In their own words…
Jennifer Commins, Tea Sommelier
TAC Tea Sommelier, Jennifer Commins, can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t love tea. After a career selling furniture, Jennifer shifted gears into the tea industry and today is at the helm of a growing specialty tea company in Toronto. “This certification was critical to my success in the industry” states Commins. “Learning to evaluate teas properly, and to understand the subtle nuances that can be coaxed from each terroir and processing style are skills I use daily in my interactions with suppliers and customers.” With over 40 teas in her product line, Jennifer designs tea offerings to suit restaurant client menus and is committed to working with local, Canadian grown and sourced ingredients for her tea.
Q+A with Jennifer Commins
What is your earliest memory of tea?
I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love tea. My dad grew up in the UK, and tea was part of our house. At age 9, he taught me how to make a ‘proper’ cup of tea: Preheating the cups and pot, using his favourite brand, waiting five minutes, then adding milk to adjust the colour of the tea to his perfect Pantone beige. If anything ever happened in the family, the first thing to do was boil the kettle for tea. I learned early that there was no situation in life that a cup of tea could not improve. I grew up with the knowledge that there were some people in the family who ‘could not be trusted’ to make tea, such as an aunt who would save her soggy used teabags on the edge of the sink.
Favourite TAC Tea Sommelier module?
I really enjoyed the sustainability aspect of the education in Tea 105 From Bush to Cup. Debating the merits of the various tea certification bodies that are competing to be the ‘gold standard’ was fascinating, and sometimes quite troubling. This module taught me to ask good questions to my suppliers, and to make informed decisions in terms of what I deem ’sustainable’. The tastings were always a joy – and the day we created our own ‘English Breakfast’ blend was a highlight.
If you could drink two teas what would you drink?
A fine lightly oxidized Taiwanese Oolong, and Pluck’s CTRL+ALT+DEL blend. (Lemon and ginger notes, perfect pre-bedtime)
Where in the world has tea played a role in your travels?
In 2012 I visited South Africa where the highlight was watching a herd of wild elephants while drinking a fresh mug of rooibos tea on safari. A close second would be waking up in a tent in Peru and being handed a hot cup of coca leaf tea on a frosty morning en route to Machu Picchu.
What is next for you?
As Pluck Tea grows, so too will our commitment to sourcing Canadian ingredients. I am currently looking at planting several more acres of mint in Ontario this spring, procuring ingredients from new aboriginal partners, and creating innovative new blends.
Have you always worked in the tea industry?
Before Pluck I sold office furniture. Becoming a Tea Sommelier was the obvious next step.
In what capacity are you currently working in the tea industry?
I am the CEO of an emerging specialty tea company called Pluck Tea in Toronto. We hand blend over 40 varieties with locally grown and sourced ingredients, and serve restaurants primarily.
What role did the TAC certification play in your career?
This certification was critical to my success in the industry. Learning to evaluate teas properly, and to understand the subtle nuances that can be coaxed from each terroir and processing style are skills I use daily in my interactions with suppliers and customers alike. The industry was foreign to me when I started out, and the TAC certification helped me build a road map to success and quickly build rapport with my new colleagues.
What are some of the highlights and challenges presented with working in the tea industry today?
Working with tea allows for endless creativity, and I love working alongside our restaurant clients to help them design their tea offering to suit their unique and varied menus. However, tea remains an afterthought for the vast majority of potential foodservice customers out there. This in my view is a missed opportunity for restaurants to delight their customers at the end of the meal – right before they decide whether they are coming back, how much to tip, and if they are going to have dessert. Good tea is good business.
What current trends in the tea industry excite you the most?
The opportunities that the specialty tea industry has opened up for the tea world as a whole are really thrilling. People are excited about trying new teas all the time, and are willing to pay a fair price. This means that companies such as mine are able to source ethical and sustainably produced teas and pay farmers a fair price for that tea. Driving the cost per cup a few cents northward is the best thing that can be done for the quality of life of people working on the tea estates. Also, the integration of tea and food, whether by pairing or by adding tea to foods or mixed drinks as an ingredient is really exciting.
Interview with Academy of Tea