by Jodi Helmer
Kevin Michael Doyle knows how to brew and pour the perfect cup of tea.
Doyle, the tea sommelier at the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Phoenix, Arizona, has spent more than a decade learning the nuances of different teas and brewing techniques and sharing his knowledge with guests during the iconic afternoon tea events. Here, he shares insights into choosing teas and working with chefs.
Sizzle Magazine: Were you always interested in tea?
Kevin Michael Doyle: I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for 40 years. [In 2007, the Arizona Biltmore] asked me to take over the tea service. I said, “Absolutely not.” I was working at the fine dining restaurant and loved it; I didn’t want to give it up. They thought I’d be good at it and, to convince me, they sent me to experience an afternoon tea.
It was the first proper afternoon tea that I’d been to and they sent me to a place where they thought I was going to get wowed. I was offered a huge list of teas and no direction and the service was mediocre at best. I came back to the Arizona Biltmore and said, “The wow factor never happened… and if that was to be the best afternoon tea in all of the town, I’ll take that position and show Phoenix what the best afternoon tea can be.” I took on the job and it’s the best decision I’ve made in 12 years.
SM: What does a tea sommelier do?
KMD: My main responsibility is planning and hosting the afternoon teas, which are held at 12 p.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday. We also host private tea parties and princess tea events for children. I choose all of teas we feature on the menu and create the overall experience for our guests.
SM: How did you develop such a deep knowledge of tea?
KMD: You learn. You read. You taste. I have taken classes and attended conventions but, really, most of what I know about tea has come from on-the-job training and a deep interest in learning everything I can about the teas we serve.
SM: What makes the afternoon tea at the Arizona Biltmore special?
KMD: It is a wonderful experience and we have a lot of return guests who have been celebrating special events with us for many years. We serve beautiful, warm, just-made-that-morning scones with apricots and golden raisins; champagne gelée with edible wildflowers; finger sandwiches on artisan breads; and individual desserts like lemon lime tarts, chocolate cake and clotted cream from Devon, England. The food is divine.
It is afternoon tea and we want the tea to be just as special. We have a selection of black, green, white and oolong teas; all of the teas that we serve are hand-harvested and fair trade. There are about 12 to 15 teas on the menu at any given time and at least 10 teas that aren’t on the menu, teas that I keep in reserve and bring out to share with our guests.
SM: Do you switch up the menu each season?
KMD: Oh yes! The menu changes at least three or four times each year. I think teas are very seasonal. There’s an orange spice black tea with cinnamon and cloves on our menu that is certainly more for the fall and chai tea just smells like Christmas. I do want our teas to reflect the seasons but I also adjust [the menu] for other things, too.
On the rare occasion that we have rain in Phoenix, I don’t want to serve something basic; I want to bring you a tea that will warm you up. Chai is great for a rainy day because it has all of those beautiful warm spices. Or, when it’s very hot outside, I’ll make a white tea with the sweetness of pear and ginger and flash chill it so it’s sweet and refreshing.
SM: How do you work with the chef?
KMD: We work very closely on tea pairings. If the chef makes lavender scones, I’ll serve a beautiful lavender Earl Grey tea and when he prepares smoked salmon, I will pair it with a light peppermint tea that cleanses the palate. The chef will come to me and tell me what he’s looking for to prepare a smoked duck or other tea-infused dish and I’ll make recommendations for teas that would work well.
SM: Are there other elements of being a tea sommelier that you would like to explore?
KMD: I have always enjoyed teaching and I truly love educating our guests about tea. After all these years of experiencing afternoon tea and elevating our service standards, I might like to travel the world and visit our properties that have afternoon tea to see how it’s done and work with them to make suggestions to perfect it.