The shop is tiny: pearly tones, a light wood shelf, a few green plants, a range of fine china and blown glass. A Japanese atmosphere. Or almost. The Carouge arcade opens at the back onto a secret garden like only the Sardinian city conceals, with a giant magnolia unfolding its dizzying bloom. And gardens, it is precisely a question here, more precisely of tea gardens, as we call tea plantations. Sujin Lee is one of the rare tea sommeliers, an unparalleled palate who has turned her passion into a business.
Created in London in 2017, recently installed in Carouge, Tea Repertoire offers around a hundred grands crus, several of which have been distinguished in international competitions. Sujin has completed a tea sommelier at the World Tea Academy, based in the United States, and now teaches online courses to students of the prestigious Tea Academy in London. “My studies taught me a lot, but the most important thing is the experience: having a palate and knowing how to discern faults.”
A cat smile
A diaphanous silhouette in her flowery dress, a cat smile and a silversmith’s delicacy, she sets up infuser pots and glass teapot, a thermostat-controlled kettle and cups to offer a tasting. The multiple nuances of the tasting table that she created with a designer evoke the wine world: “If we take this Pu Erh 2011, with its notes of mushroom and earth, its oily side in the mouth, we could. compare to merlot, a little tannic and astringent but quite sweet. Black Forest black tea, a little chocolatey, reminds me of Malbec. While this oolong scented with jasmine flower evokes certain white grape varieties such as Viognier. “
The tea tasting seems even more complex, with its infinitely subtle, evanescent nuances. “A gyokuro very vegetal, for example, can end with light notes of strawberry, lemon, difficult to detect. Old trees with very deep roots will help add mineral notes, toasted coffee… ”
A single tree, Camellia sinensis, is the source of all teas, but there are several hundred cultivars or grape varieties. The mark of the terroirs is added to this, the nature of the soils – volcanic, acidic, drained… – but also the climate, altitude or cloud cover, then the production process, as in winemaking. Imagined by European merchants, the notion of grand cru does not correspond to a strict definition in the field. But it can be used for the Sujin range, which has won multiple awards at the Great Taste Awards.
While studying, Sujin reads, and his notion of cultural repertoire inspires him the name of his company: “I wanted to guide my clients towards the cultural and artistic dimension of tea in Asia.” The tasting of these elixirs also resonates with the music: tender and elegant, with a creamy and silky texture, soothing, Japanese green teas Asamushi Sencha and Gyokuro from Uji evoke Debussy. While the Korean Sejak, toasted, vegetal and flowery, joyful like spring, reminds Mozart… ”
The thirty-year-old business manager was not, however, intended for the path of tea, she who began studying medicine to “respect the wishes of her parents” before turning to linguistics, to travel, spending several years in South Africa, the Netherlands, returning to London to do his doctorate.
“Tea has long been a sideline and I had created a site to help me finance my studies in this expensive city. My husband, Pierre-Pascal, who is Swiss and an entrepreneur at heart, encouraged me to get started. ” “She had a gift, I encouraged her to follow her dream rather than an academic career, although I’m sure she would have excelled there, because she is deeply invested in everything she does. With meticulous attention to detail. ” In 2017, the couple teamed up to create Tea Repertoire and were lucky enough to be offered a pop-up in Soho for the launch.
Sujin grew up not far from Hadong, home to Korea’s oldest tea plantations, more than seven centuries old, at the foot of Mount Jiri. “Choosing the first tea of the day with my mother who was boiling the water for breakfast was always a very happy moment…” Her mother is a big fan and a friend of hers runs a tea room; there are also many amateur clubs. “I was brought up with this passion, which matters more than technique.”
Between 2016 and 2018, she spent several months traveling in Japan, Taiwan, China and Korea. “My mother helped us a lot to create our network. Originally, I thought I would limit myself to around 30 varieties, but we are now at more than 100, including around 15 matchas. We have established excellent contacts with many producers and can continue traveling less, because of the pandemic, by having samples of the new crops sent to us. ”
With cheeses, too
The ancient drink is arousing growing interest in the West, especially as an accompaniment to meals. Among the first chefs to imagine a menu and food-tea pairings, Adeline Grattard (Yam’Tcha, Paris) inspired many others, notably Anne-Sophie Pic. “In China, it is usual to drink tea while eating, Sujin nuance. This cold infused jasmine will be ideal on a yuzu ceviche, very refreshing and sweet for the summer. You can accompany all meals with different teas: there are also excellent combinations with cheeses. ”
In London, chef Tobi Cartwright (Black Radish, Wimbledon) designed with her a card of tea accord. The sommelier is in contact with several Swiss chefs, interested in a collaboration as soon as they can reopen.
What would be his favorite among this fragrant garden of fine wines? “It will depend on the season, among others. This winter, I really enjoyed a Black Forest black tea from the Shandong region in China for its comforting chocolate side, which saved me from falling too often for chocolate. I also really like “jasmine pearls: the leaves are toasted and rolled by hand and fresh jasmine flowers are added to green tea”.
1983 Born in Jinju, South Korea.
2017 Creation of Tea Repertoire in London.
2019 Now teaches at UK Tea Academy.
2020 Opening of the first store in Carouge (GE).