Hotels push the tea envelope

TORONTO—Tea sommelier Jennifer Commins wants to give tea its just desserts by bringing out local flavours and influences with bespoke blends through her Toronto-based Pluck Tea.

Since launching in February, Commins has built a notable list of hotel and foodservice clients, including The Beverley Hotel, the Shangri-La, Note Bene, Soho House, Mark McEwan and Jamie Kennedy, all in Toronto.
Commins said she is working with Eric Woods, of The Beverley Hotel, to “push the tea envelope a bit.”

The menu at Kennedy’s Gilead highlights the Pluck Tea brand and in mid-September, the Shangri-La rolled out a six-tea menu, complete with dessert pairings.

Seeking inspiring tea experiences

Commins told CLN while there is some resistance to tea, there are foodservice professionals looking for inventive blends. She noted that while coffee has seen a revolution in quality, customers are hesitant to order tea because their experiences haven’t been particularly inspiring.

While crafted tea blends are more expensive—compared to a couple cents per bag—Commins notes foodservice operators can charge between $4 and $8 for a formal tea service. People will pay that much, she added, “if they know it’s done properly.” Commins offers complimentary tea service training sessions to clients.

Commins said tea could complement any style of cuisine. For a Thai restaurant, she suggested a flower petal and jasmine green, for example, while for an Indian restaurant, a custom chai could be developed.

The self-described “entrepreneur by nature” studied cuisines of interest at George Brown College in Toronto. While in the design industry she would take clients to dinner. “It became glaringly obvious that tea was falling far behind,” said Commins.

She noted that Toronto has an “amazing restaurant culture. Why can’t tea catch up a bit?” She pointed out that tea is often the last experience a diner encounters, which could leave a lasting impression.

Commins said tea has always been a calming influence in her life. “I always blended my own tea; it was just part of our family tradition,” said Commins, who completed the tea sommelier program at George Brown before getting her business underway.

Commins looks for local ingredients and suppliers for ingredients as well as local areas for inspiration. Her Spadina Avenue Blend, a black tea, is inspired by Chinatown. She describes it as a fruit-forward lychee blend featuring the flavours of mango, lime, lemongrass and coconut. Prince Edward Lavender was Commins’ first terroir tea created for the Eastern Ontario county’s Terroir Run in May and was served over ice at the finish line.

Commins noted tea is not simply for drinking, but can be ground and used to flavour dishes. She suggests using Lapsang Souchong, a smoky flavoured, spring plucked tea, in shortbread cookies or barbecue sauce.  

“I want to make tea accessible and modern and do it in the most sustainable way possible,” said Commins.