Michael Obnowlenny will soon be Canada’s first tea sommelier

Michael Obnowlenny

Kyoto Cherry Rose is the flavour Michael Obnowlenny orders for afternoon tea at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel. While he can’t decide on a favourite, this is the one he prefers at this time of day. The mild green tea is pleasant, he says, “with what I call light, afternoon tastes.” True, most people have probably never heard of Kyoto Cherry Rose, and might not describe tea as tasting like the afternoon, but Obnowlenny, soon to be Canada’s first certified sommelier of tea (sommelier being a title usually reserved for those formally educated wine experts), is convinced this is going to change.

In terns of interest and demand, “Tea is where wine was 20 years ago,” Obnowlenny says, adding that he’s noticed an increase in the popularity of tea over the past five years. “The same is true when you compare tea to coffee.” In fact, Canadian tea consumption soared to 90.7 litres per capita in 2003, up from 56.6 in 1997. “The younger generation is embracing it because of the avant-garde flavour combinations,” Obnowlenny explains, adding that the majority of the Royal York’s tea goers are now under 40.

The Toronto landmark has been hosting afternoon tea since 1929, and the repast is now served in the Royal York’s Epic restaurant. Obnowlenny has recently expanded the tea program, which currently incorporates, among other things, children’s tea, for which kids get their own menu that includes goodies such as tea “popsicles,” their own plate of sweets and, for their parents’ sake, herbal or decaffeinated tea. The service is supervised by wait staff to ensure hot tea doesn’t end up in anyone’s lap. Another Obnowlenny innovation is the “power tea,” during which suits from neighbouring Bay Street offices talk shop over crumpets, berries, finger sandwiches and pastries, topped off with a tea of their choosing. This setting takes the edge off business deals by placing execs in a new environment and providing them with something other than dollars to talk about. “We probably have one power tea a week,” Obnowlenny says, adding that the entire tea program now represents about 10 per cent of the restaurant’s business.

Although Obnowlenny is mainly self-taught, he calls Gerry Vandergrift, one of Canada’s top tea importers and producers, his mentor. Obnowlenny has taken advantage of Vandergrift’s extensive knowledge of Asian traditions, as well as his personal relationships with tea gurus in India and Japan, but he admits that his passion for tea began with a family connection. “I really owe a lot of this to my Scottish grandmother. When I visited her, we always had afternoon tea, and when you’re young, you’re just taking all that in, and you don’t realize the impact it’s having on you.” As he got older, he continued to read whatever he could about the tradition and to taste as many flavours as possible; to date he’s sampled more than 1,000 teas. His thirst for knowledge was further satisfied during a three-year stint at Starbucks in Toronto during the late ‘90s. While he was a store manager, the coffee giant bought premium tea company Tazo; the acquisition gave Starbucks a new product line, and provided Obnowlenny with access to all of Tazo’s tea material. With this new library of information, he began teaching tea- and coffee-knowledge classes in Starbucks storefronts and at Chapters bookstores. As many as 30 men and women, mostly in their 30s and 40s, attended each class, and Obnowlenny eventually created an advanced level for those looking to further their education.

Now he’s back in an educational setting, working with the Tea Association of Canada and George Brown College in Toronto. In the spring of 2003, Obnowlenny approached Louise Roberge, the association’s president, about developing a tea-sommelier certification program. Using his skills and expertise as the benchmark, the program is expected to launch in January. “Michael is the instigator. He’s the one who came to me and said he wanted to be a certified tea sommelier,” Roberge explains. This fall, Obnowlenny, Vandergrift and a small group of tea professionals will be the first to complete the course to ensure the curriculum is of a high enough standard before it’s rolled out at the college. “We’re very excited about this,” Roberge says, “because there is no tea sommelier certification anywhere else in the country.”

This article originally appeared in Saturday Night magazine.