Penn State’s Tea Institute Is Steeped In Asian Tradition

Three times a week, a room in Ritenour Building turns into a ceremonial tea house, fully equipped with dozens of tea pots and tea cups, Asian artwork, and all six types of loose leaf tea from green to oolong. The Tea Institute is not a club, but an umbrella organization that oversees the Traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Tea Ceremony clubs.

The institute runs The Penn State Tea House (蓝白色茶馆), a fully functional Chinese and Korean tea house in Ritenour, where certified club members brew traditional tea according to gongfu cha (功茶). Some members are also paired with university professors to conduct food science research on tea quality.

Jason Cohen, the founder of the Tea Institute, was inspired during a study abroad trip he took to China during his junior year of high school. Cohen visited Kunming with the intent to study politics, but his blond hair and blues eyes quickly identified him as a foreigner, and with his lack of fluency in Mandarin the Westerner deferred his political studies.

His discovery of tea happened by accident, during a visit to a Chinese market. “I went to the tea market and I found this group of older men who would sit around drinking tea,” he said. “It turns out one of them was a tea master.” Cohen joined them for a drink and ended up focusing his studies during his trip on the ancient art.

“I shipped a whole bunch of [tea] back home,” he said. “I got back and I realized I had no idea how to brew. I spent years struggling with no one to teach me in the United States.”

When Cohen came to Penn State, he started The Penn State Tea House, and the three traditional tea ceremony clubs. The ball continued to roll, and the foundation gained its “research arm,” where the institute pairs students with professors who want to conduct tea research.

This past weekend the institute hosted the renowned Taiwanese tea master, Teaparker, to give a series of lectures on tea brewing and its cultural significance. On Thursday, the master, translated by his student Stephane Erler, spoke about Yixing clay and the various chemical components of tea brewing.

After the lecture, participants learned how to identify the age of a teapot based on its brightness, weight, and roughness. With the help of Penn State Tea Institute members, Teaparker explained how to pair specific teas types with the tea ware, and how to properly brew tea.

Anyone can join one of the three tea clubs, or the tea institute, but the most passionate club members aim for a “tea specialist” certification. In order to obtain the title, members must pass the Tea Institutes’ four-hour exam with an 85 percent or higher. The exam consists of a written portion and a brewing portion, judged by Tea Institute executives.

“With the Tea Institute, it’s a highly more regimented and a highly more academic group than nearly any other organization that you can join,” Cohen said. “The reason that people initially come is because they hear about our research or our funding. But once they really get into it, and once they start tasting tea and start learning about it, it becomes it’s own drive.”

“There is this entire branch of knowledge, that they didn’t even know they could learn this much about,” Cohen added.

If you are interested in joining the Tea Institute or any of its branch clubs, be sure to visit The Penn State Tea House, open every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 12 to 4 p.m. in 34 Ritenour.

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About the Author

Claire Marchon

Contributor for Onward State, from the San Fransisco, Bay Area. I am probably the biggest Simon & Garfunkel fan you've ever met; I might also be the only Simon & Garfunkel fan under 50 you've ever met. Either way I think it is very important you know I love Simon & Garfunkel.

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