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The TeaGRAM Podcast • Mar 31 • Ep. #4 - Cheryl Teo, Melbourne tea sommelier and founder of Flag & Spear

Hello, and welcome to the TeaGram, the fortnightly podcast from Rujani Tea. I am Boroon Mahanta. Join me as I host folks from all over the world for conversations around our favourite beverage. Is your kettle on? Is your tea steeping? Perfect. Let's get started. 

Cheryl Teo, our next guest, is a Melbourne local like me. She is the founder of Flag & Spear, which offers tea workshops and tea education. Cheryl is a certified sommelier, but it's the part where she describes herself as a tea hunter that I'm most curious about today.

Boroon: So tea hunter, it sounds like you're the modern-day Lara Croft of tea. What’s the life of a tea hunter like? Where has it taken you? What have you learned? What different types of tea have you tasted? Tell us everything! 

Cheryl:  So tea hunter … it's kind of a little bit cheeky. It came from the imagery of my brand named Flag and Spear. So I liked the idea of, sort of like, going on expeditions or going on explorations searching for good tea. And at the start, I was still pretty new in terms of the breadth of teas out there. I was excited to just try everything and anything. You've been to our tea club before, and you know how everyone brings tea to share. I'm always the one who brings the random stuff. I think when you came to our tea club, I brought the tea gin. So like, that's always been sort of my thing. I'm always looking out for what else is out there, what’s new. I’m just a really curious person. I think my experience in tea is more breadth rather than depth in some areas, and that plays especially well with the work that I do as a tea sommelier. I'm always searching for new flavours and everything. That's sort of where the tea hunter vibe came from. I'm always on the lookout for what's out there. I think as time evolved, and I learned more and experienced more, I became more and more interested, not so much with the tea itself but also with the story behind the tea.

I just love that connectivity. And for those who don't know, I am a telecommunications engineer the rest of the time. So both with my vocation and also with my tea work, I think the common theme is that connectivity, that connection. And that's what I really love. That’s what interests me now in the world of teas. I just love the stories. 

Boroon: Speaking of connectivity, at Rujani, we are trying to connect Assam tea, take it out of the mass market and into the artisanal tea segment. So what do you think of our teas and all of our efforts to make small batch teas popular? 

Cheryl: I actually am a huge fan of what you guys do. I love being able to show people your tea and say, ‘Hey, I know the guy who sells this, and he's like a fourth-generation tea planter.’ I love that connection directly back to the farm, to the leaf, to the plants, to people who actually produce it. And having that provenance between what you're drinking and where it came from is really beautiful to me.

Boroon: Thanks for that. We've tried to emulate some of the work that the Chinese tea farmers have been doing for years now, and we're trying to learn from the best. What do you see as the main difference between what we do, what Assam teas are and what Chinese teas are? Why should someone try either? 

Cheryl: I think the main difference for me is to do with the flavour and also where it fits in, from a personal perspective, where it fits in with me. The interesting thing about tea, as opposed to other beverages, such as whisky, wine, coffee even, is that a lot of people who drink tea are introduced to it from a really, really young age, as children usually. And so I think people have a very personal and strong perspective as to what tea is or what it should taste like. And so for me, I'm Chinese Australian, and I grew up in Australia. Growing up, the sort of tea that I would often drink would either be commercial black tea, what's available at the supermarket, the tea bag tea, or at yum cha, the over-brewed oolongs and puerhs. I still really like them. Sometimes I just really want an over-brewed because it makes me feel nostalgic for my childhood. And for me, Assam tea is nostalgic; it’s a comfort thing. So I actually drink Assam tea every day. If I don't know what I want to drink, or if I'm just like in a rush or often after lunch, it would just be a go-to because it's what I've grown up with. Of course, the difference now is that I don’t drink tea bag teas. I'll reach for a loose-leaf Assam tea like your Assam Orthodox is a favourite of mine for that daily cup of tea that is very comforting and familiar to me. 

I was introduced to Chinese black teas at a later age, so it has a difference. So for me personally, the difference between Chinese and Assam black teas … I feel like it's more of a flavour thing, like your classic Dianhongs or lapsang souchong or Jin Jun Meis, whereas Assam teas are more of a comfort thing. I think there is a difference; I reach for them for different reasons. 

Boroon: Personally, what you prefer, always plays into what you think is similar versus what is different, right? For example, Alexis Kaae, a tea sommelier in Denmark, compares the Tippy Reserve to Jin Jun Mei, and she brews it gong fu style. Whereas most people would brew the Tippy Reserve the Western-style.

Cheryl: I brew your Tippy Reserve gong fu style. For your Assam Orthodox, I just make a big pot of it.

Boroon: Do you think gong fu styles are suited to certain kinds of these then? 

Cheryl: Yes, I do. I think there is certain characteristics in different teas that suit different brewing style. It's kind of like, I get asked the question, Oh, should we add milk to tea? And I'm like, well, there are some teas that are designed to be drunk with milk, you know, that’s their purpose, and so it tastes better with milk. I feel the same way about gong fu style and different brewing methods. I think there are different teas to suit different styles of brewing.

I brew some of your teas gong fu style and some like a Western-style. Where's the boundary between it because I have a little 200 ml teapot that I’ll use to brew your Assam orthodox. So is that gong fu or not? It’s one cup that I use. There is a bit of a blurriness there. At what point does it become gong fu. 

Boroon: I think now more than ever, there are so many more ways to enjoy tea, right, whether it's gong fu style or the Western-style or even enjoying tea like you profess it. So your work at Flag and Spear is about pairing tea with different types of cheeses. What are some of the innovations in how we can enjoy tea that you've taken to people?

Cheryl: I don't know if you can call it an innovation but an alternative brewing method that a lot of people seem to enjoy is cold brewing. For people who enjoy cold teas, it’s just a way to extract a lot of aroma without too much astringency; it's just a beautiful way to enjoy tea cold. Also, I like to carbonate cold brew tea as well. That’s a crowd-pleaser, especially when it comes to people who are abstaining from alcohol for various reasons. A lot of my friends recently have been pregnant and then, and they say they can't get any beverage that tastes good, that isn't full of sugar. So, if I have a dinner party and I'll serve them a champagne flute full of sparkling cold brew tea. They say, Oh, this is so lovely because they feel part of the socialness of it without drinking alcohol, obviously. And also, with cold brew, the caffeine extraction is slightly lower, which is also a concern for some people. So I find that’s really popular, cold brew and carbonation. 

Boroon: When you do your workshops or your trainings, what comes up in conversations? Do people find loose-leaf or carbonation or cold brewing complicated vis-a-vis uh, you know, the use of tea bags, for example? 

Cheryl: I think the thing that I hear the most often is, I work in an office, I don't have time to do loose leaf tea. It's too complicated. Where am I going to store a teapot? And I always say you don't need a teapot for office brewing. You really just need a cup, and it only takes a few, like half a minute extra. So it’s not as much of a barrier as some people make it out to be. And then also when I teach people how to cold brew at home, they're like, is that it? Is it so simple? I say, yeah, I just throw tea in a jar, put it in the fridge and then think about it the next morning.

I think there is a bit of a mental barrier, but then once people actually start doing it, they're like, Oh, this is really no big deal at all. 

Boroon: True. As soon as you've tried it the first time around and you see the benefits of using loose leaf tea and the aromas and the flavours… it makes the first impression, and it's so much more easier after that.

So what's your advice to tea brands like Rujani? On trying to accomplish a sense of educating people about the benefits of maybe loose leaf tea. Of how it benefits both the grower as well as the drinker.

Cheryl: I think just like maintaining that transparency that you already have. I love whenever you post photos of your tea pluckers and things like that. I think having that connection to the source is really lovely. So for me, it's, like I said at the start, it's all about that connection. 

For instance, I often teach about how in teabags it's often up to what, 50 different teas in one tea that they blend together to get that standard aroma and people are shocked. Do you know how many air miles are involved in a teabag? I think just that awareness about sustainability and about ethical sourcing is a huge step in a lot of people's minds.

Boroon: Going back to connectivity, it's been really difficult for us as a small tea grower to sustain given all the market pressures, especially from the big buyers, to make more commodity tea. And it's been really difficult to focus on bringing loose leaf tea, the original leaf tea, back to the market.

So that's good advice. Thanks for that. 

So tell us a little bit about your next workshop and what can we expect. 

Cheryl: I am currently in Western Austria for a little while. So I decided to run a little tea master class while I'm here. My next workshop is basically a Tea 101. So you know, the different types of tea and how they're manufactured, a few tastings of teas from around the world with some little paired snacks. And then, the second half of the class will be about how to brew—giving people practical tips on how to adjust their tea to their preferences because loose tea is not a finished product.

Giving people the tools they need to know how to adjust the teach, suit their own preferences is really useful. What I always tell people is the tea that's brewed well is the one that you like to drink. I feel like giving people the tools to adjust accordingly is a good way to go. I personally, I don't do it this way for other people, but I occasionally really like over brewing my tea. Like I said, it's like a weird preference from childhood. But then, if I brew tea for someone else, I might not do that. But the thing is, I know how to do it, to make it taste the way that I want it to taste. 

So that’s my next workshop. 

Boroon: I am sure your participants are looking forward to that. I look forward to getting back together with you and the Melbourne Tea Club. 

To shop Rujani, click here.

To check out Cheryl’s workshops, click here.