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Secrets Of A Hotel Tea Master

Posted: 11/26/2012 7:00 am

Nowadays, more and more hotels are offering unique services to cater to their guests' every whim. From surf butlers to in-house tattoo artists to pet psychics, the list of luxe hotel amenities is expanding rapidly (and, many would argue, getting more over-the-top every day). Some of these may be gimmicks -- seriously, The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, tanning butlers? -- but other services are more than just asterisks on amenities lists. Dedicated to their craft and eager to educate others on their field, professionals from a variety of industries have been called on by some our favorite hotels to share their expertise-- and we want to hear their stories. Our Q&A series provides an inside look at some of the most fun and, oft-times surprising, services hotels offer. (Check out our first installment, with the Affinia's pet psychic, here.)

We recently interviewed Robert Rex-Waller, the resident tea expert at the Park Hyatt Washington. Tea experts, also known as tea masters or sommeliers, are growing in demand at luxury hotels around the globe. Brewing a perfect cuppa isn't as simple as Lipton would have you believe, and that's where experts such as Rex-Waller step in.

The Tea Cellar at the Park Hyatt Washington features over 50 rare and limited-production, single-estate teas from remote regions of China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and the Himalayas -- and Rex-Waller is happy to help guests discover new, unique flavors during their visits, whether they order a calming pot of chamomile tea or a $300 pot of exclusive Pu-erh tea. Check out our interview!

-- Kristina Fazzalaro,

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  • Robert Rex-Waller’s Chai Tea Recipe

    <em>A Note from Rex-Waller: “People should feel free to alter it to their own particular flavors. I find it works best with the cheese cloth, but the herbs can also be strained out after the fact.”</em> <strong>Ingredients: </strong> *15 Cardamom pods *2 cinnamon sticks *4-5 star anise *10 peppercorns (Rex-Waller prefers black, but any will do) *3 cups whole milk *1 teaspoon fresh ground ginger *½ oz loose leaf black tea (The quality is important but don’t spend a fortune, as the delicate flavors of high-end black tea will be lost with the other spices.) Feel free to add spices like nutmeg, cocoa nibs, lemon peel, or cloves to the cheese cloth bag as well. <strong>Instructions:</strong> Break apart — without crushing — the cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, and anise. Make a small cheese cloth pouch and mix the spices with the ginger. Place in a small saucepan with the milk and bring to a simmer. If you wish to sweeten the tea, you may do so now with any of your preferred sweeteners, but brown sugar or sugar in the raw work best. Let them simmer for about 5 minutes. You can also add a pinch of salt at this time, but first take a taste to see how the flavors are developing — it may not need it. Bring water to a boil in a 1-quart saucepan. Add the tea and boil for a minute or so. Strain the tea leaves out and pour the tea into the milk mixture. Stir and serve, or refrigerate for a few days. It will keep as long as the milk is fresh. <a href="" target="_hplink"> <strong>Enjoy! And see more beautiful photos of the Park Hyatt Washington D.C.</strong></a>

  • What is the most popular tea at the Park Hyatt?

    <strong>A:</strong> “Probably our very classic earl grey and black teas. People feel comfortable with that,” Rex-Waller said. The Tea Cellar’s mint tea, which is a nice mix of spearmint and peppermint, is also popular. “They’re classics for a reason,” he said. “One of our most popular teas is our chocolate elixir, which is brewed with four black teas, cocoa nips, and milk.” Yum! <strong>Q: What is your favorite kind of tea? </strong> <strong>A:</strong> “It entirely depends on the season or the time of the day,” Rex-Waller said. “Nothing says “Thanksgiving” to me more than Indian Chai tea.” In the Park Hyatt’s chai, no flavors or syrups are added — it’s just the natural ingredients. Check out Rex-Waller’s exclusive recipe below!

  • How does one brew a (nearly) perfect cup of tea?

    <strong>A:</strong> “Besides the tea, the water is the most important ingredient,” Rex-Waller said. “All of our water is filtered because D.C. tap water is not known for its tasty flavor. Also, temperature — some green teas can become astringent when boiled too high, but some people want really boiling teas. We’ll do our best to make a perfect cup of tea, but it comes down to the person’s [tastes and preferences].” <strong>Q: The Park Hyatt includes a $300 pot of Pu-erh tea on its menu. What is so special about this particular strain?</strong> <strong>A:</strong> “It’s just a fermented tea,” Rex-Waller explained. “First pickings of any tea — there’s only so much of it — will raise the price. That particular tea is a wild tea leaf. There are tea farms where [the tea plant is in] neat rows and easily accessible. This 1985, however, is from a much older garden that was more haphazard. The 1980s were tumultuous times in China.” Rex-Waller said that bribery to get the tea out of the country often occurred as well, which also raises the cost. If guests prefer not to spend so much on one pot of tea, the Park Hyatt also sells a “lovely 1978 almost as enjoyable for just $28.”

  • Describe your role as a tea master. Do you work in an advisory role to the Park Hyatt? Or do you work primarily with guests?

    <strong>A:</strong> “I work very much ‘front of the house,’” Rex-Waller said. “I’m always working with guests, recommending different teas.” Rex-Waller also works with a team of international interns who come to the Park Hyatt to learn about tea and hospitality. “I still get emails and Facebook messages from interns around the world with tea emergencies,” he said. <strong> Q: How do you go about recommending tea for guests? Do you ask them any specific questions?</strong> <strong>A:</strong> “Tea is a lot more distinctive from flavor to flavor,” Rex-Waller explained. “The untrained palate isn’t going to recognize a Bordeaux from a Cabernet, but Chinese teas have very different flavors from Japanese teas.” Because of these differences, selecting the right tea for a specific taste can be difficult. “But if you ask the right questions, you can figure out what they want.” Rex-Waller begins by asking guests of the Tea Cellar which type of tea they generally drink at home, or order at Starbucks. “That will automatically give me an idea of how educated the person is about teas,” he said. “If they say they only drink Oolong tea, then I might suggest something more adventurous… Novice tea drinkers will use a certain language while more seasoned tea drinkers have more of an idea of what they like.”

  • How did you first become interested in tea?

    <strong>A:</strong> Rex-Waller’s love for tea started at an early age while growing up in Central Africa, where he was raised on full leaf English tea. But when Rex-Waller studied the Chinese language in college, a new world of teas opened up for him. “I traveled to China and Japan in college. I haven’t made it to India, Sri Lanka, or Tibet yet, but I would love to,” he said. After his Chinese studies kindled his interest in tea, Rex-Waller enrolled in classes at the Specialty Tea Institute of America. And there, a tea expert was born. <strong> Q: How does one become a tea sommelier, or tea expert? Is there one specific term for your profession? </strong> <strong>A: </strong>“My official title is Assistant Tea and Beverage Manager at the Park Hyatt,” Rex-Waller said. “It kind of depends on what part of the industry you work in… There is not a guild of tea sommeliers like there is with wine…there is no one to dictate who does what and what the title is,” he explained. Rex-Waller prefers the title “Tea Master.”


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