Antique teapots and jars of loose leaf tea decorate the Park Hyatt Washington’s Tea Cellar, a tranquil (and not actually subterranean) setting just to the right of the hotel’s lobby. More than 50 rare and limited-production single-estate teas are part of the collection.
The curator of this sophisticated space is Robert Rex-Waller, a “tea sommelier” certified by the Specialty Tea Institute of the Tea Association of the USA. As part of his job, Rex-Waller gets to taste and select teas for the Park Hyatt’s extensive tea list (it’s available around the clock; weekend afternoon tea is complemented by a buffet of sweet and savory finger foods). A large part of Rex-Waller’s job is interacting with guests, providing recommendations and personally brewing tea.
“I think that tea education is often lost in the hospitality industry; people focus more on liquor and wine because they’re a lot more profitable,” he says. “But tea is much more accessible to the masses.”
What’s the most unusual aspect of your job?
The Blue Duck Tavern [the Park Hyatt’s restaurant] has a very rich, buttery menu, and I sometimes get requests for tea pairings. People will pick a tea and say, “Pair a food with this,” or vice versa. I don’t necessarily like doing that because there are a couple teas that I would not recommend.
What food presents the most challenges for pairings?
It’s difficult to pair wine with asparagus. Trying to pair tea with asparagus? I’d totally just offer hot water instead.
What’s a great food-and-tea pairing?
I really enjoy pairing smoky teas with bacon. Any kind of bacon — bacon and eggs, or even a bacon marmalade on our duck dish — [can pair] with a lapsang souchong [a Chinese black tea]. When the tea is still being dried, fresh pine logs are burned around it and so the tea imbibes the flavor of the smoked pine.
What’s the most expensive tea you’ve sold?
I sold a $300 pot of tea once. It’s a 1985 pu-erh tea. It’s rare in that the trees the tea leaves came from, there are just so few of them. So the amount that was actually produced that year — which was a very, very good year for tea — was so minimal. It really is about supply and demand. Also, the Chinese didn’t want to let go of most of it.
For those of us with thinner wallets, what’s the best bargain tea you sell?
We have a 1978 pu-erh tea. There was a fair amount of it made. The dangers for tea are light, heat, water and air, and for one reason or other, this has not been affected by any of those. It’s $28 a pot. And I enjoy that almost as much as I enjoy the $300 pot of tea. Pu-erhs are fermented teas, and so they have a very earthy flavor. It almost tastes like soil. Once you get past the initial shock of tasting like soil, the flavor really starts developing, and it has some wonderful caramel notes.
DIY Tea Tips
Buy loose leaf. Skip supermarket blends that are packaged in paper bags, Robert Rex-Waller says, because the tea inside is often made from “dustings,” discarded scraps of full-leaf teas. The paper packaging also draws out some of the tea leaves’ essential oils, affecting the flavor.
Watch your water. “I know this sounds so silly,” Rex-Waller says, “but people should filter the water before they boil it. The quality of the water is just as important as the quality of the tea.”
Sip as you steep. When he’s steeping a tea for himself, Rex-Waller doesn’t usually look at the clock; he tastes as he goes, until he feels “it hits the spot.” “Most people will know once they’ve gotten to a certain point, when there are flavors that they enjoy.” And don’t forget to remove the tea leaves; over-steeping them makes the tea astringent.Park Hyatt Washington, 1201 24th St. NW; 202-419-6755. (Foggy Bottom)