The "Tea" on Tea: Ashley Lim, Certified Tea Sommelier | Founder & CEO, Mansa Tea
Fun fact: Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, after water. Ancient lore (courtesy of Google) says that the fragrant beverage originated in China in 2737 BC, when a Chinese emperor was sitting under a Camellia sinensis tree while his servant boiled drinking water. The wind blew some leaves from the tree into the water and the emperor decided to try the drink that his servant created by accident. Needless to say, it was a hit!
Today there are many types of teas, depending on their oxidation levels: green, yellow, oolong and black, and many ways to enjoy it from bags from the supermarket to delicate, aged brews, which have elevated the experience to something akin to fine wines, perhaps even more nuanced. Tea is also considered to have many health benefits, which we can all use.
To learn more about tea, we've turned to Ashley Lim, Certified Tea Sommelier and the Founder & CEO of Mansa Tea. She's worked with Michelin-starred restaurants to hotels, such as the Baccarat Hotel in NYC and others, to offer tea experiences that educate and delight.
How did you get into tea, and what inspired you to start your brand?
I have grown up around handcrafted aged tea. My tea enthusiast dad used to bring pu-erh tea, the most famous aged tea in the world, and share it around the family table. But aged tea was not a love at first sight for me. He'd enthusiastically describe how sweet the tea was and how great cha qi (or energy of tea) was. But I often found the tea quite bitter to my untrained palate.
From tasting with your Dad, how did you become an aged tea expert who enjoys aged tea? Two crucial changes allowed me to develop my palate for aged tea slowly. First, I changed my brewing method to gongfu style using a Gaiwan––a Chinese way to brew tea with a lot of leaves in a small vessel. And second, I discovered great "gateway aged teas," teas that showcase qualities of aged tea in a beginner-friendly way. The combination of the two changes helped me taste the sweetness and nuances of aged tea and, most importantly, fall in love with aged tea.
What inspired you to start your own tea company?
As my tea journey went from "I don't get it" to "my favorite tea is aged tea!" I realized that I could help other tea lovers enjoy beautifully aged teas that are both flavorful and sustainable. Aged teas do not lose flavor quickly like green teas; instead, they gain flavor complexity over time. So I launched Mansa Tea to introduce tea lovers to aged tea in a beginner-friendly way so they can engage in this eye-opening world of tea connoisseurship. Because life is too short to drink bad tea!
Indeed, life it too short to drink bad tea! What trends are you seeing in tea drinking and how can hotels incorporate into their food and beverage offerings?
Here are the top five trends happening in tea right now:
Beyond the green and black teas: Green and black teas have long dominated the tea market as the most popular types of teas, excluding herbal teas. These days, more tea drinkers are expanding their selections to oolong and white teas, thanks to their easy-going fruity and floral flavor profile. Some tea drinkers have even ventured into pu-erh teas and other aged teas, my favorite type of tea.
Loose-leaf over tea bags: Most tea drinkers prefer loose leaves as they are more environmentally friendly and of higher quality than mass-produced tea bags. Even the sachets often used for "higher quality" tea bags are scrutinized for their negative environmental impact. As a result, more companies have released more loose-leaf options at different price points.
Single origin, non-blended teas: Most teas are blends of different teas unless all the leaves are from a single tea tree. However, in a more colloquial sense, when we use the word "blended tea," we are referring to mixing tea leaves from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant and other ingredients, such as herbs, fruits, or flowers. Contrast such blended teas with single-origin teas that highlight the flavors of specific terroirs from diverse regions. More tea drinkers are looking to experience the complexity and nuances of the purest form of tea. Look out for teas that highlight not just a specific province but a specific mountain or even estate.
Tea pairing: Wine pairing has been around in the fine dining scene for a long time as a beautifully paired beverage can enhance and introduce multiple layers of flavors to your favorite dishes. With increasing health-conscious and sober-curious diners, restaurants began experimenting with tea pairing and non-alcoholic pairing programs. Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised the first time you try a tea pairing. It won't be the last time.
Tea cocktails: Tea cocktails have taken off in the cocktail scene. It used to be a niche cocktail often served at Asian restaurants. Nowadays, you can easily find tea cocktail mixers at local grocery stores and enjoy your boozy tea at home.