- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Every tea tells a story, and Jueun Jung is there to help narrate.Miss Jung is the tea sommelier at the Park Hyatt Washington. Though most downtown luxury hotels have afternoon tea, the Park Hyatt is the only one with a dedicated tea expert to match people and blends.

The Park Hyatt serves 53 types of teas, ranging from a $6 pot of flowery Earl Grey to a $300 pot of 1985 Royal Reserve Pu-erh.

Like a fine wine, the 1985 pu-erh is rare, aged, handcrafted and complicated.

“1985 was a year the Chinese pu-erh was just right,” Miss Jung says. “We are very proud to have this tea.” Granted, the $300 pot is not the best-seller here, but a tea sommelier helps match personal preferences and get drinkers to try new things.

“When guests come to tea, I ask them if they have any preferred flavors,” says Miss Jung, who received formal training in her native Korea as well as at Johnson & Wales University in the United States. “I learn about what they will be eating. I ask if I can make a recommendation.”

All real teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis; the difference in classification comes from the amount of fermentation and the processing. The teas at the Park Hyatt fall into five categories:

* Green tea, not fermented, made with minimal processing.

* White tea, made from the first-flush leaf buds, with the least amount of processing.

* Oolong tea, partially fermented.

m Black tea, the most common type, with the most fermentation and oxidation during processing.

* Pu-erh, very expensive because it is aged and rare and, fans think, has additional medicinal benefits.

Also available are performance tea with floral accents, which is made from a variety of sources, including plants and flowers, and herbal teas, which are a collection of herbs and not really tea.

Guests may read the tea tasting menu and learn about the nuances of a particular category by tasting several varieties.

For sophisticated tea drinkers, it is not about a tea bag and a cup of hot water. The supplies are brought to the table, where the guests can watch the tea brew in glass pots. Miss Jung advises how long to let the pot steep before drinking. Sugars and other sweeteners are available by request; they are not on the table so they won’t interfere with the pure flavor of the tea, Miss Jung says.

Park Hyatt spokeswoman Avishag Kichel says the tea service appeals to the wide range of international travelers that frequent the hotel. The teas come from China, Japan, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, Egypt, France and Argentina. In the hotel’s Asian-inspired Tea Cellar, the teas are displayed behind glass in a tea humidor.

“We wanted to offer guests a unique experience to complete their stay here,” Miss Kichel says. “There is an art to hospitality and an art to tea.

“We are a to-go society,” she says. “It is nice to see people sitting down and enjoying the time it takes to have tea.”

Despite coffee shops becoming so ubiquitous, shops specializing in teas also have increased as more Americans are drinking more tea. Consumption has increased nearly tenfold in the past decade, according to the Tea Association of the USA Inc., a trade group.

About 127 million Americans drink tea on any given day, according to the association. A combination of factors are at play: the growth of tearooms and restaurants and the availability of tea at the corner coffeehouse; people from other cultures moving to America but retaining their tradition of drinking hot tea; the growth of world travel and its impact on the sophistication of American palates; and multiple scientific studies touting the health benefits of tea.

Elizabeth Knight, former tea sommelier at the St. Regis Hotel in New York and author of several books on tea, says a few years ago, this type of job description did not exist. Tea drinkers’ palates have grown more educated, along with their desire for knowledge about tea’s origins, health benefits and taste.

“People are getting more interested in tea and more sophisticated about their choices,” she says. “For a long time, going to tea was about scones and finger sandwiches. What was in the pot was almost an afterthought.”

Not so anymore, although pastries are still part of the experience at most tony hotels. Ms. Knight says she expects the field of tea experts and sommeliers to expand.

“Every city hotel serves tea because you have to be able to offer your guests a meal in between lunch and dinner,” she says. “But it is getting more and more difficult for hotels to distinguish themselves from others. People expect more at every level about travel - what they eat, what they wear. It is not enough to just serve English breakfast blend.”

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