Las Vegas in July is a torrid 100 degrees plus and the tea expo takes place here every year at this time of the year as if to empathize with the agony of the tea leaves as they are steeped in boiling water! It’s remarkable how tea enthusiasts and businesses alike congregate here to display,exhibit,advice,learn,showcase skills,teach and network over 3 days in the true spirit of teamanship. The growing and processing of quality teas has become such an intricate art and science today that its a sense of even national pride to produce and showcase award winning teas leading up to the exhibition. The Taiwan Tea Association was there in all its Formosan pride to show the world its progress in coming up with new cultivars of tea with its unique flavor profiles and so was the Ceylon Tea Board who had sponsored the numerous small tea producers who have mastered the art of boutique style blends and leaf styles to bring out the best in the leaf. One remarkable product from a Sri Lankan estate was a complete 100% content golden tip tea that had been processed using an electronic color separator technique! I would have loved to have tasted the tea which unfortunately was for display only.
The Chinese exhibitors who usually make up the largest contingent were present in full force with the entire breadth and depth of products ranging from the delicate white teas to the earthy Puerh teas and from the intricate Yi Xing pots to the industrial tea tins of all shapes and sizes. Of course the only drawback with the Chinese exhibitors was the minimum quantities that had to be ordered for shipment out of China which would place them out of the direct buying scope of many small businesses in the retail and even wholesale sector.The Indian pavilion had some great estate teas from the famed Assam and Darjeeling regions and also displayed their prowess in producing great packaging concepts at very competitive prices. Sadly the only missing element this year were the Japanese exhibitors who for obvious reasons did not attend due to the terrible consequences resulting from the devastating tsunami that hit the country.
In addition to the exhibitors from the big 5 tea growing and producing countries (although Japan was not represented this year) there were a number of international and North American exhibitors who displayed the added value and creativity that accompanies tea and all it stands for. From exotic tea blends and foods to beautiful accessories and teaware the range was impressive to say the least and showcased the ingenuity and small business acumen of those living far from the tea growing lands as if the inspiration from this magical brew wafts across the globe to awaken the creativity of those who are entranced by this ancient magical leaf.
For the first time visitor the experience can be a bit overwhelming as there is so much to take in and process but for the seasoned visitor the process becomes a well planned out exercise in acquiring and understanding the world of tea and its paraphanalia. The doors to the exibition itself open at 11am and goes on to 6.00 pm , but there is plenty happening in the form of educational seminars starting as early as 8.00am which cover a broad range of topics from basic to advanced knowledge and skill building and mastering techniques in addition to the latest research and findings from the tea industry. For those daring to venture out into the world of tea business, there are a number of successful tea entrepreneurs and professional who give their insights and tips and share their experiences.These seminars can range from the very practical to the philosophical and zen like sessions to suit all types and mindsets.
Besides the educational seminars, in the exhibition halls itself there are a number of challenges ,competitions and talks which are of varying degrees of interest depending on what you are seeking to discover or learn. There is the tea infusions challenge where 4 or 5 well seasoned tea experts or professionals steep different teas before a panel of judges who then declare a winner based on their collective wisdom. Steeping tea may appear to be a very simple chore but these experts make it into a dramatic art form by bringing in to the process a serene , meditative and carefully choreographed sequence of rituals and mantras to brew the perfect cup! The judges of course taste the teas and ask pointed questions from the participants before declaring the winner. The audience too is invited to taste the teas and form their own opinions and compare their verdict with the judges.
Some of the bigger booths occupied by the bigger companies who sponsor the exhibition have a guest speaker to talk about interesting anecdotes and facts related to tea and one person I look forward to listen to is James Norwood Pratt who arguably is the greatest literary authority on tea today! He has authored a number of books and he was signing his latest release “The ultimate tea lovers treasury”. A well written book in his inimitable literary style and filled with stories,fables,anecdotes and facts about tea and its journey through the ages. I also met Babette Donaldson who writes children’s books on tea and she too was signing her books and announcing her latest release this fall “Going Gongfu” which captures her journey in to China as experienced by Emma the central character in her books. I quipped that the book should probably fall into the category of a new genre called ‘faction’ which as you would have guessed is based on factual experience but narrated through the experience of a fictional character! Babette in fact did like the idea!
One inspiring and motivational aspect of the exhibition is that you get to see and meet people who have started out in business in a small way and made it through the trials and tribulations to now proudly exhibit their products or talk about their experiences or have sold their businesses at attractive multiples and are keen to share their stories. There was Amy Lawrence who built one of the most successful tea rooms in the west coast famous for her afternoon tea service and sold it for a handsome profit and now spends her time as a consultant and writer on tea. There was Jesse Jacobs the owner of Samovar tea lounge in San Francisco who is the Zen entrepreneur of tea and practices the art of peace whilst sipping tea! Incidentally, it was whilst sipping tea paired with a meal called Jook at the Samovar lounge that I got the inspiration to pair different teas with foods from all over the world. The most transparent and prolific blogger on tea Charles Cain of Adagio Teas was also present giving talks on everything from boot camp for tea entrepreneurs to the art of training staff. In fact the t-buds interior display design was based on the Adagio model in their first retail outlet in Naperville Illinois.The diversity is mind boggling!
Even after the official Expo closes its doors after 3 days the learning and networking goes on by courtesy of the Speciality Tea Institute of North America (STI) who conduct their courses and exams leading to the STI certification of tea expert or consultant. The course consists of 4 levels from the basics of tea right through to to the technology of tea.These courses have been put together by tea experts and masters across the world and conducted by experienced professionals in the tea industry who have a prolific and practical knowledge of the subject. For anyone desirous of understanding and learning all about tea these courses are one of the best in the world. You could take up to 2 levels over the two days and level 3 consists of 4 stages which are levels by themselves! Yes, there is more to tea than what’s in your cup!
Of course, last but not the least are the visitors to the expo. You meet all types from the budding entrepreneurs and tea professionals to those who simply want to revel in the aura of tea! Two colorful people I met in the later category were actually tea sommeliers from Toronto who were literally soaking it all up. I met them on the first day in a blending class where they were concocting blends as if they were close to discovering the elixir of life! On the last day of the expo. I met them as they were rushing through the aisles looking for great last minute deals they can get from weary exhibitors who were looking to sell off some of their display products! That’s the spirit I thought to myself- have fun ,discover and grab a good deal!
Well I wouldnt call it a storm in a tea cup but if you can imagine thousands of cups swirling in a desert storm you might get a better picture!