Thursday, February 2, 2017

Steep Thoughts: David Campbell of Tillerman Tea

David Campbell of Tillerman Tea
I'm excited to bring back interviews to the blog, and I've decided to call them Steep Thoughts since we get to go behind the scenes and learn more about folks in the tea industry.This week I'm excited to present David Campbell and his company Tillerman Tea.  The company features beautiful Taiwanese teas from growers that are sustainable and environmentally friendly in their practices. Learn a little bit about David's experience and passion for tea in our interview.

I noticed that you worked extensively in the wine industry. How does knowledge of wine production, and tasting help with your tea journey?
I worked for some 30 years in the wine industry and have been in the tea business since 2007. Wine and tea serve as metaphors one for the other. Although wine is the more ancient drink, there are historic parallels in the way the two beverages expanded into general use in western (wine) and eastern (tea) society. More importantly, there are strong affinities in the ways to approach tea and wine appreciation. We use the same sensory apparatus in enjoying and tasting both and we use the same sort of descriptors to refer to each. The big difference is that tea, as opposed to wine, needs to be brewed before it can be appreciated and this brewing is absolutely crucial in influencing the taste of tea. I have written about the parallels between tea and wine history, production and tasting in "Some Personal Reflections on Tea and Wine" in Cousineau, P. and Scott Chamberlin Hoyt (eds.) The Soul and Spirit of Tea New York, 2013, Talking Leaves Press

How did you find the producers you source the teas from?
I have been travelling to Taiwan (and China and Japan) regularly since 2002. Early on, due to my interest in tea, I used my free time (I was there for the wine business) to visit tea gardens and to meet the growers. Those I met introduced me to others and so forth. Many of these growers have become fast friends and things simply proceeded from there.

Photo Courtesy of Tillerman Tea
What are your criteria for choosing a producer? 
It is important that I have a strong personal relationship (guanxi) with a producer. And that really only has time to develop if the teas are exceptionally good. I also look for producers who care about the environment and are stewards of their gardens. I have no patience for producers who are uninterested in sustainability.

Why focus on Taiwanese oolong teas?
Simply because I love Taiwan and its teas. I am at a stage in life (old) where I can do what I love – and encourage others to come along for the ride. I am not sure whether I love the teas because I love Taiwan or whether I love Taiwan because I love the teas. There is so much to know and learn about tea that it is impossible to do it all well. It is impossible to do serious direct sourcing in multiple tea producing countries and do it well. I want to do exceptionally well with authentic Taiwanese oolong tea rather than moderately well with many teas.

The Asian palate is very different from western consumers. Can you tell us if this played any part in selecting teas to sell in the US?

If I were focusing on multiple teas, the western palate, I suspect, would lead me to carry more black tea. Because I focus on Taiwanese oolong tea, however, I can search out the very best tea available (according to my palate – which is a western palate.) A large part of the role I have given myself is in education. It is in exposing westerners to authentic Taiwan oolong tea.

When did you discover your passion for tea?
I have been drinking tea my whole life (although I currently live in the US, I grew up in Canada) and have always enjoyed tea. My passion was really ignited, however, when I was in graduate school and stopped drinking coffee (I haven’t had coffee in over 40 years.)I have used those years to look into as many aspects of tea as I can. Tea became an “all consuming” hobby that has since developed into a business – but it still really a passion and I learn new things practically every day.

What’s the biggest challenge of selling your teas online?
The huge challenge is to get people to visit the website ( in the first place. Once someone is there, it is my job to educate and to offer exceptional products at acceptable prices. I am very concerned that the margins in the tea business (online or brick and mortar) generally are very much higher than they ought to be. Too much goes to the middlemen; too little to the producer.

David's favorite mug 

Do you have any personal tea rituals?
Yes. At least once a day I try to take the time (at least ½ hr.) to slow dawn and go through a formal tea preparation, usually just by myself. This time becomes a space away from the general hubbub of daily life. This quiet personal time is very important. Apart from that, I drink tea all day long– brewed in gaiwan or yixing pot but drunk from my old chipped Wedgwood mug.

Thank you so much to David for taking the time for our interview. To learn more about Tillerman Tea, stay tuned next week for a tea review, and check out the Tillerman Tea website.

No comments:

Post a Comment