Just over a year after we lost John Harney and months after we said goodbye to Steven Smith, the tea world must now bid farewell to another respected and well-regarded specialty tea pioneer, David Walker.
Walker, 72, was known for his kindness, generosity and his tremendous knowledge of tea from garden to cup.
Born and raised in Kenya, Walker was a graduate of the Prince of Wales/Nairobi School. He then completed a national service stint in the Kings African Rifles in the years before Kenya obtained its independence. “I started off (in the tea industry) as a 21 year old, after school and military service,” Walker told Tea Source’s Bill Waddington in a 2011 World Tea News profile. “I was an apprentice to a tea and coffee planter. In those days we had a long drawn out apprenticeship where you started off in the field, working under the field officers. And you learned all about the planting material and selections, cloning, pruning cycles, and everything that is related to the actual growing of tea. Then you moved into the factory, and studied the manufacture, what happened at each stage…”
After his years apprenticing with Stansand Ltd., he opened Walker Tea Corp. in New York in 1973. He was an importer and tea broker, bringing tea to new audiences. In 1990 Walker was asked to assist in the rehabilitation of a tea plantation and factory in Uganda. This led to new directions in his tea career. He began working with USAID to travel to countries like Nepal to assess tea production, to provide guidance on the interests of the American tea market and to try to connect factories with buyers. After decades of working primarily with CTC, he returned to the experience of his early career, refocusing on the orthodox teas that were gaining interest in an emerging specialty tea market.
Walker advising tea growers in Kenya
In 2001, Walker and Nigel Melican began working together on a two year project with the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA) to promote the concept of orthodox tea production. They traveled throughout the country, visiting more than 50 tea estates; along the way, Walker spun tales in his unique and entertaining style.
“One reminiscence which particularly struck me, never having left UK shores until I was 20, was about his visits to England as a child,” said Melican. “David was born in Kenya in 1942 into a colonial family. I had always assumed that well placed colonials would travel by P&O steamer on their visits “home” but David’s father was a modern man and the family flew, making several visits by flying boat from Southampton to Mombasa. This trip by a BOAC Short Solent flying boat lasted three days with overnight stops at the harbor in Alexandria, on the Nile at Khartoum and down to Mombasa. That experience alone marked out David as a special person to me.
“As we worked together on that project I began to fully appreciate his down to earth practical knowledge of tea – and it was as a result of the KTDA specialty tea project that both David and I Started specialty tea companies, both run by our respective daughters.”
Walker continued to consult throughout the Americas and Africa. In early 2011, he launched his newest venture, bringing smaller lots of specialty teas from Africa to the United States. He spent his last years traveling between Africa and Florida.
In addition to his invaluable efforts with tea in Africa, his contributions to the American tea industry cannot be understated. In addition to his own business and his consulting work, he also served as one of the first World Tea Expo advisory board members. “When I started World Tea Expo, there were very few from the traditional tea world who understood what we were trying to create,” says George Jage, World Tea Expo founder. “David understood it. He embraced it. He wasn’t afraid to learn about a new way of doing business, to taste new premium teas entering the market, and to befriend a new guard leading the way to the industry’s growth. David was a dear friend to me, but more so to the specialty tea industry. Not only will his shoes be tough to fill, there will never be another who paved the paths he did.”
Walker’s presence at World Tea Expo is remembered by many. “David and I would meet most years at World Tea Expo late at night at the Hilton lounges and talk tea,” recalls Brian Keating, principal at Sage Group Networks in Seattle. “David was simply one of the most fascinating tea men I have ever known. His late night stories about the African and global tea trade were not only keenly insightful, but evoked images like pages out of a novel, except they were a very real part of David’s illustrious tea career spanning decades. We have lost a beloved tea industry treasure.”
“The tea industry is peopled with men known for courtesy, integrity, and deep knowledge. David Walker was one of the best of these. I had the honor of calling him a friend for the past six years, and the amount I learned from is astonishing—always delivered with grace, kindness, and respect. The tea industry, his friends, and his family will miss him greatly,” writes Tea Source founder Bill Waddington.
Walker and Chandra Bhushan worked together in Nepal where Bhushan who is Managing Director at Tea Direct produces tea at Sandakphu Tea Garden. “David has seen the world like no other from Africa to the soothing mountains of Nepal. I have learned so much from him and he will remain in my heart for ever and ever again. His work here in Nepal continues to grow. He will be remembered forever,” write Bhushan.
Kim Jage, former partner at World Tea Media and currently CEO of Frost Jage Productions, also expresses gratitude to Walker for his kindness and enthusiasm as he assisted her in the development of the North American Tea Championships. “David could reach across borders – cultural, age, gender, experience – and connect with people like no one I ever knew before. He always focused on how we could help one another. Even with all his incredible talent and experience, he left his ego at the door, and expected you to do the same in order to succeed together. He deeply respected the leaf, the Earth, and all people within the supply chain. He was a guardian of tea.”