Judith Krall-Russo Interviews Jason Cohen


In late January (2012), I  was invited by my friend Drew Hanson to attend Hatsugama – translated as “first kettle”– the Japanese New Year celebration in Philadelphia. As I waited with other guests in the botanical garden for the event to begin, I had the opportunity to meet Jason Cohen, founder and director of The Tea Institute at Pennsylvania State University. Jason had traveled four hours by bus to attend Hatsugama, so I knew he was serious about tea. I asked him if I could  interview him for my web site and he agreed, after many phone calls and e-mails, we were able to connect. 


How long have you had an interest in tea?
In 2007 while studying politics in Kunming, China, which is not an easy subject in China, I accidentally became interested in tea. In 2008 I did a follow up project on the Makibari Tea Plantation in India. While Makibari produces amazing teas, I found I have a much greater affinity to the cultural depth and history of the Tea Ceremonies. In 2009 I trekked across China, Tibet, Nepal, and India visiting plantations, tasting teas, and studying the culture. That was all before the Tea Institute.

What was your impetus to start The Tea Institute at Penn State? Is Penn State the only institute of higher learning that has a Tea Institute?
I founded the Tea Institute because there is a culture of tea being lost; the main goal of the Institute is the Study and Preservation of all tea ceremony. It is the only place in the United States where someone can go and learn various styles of all three ceremonies (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), and learn them for free. We are the only University with an Interdisciplinary Research Institute dedicated to tea anywhere in the world.

How has the Institute grown since it was first stated?
We have grown from 3 members in our first semester, to 12 researchers in 5 fields of study, and about 40 club members across our 3 student organizations. We expect to double the number of researchers by the end of next year, 2013.

I read that you are developing an Academics Tea Library at The Tea Institute. How many papers/books/digital files have you acquired to date?
The book and article collection is still very small, maybe only 25 books or so; but the Tea Library also includes the Institute’s physical stock of tea, and the reviews of teas. We have about 150 teas at any given time, and have had about 400 teas over the last 2 years. We probably have about 1000 reviews of tea by our 12 Institute members.

Will this library be open to the public?
Yes, the library is open during tea house hours.

Are classes/exhibits open to the public?
All of our events, lectures, and presentations are free and open to the public.

What events are planned at the Tea Institute for the remainder of 2012 and going into 2013?
We plan to have three Urasenke Chanoyu presentations throughout the year. The Chanoyu presentations will be with Drew Petersen, an Urasenke Tea Master and two time Penn State alumni.  There are also plans to fly in Scott Wilson of Yunnan Sourcing and Ji Hai the Tea Master behind Hai Lang Hao – a pu’er label.

Is a tea certification program in the Institute’s future?
We actually already have one! All of our researchers are Certified Tea Specialists. All researchers started out as club members and tested into the Institute though the Tea Specialist Examination, it’s a 3 hour test and includes 8 written essays, tea identification, vocabulary, flavor analysis, and brewing.

How long does it take to be certified?
It takes most of our students between 1 and 2 semesters to pass the Tea Specialist Examination. About one third fail the first time; but that is starting from scratch and I suspect someone with a background in tea would have a good chance of passing after 6 weeks of intensive study with us.

Can the public be certified by the Institute?
The Institute will certify anyone who is interested and who can pass the test.

What plans do you have for the next five years?
I have a start-up company, Analytical Flavor Systems, based on my research; I am also looking into starting a tea plantation on the side of a volcano in Panama with another Institute member who specializes in tea breeding and propagation.

This summer you will be in Korea on a tea study tour. How many people are taking the Korean Tea Study Tour? Can you tell me more about what you wish to learn and accomplish.
The Institute has received a very generous grant by the Paik Inje Memorial Library at Inje University to start our Experiential Learning Program Abroad in Korea. I will be helping Brother Anthony of Taize (and Sogam University), Dr. Pak of Inje University, and Tea Master Hyo-am in leading four of the Institute’s students in the study of Korean tea culture, tea production, tea history, tea ceramics, and general anthropology for about one month in South Korea. Our goal is to bring back that knowledge to Penn State and begin teaching Korean Tea Ceremony at the Institute. 

And finally, I have to ask: what is your favorite tea?
In my position, I don’t get to have a favorite… I drink well over 2 ½ gallons of tea a week, and go through 3 different teas on a normal day. Even teas that I love can taste different on a rainy day or when the temperature has dropped or if I use our new vs old tetsuban… the range is astounding!  I try to enjoy whatever is in my cup/bowl/gaiwan/thermos (even if it happens to be a bad brew, there is something it can teach you)!

Jason currently attends Pennsylvania State University. He began college in 2009 as a triple major: political science, economics and anthropology. His research now is in food science and data mining with an emphasis on flavor analysis and artisan goods.

For more information about The Tea Institute please contact Jason at: jmc5840@psu.edu

For tea house hours contact: Penn State Tea House, 34 Ritenour, University Park, PA 16802
Phone – 305-747-1238

On Facebook – The Penn State Tea House


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2006 Judith Krall-Russo, L.L.C.
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