Photo courtesy of Dan Robertson
Dan Robertson is the founder and owner of The Tea House and World Tea Tours, based in Naperville, Illinois. Like many tea professionals who have been in the business 10 years or more, Dan had to educate himself. When he began, there were no Specialty Tea Institute courses, tea tours, or a tea expo, so he created his own itinerary and traveled to tea-producing countries to study the cultures that produced the leaf in all its varieties.
Dan speaks Chinese and has studied the ancient culture for nearly three decades. Since 1997, he has researched, organized, and led tours to give leaf lovers a unique hands-on opportunity to experience tea—the drink, the meal, the culture, and the business.
Known for his warm and engaging style, Dan conducts tea-training sessions and tea-ceremony demonstrations in his showroom, where visitors can taste more than 300 teas at the professional tea “cupping” station. He also writes and lectures for trade and private groups, delighting audiences with tall tea tales and tea lore.
TeaTime caught up with this footloose ambassador of tea on the eve of his return from a tour of India. Dan cheerfully fielded questions while sipping King-Tie Guan Yin tea and balancing his “wiggly, giggly” daughter Fiona on his lap. Ever the educator, Dan explained that his current brew is made with jade green leaves rolled into small pellets. The floral aroma is captivating and rich; the complex flavors are so exquisite that this grade of oolong is called “king.”
Q: You once owned a video production company that made documentaries and other educational programs. How did you transition from that into the tea business?
A: I went to one teahouse too many. In 1994, after two years of preparation, I traveled to China to produce a documentary on tea, For All the Tea in China. I spent a month interviewing tea experts and filming teahouses, gardens, factories, universities, hospitals, museums, and historical sites. In Wuyi Shan, in northern Fujian Province, I watched a pretty girl take 15 minutes to brew a cup of tea. It struck me that preparing tea in that careful way could have been exactly how it was done, in the same place, a thousand years ago. After I returned from another month’s visit the following year, I decided to start my business and relied on some of those same experts.
Q: Why did you start your tea tours?
A: There is no one way to make tea because there are so many different varieties. Visiting tea gardens around the world helps you understand the culture and techniques that grow out of each region. When you see tea being plucked and prepared, you understand how much labor is involved. I wanted to share my experiences with other tea lovers, so I started my first tea tour—to China.
Q: What kind of people go on your tours?
A: Tea-business executives, tearoom owners, authors, consultants, people who want to start a tea business, people who like to travel, and those who are passionate about tea. I keep the groups small—10 people is ideal—so we can make the tour personal, have unique access to people and places large groups can’t manage, and also enjoy a mix of planned and spontaneous experiences.
Q: Tell us about some of your favorite tour experiences.
A: On a safari through the Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka—still referred to as Ceylon in the tea world—we had a very cultured afternoon tea in the open savannah, where we were charged by one of the elephants. I didn’t get that one on video, but I do have witnesses.
On the tamer side, our group visited a private home in Beijing, China, where my friend Auntie Wang taught us how to make dumplings to savor with our tea. Another time, we made our own Pu-erh tea cakes. This is one of China’s oldest teas, sometimes taken as a digestive aid. The fermented leaves are famous for their earthy aroma and taste.
We also bused and hiked to see the ancient 1,700-year-old tea tree in a rain forest. On the way back down the mountain, we were surprised with a bonfire barbecue. The guide made us tea by plunging a tea tree branch into the fire’s embers for a few minutes to “roast the leaves” and then stuffing them into a piece of bamboo filled with water. The bamboo was shoved into the fire until the water boiled for campfire tea.
In India, our group attended a tea auction and participated in the bidding. This was the first time foreigners had ever bid in the auction. We also visited the spot where Dr. Archibald Campbell planted the first tea plants in the 1830s, some of which are still there.
Q: Where are you going next?
A: Japan and South Korea. In April, we’ll delve deeply into our study of Japanese teas. We’ll also visit lavish palaces and humble temples, ancient historic sites and modern cities and serene tea gardens and bustling tea factories where we’ll taste dozens of exquisite teas right at the beginning of the season. We’ll continue our tea education with four days in South Korea. Korea has been making tea for as long as Japan but is much less known in the West. In January 2011, I’m very excited to be returning to Ceylon for an 11-day tour, with four days following in Vietnam.
Q: How can readers learn more about upcoming tours?
A: Just visit our Web site, WorldTeaTours.com.
Q: Which teas are attracting more interest than in previous years?
A: I’m very happy to see more people asking about and enjoying oolong teas. There are fewer of these in the market compared to blacks and greens, but in my opinion, they can be much more complex and rewarding. Also, customers are trying better grades of teas, realizing that the price difference is not really that much, considering what you get. Multiple infusions are common with very good teas.
Q: What’s your breakfast cuppa and your wind-down cuppa?
A: Ha, not a fair question! I live with tea, so they get jealous if I play favorites. I don’t usually drink the same tea day after day, although sometimes I will drink Darjeelings for a while and then switch to, say, Dragon Well. I do my sample cuppings around 10 each morning, and I often continue to drink my favorite from the day’s tests. I must say, though, that when work is done and I’m quietly reflecting on the day, I tend to reach for my King-Tie Guan Yin.
The Tea House is located at 24125 W. 111th Street, Naperville, Illinois. For more information, phone 630-961-0877, or visit theteahouse.com. To obtain the DVD The Art of Chinese Tea—The Tea Ceremony, featuring a demonstration and a tutorial on the gongfu style of tea making that the girl in Wuyi Shan used, contact Dan Robertson at email@example.com.