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Chemistry prof replaces beaker with tea cup

Friday, May 8, 2015

On the threshold of becoming a newly minted tea sommelier, Mercyhurst University chemistry professor Clint Jones finds himself steeped in a whole new world.

Like a wine expert, a tea sommelier is a person who has training and expertise in how teas are made, how they should be brewed, how they achieve their flavor and what their potential effects are on the body and mind as well as how to pair the beverage with various foods, much like one would do with wines.

It began one day a year and a half ago when Jones decided he would order “some really good tea,” not the one-size-fits-all teas that many are familiar with, but something decidedly different. He opted to sample Sencha, a steamed green tea from Japan that produces a sweet flavor reminiscent of tender steamed veggies and fresh seaweed.

“From the very first sip, I was hooked,” he said.

He immersed himself in the study of tea, and it is vast. There are six classes of tea: green, white, yellow, oolong, black and pu-erh, which originate from several countries in Asia, among them Japan, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Korea. Additionally, there are herbal teas originating in Asia and Africa.

Jones has spent the past several months traveling between Erie and Pittsburgh to complete the International Tea Masters Association course to achieve the ITMA certified tea sommelier designation. He expects to take his final exam May 22. A passing grade will allow him to serve as a tea sommelier at an upscale restaurant or tea house, a hotel, tea business or start his own enterprise.

Jones isn’t thinking about leaving his Mercyhurst gig any time soon, but he has brainstormed with a local salon owner about combining their specialties, pairing a haircut, color or manicure with a cup of specialty tea and a quick lesson on its merits. His ultimate goal is to educate and advise individuals to help them find their perfect cup of tea based on their favorite smells and tastes.

While Americans still love their coffee, tea is definitely making a play for their palates. In fact, it is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc.

“I think it’s the next big thing in America; people just don’t know it yet,” said Jones. “Instead of grabbing your morning coffee on the fly, you sip your tea and savor. It’s a whole different experience.”

Jones’ passion hasn’t been lost on his students. He’s already cultivated converts who brew and sample tea with him. Always the teacher, he has even found a way to infuse the aromatic beverages into a research project.

“We are looking at ways to detect and extract a molecule in tea known as ‘L-Theanine,’ which is found in green tea and in a mushroom that grows in France,” Jones said. “That molecule is known for affecting mood, cognitive functioning and even relieving arthritis pain.”

Jones said his students are developing new methods for extracting and quantifying the molecule in various teas from across the globe. “You could say they all think it’s a tea-rrific idea.”