagram @maureen_karyuky or @alilahinubay for details.

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