Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tea culture in Mexico; an interview with Claudia Aguilera


Initially published as part one and part two by the TChing tea blog site

As part of helping moderate an international-themed Facebook tea group, and just due to being curious about the subject, I talk to people in different places about tea.  One of those is Claudia Aguilera, a tea enthusiast in Mexico, and founder of  TÉ EN HEBRAS HINDIE, (on Facebook here).  I had previously been surprised to learn that that tea isn't produced in Mexico, although the climate is suitable in places, one part of what she covered.


Claudia Aguilera, Tea Somellier and all around tea ambassador



She answered questions about tea culture there and her experience as follows.


1. Can you say a little about specialty tea awareness and consumption in Mexico?  How large is the demand?  Are there specific types that are popular, eg. Japanese green teas or Chinese oolongs?

Specialty tea awareness in Mexico is something that just started. We can say it has been around for 20-30 years and it’s been built by the new experts along with the tea culture. Still a lot needs to be done, shared and settled in order to see better results and positive answers by consumers. The demand belongs to a small percentage of population and is highly related with the power of acquisition, since having access to it is always an expensive option. 

Because of our connection to USA some teas on trend like matcha are becoming very popular in our country. The thing is very little people know what it really is and why it is becoming so popular, anyways, they are willing to buy it because it’s trendy and related to health, again referring to a small group of consumers. Black teas are known from tea bags, but good quality black teas like Darjeeling do not have much protagonism yet. 

Brands like Teavana, are introducing teas like oolong which is helping people to open the door to new options, most of the times because it’s advertised as a fat-burning product. 


2. How long have you been interested in specialty tea?  What got you started, and which type is your favorite?

I’ve been interested on these types of teas since I had the opportunity to travel to Europe 7 years ago and discover the amazing variety and quality of teas around the world. Later on I became more interested on getting to know the roots. That was the time when I met the Tea Sommelier Certification, and it totally made sense to me, the fact that this complex world needed more attention and study. I honestly have something with oolongs; I love the complexity of its flavors depending on its oxidation, the possibilities of every infusion, the process of production and the art on the leaves. In general, I am very curious and always enjoy a good quality tea, but the journey of discovering makes it all the way more interesting. 


[editors note:  nice answer!]


3. In the US the earlier tea tradition was essentially the same as the British version, black tea prepared as tea bags drank with milk or milk and sugar, and also sweetened iced tea, then leading to floral blends and such.  Were those also the starting points in Mexico?

The consumer behavior with teas in Mexico was not completely like in the US. In this country, since ancient times, herbal remedies were part of the culture, and there is rich knowledge of the uses and benefits of many plants. Every Mexican family has its remedy recipe, mixing different herbs and roots for any ache.  Considering this, we can observe that the Camellia Sinensis introduced itself as another plant but was not really considered for its benefits in the beginning. This information is kind of new to consumers and it has just started to receive some respect and consideration. 


4. Is specialty tea interest developing differently on different levels?  I mean in the US we see people getting introduced to blends, then to different lighter oolongs, Japanese green teas, or maybe better black teas, but then tea enthusiasts might prefer pu’er, Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong instead.

In this case I can say, we are managing it very similarly. I found out the excess of sugar consumption had lead us to sweet blends in order to introduce teas in a friendly way, slowly migrating to specialty teas. Learning and educating our palate is key to really appreciating the real natural flavors. Still there is a big effort needed considering sweet sodas are directly competing with tea drinking.  


familiar aesthetic in a Mexico City shop (Tomás Tea House, photo credit)



5. Are both Western style brewing and Gongfu cha style brewing used?

As tea culture is just starting, the western style brewing is gaining more strength. I can see how us, tea sommeliers, try to first make people aware of the correct brewing methods in order to have a good tea to drink. Gongfu cha is automatically dismissed as it is considered a ritual just for special occasions. Anyways, there are some tea masters teaching this ritual and some tea ceremonies are offered in different places of Mexico. Hopefully, it will gain more attention in the spiritual world and different disciplines such as Yoga. 









6. Is there a connection between Mexican tea drinking and teas produced in South America?

Not really. Teas in Mexico come basically from American and European tea brokers. There is very little concern about tea production in our continent. In our case, only Mexicans attending tea expos get to know there are important places like Argentina and Colombia producing tea. 


7. Per my understanding there is essentially no tea production in Mexico, not even small experimental farms.  Is that correct?

Right! There is no official data about it and no propaganda either. I’ve heard there are foreigners interested in our land for tea production but nothing concrete so far. Although our country has all the potential to start producing, we would need some support from experts. 


tea growing, in Mexico!  credit Lorena Foglio (garden owner; detail follows)



8. Part of my own adopted project is trying to expand on tea awareness in Thailand, using different means.  How do you help develop awareness there?

It’s been a hard and very patient work here. I have always been interested on different ways to share tea knowledge. I started offering tea tastings, short courses, tea pairings on restaurants, cooking with tea classes, master classes etc. The objective in my case is to help people get closer to this amazing product and create awareness about the infinite possibilities. 

Having this as a purpose, I developed a tea Brand (Té en Hebras Hindie) with a fresh and friendly image, and that has established a stronger base to increase tea consumption. With the brand, I can supply restaurants and coffee shops with good quality tea. This has been a very important tool helping me reach more people, achieving better tea consumption instead of bad quality tea bags. Loose tea leaves needed to be introduced and carefully respected. I think we, as tea experts, are making it happen. 


9. What tea type pairs best with spicy Mexican foods, or is that just an American stereotype about the general character of Mexican food?

I can say Mexican food is a fest of flavors; spicy can be definitely a way to describe it since we use many types of chili as base of every sauce. Anyway the variety is huge. I recently worked with the Mexican chef José Hernández on a tea-pairing event and we really liked the results.   Our favorites: 

Torta de Chilaquiles with avocado paired with a Darjeeling FTGFOP 



Chilaquiles is one of the favorite dishes for breakfast, it is basically fried tortilla chips with red sauce; there are many options for the sauce. In this case the sauce is made of different chili, spices and tomato. 


Churros, by Yokot´an Chef owner José Hernández (credit Claudia Aguilera)




Churros de Yuca with Pu’er Blend (Pu’er, vanilla, strawberry and orange)




The Yuca is a fruit and churros is the name given to this typical food, churros actually came from spain but we have our mexican version, these are made with the pulp of the Yuca fruit and a little bit of sugar on the top. Since it has some greasy and sweet flavor, the tea totally matches and leaves a clean and delicious after taste.  




10. Is there any project, or business, or training initiative you’d like to share something about?

One of my projects as a tea sommelier is to keep on sharing the knowledge and of course, to never stop learning. So, in this journey I plan to support awareness and care for our mother nature, looking for the least environmental impact in our practice.  Also, I am planning to develop a campaign against excessive sugar consumption, especially for kids. 


tea garden in Mexico (credit Lorena Foglio)



Others I've spoken to are ready to do their part, related to tea education and running tea businesses.  Lorena Foglio, owner of the BeauTea Full tea business, and Tea Sommelier and Tea Master, contributed pictures of her tea garden, shown here.  It's the only example of tea growing there that I'm aware of, based on limited research and discussion with some others working in the local industry.  It's not really for tea production on a significant scale, it's her garden, but that's inspiring enough to me.  Once the plants gain some size she can borrow some leaves to experiment with.



One person can only do so much in bringing tea awareness to an entire country, and the means to try better teas, but it sounds like Mexico has some great tea awareness advocates working on it.

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