Meet Rob McCaleb, Global Tea Championship Judge

Rob McCaleb is educated in cellular biology and botany and has applied his extensive knowledge as an ethnobotanist to the tea industry in the areas of product development and marketing. He founded and presides over the Herb Research Foundation and of Natural Healthcare Inc., and wrote The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs. While he was Celestial Seasonings’ research director, he strived to improve the overseas tea and botanicals sourcing. His specialized knowledge and experience make him an exceptional asset for the Global Tea Championship. He will be a judge in the September competition.

What sparked your interest in tea?
I’ve been a tea lover since my very hedonistic teen years. Always the gourmands, my brother and I sought out the affordable indulgences in gourmet shops—tea most of all, but also cheeses and other deli fare. Compared with coffee—especially the bland ’60s coffee—tea offered an amazing variety of styles and flavors. Even as teens, we could drink the best teas in the world.

How/where did you learn about tea?
Just liking tea and shopping for it is an education. The more you learn, the more there is to learn. The wonderful flavors and aromas of tea are even better knowing about the health benefits of tea, the science, the cultures of tea worldwide, the ceremonies and global trade—so many fascinating aspects of tea. My knowledge took a giant leap when I joined Celestial Seasonings as the research director. Knowing all about tea and herbal tea was literally my job.

What kind of tea research have you done and what are some of your findings?
My career has included every aspect of developing and marketing teas: international production and trade, regulatory affairs, exhaustive searching of global botanical, horticultural and medical research. As founder of the Herb Research Foundation, camellia tea was just one of thousands of plants we researched. Tea is a stellar example of a safe, effective botanical health product that happens to also be a gourmet delight, a global passion and a personal ritual in the lives of billions. As for findings, there are so many. Scientific research on tea shows benefits on virtually all parts of the body, from teeth to liver, kidneys and heart, to cells in general, protective effects against toxins, oxidative damage and cellular alterations.

What are your criteria for judging hot tea?
It starts with aroma and color, your first glimpse of the tea. But in the end, the flavor is everything. We’ve all had teas that looked too light but tasted great, and ones that smelled unremarkable but proved to have surprising depth.

Do you judge any other tea competitions?
No other competitions, though I have trained and led professional flavor evaluation panels.

What do you hope to see in the competition this year?
Just great teas, whether through innovative blending, or selection of sources and methods. It is an incredible privilege and honor to taste our way through the best teas in the world. No doubt there will be delightfully difficult decisions to be made in choosing the teas to receive the awards.

What is this competition’s impact on the tea industry?
The process and the awards are real drivers of excellence in the industry. Winners receive praise, media coverage, and increased distribution and popularity.

What kinds of teas do you usually drink, and why?
All kinds of teas, especially black teas, but also green and oolong. I seek out unusual teas, but love my longtime favorites too. Greatly overlooked, in my opinion, are the decaffeinated black teas, as substitutes for herbals. But I truly love herbals too. Favorites? honeybush, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Yunnan blacks.

What is the best time to drink tea?
I only drink tea in the morning. And afternoon, and sometimes evenings. Or late night.

What is in your cup today?
Yunnan Golden Needle black.

The Spring Hot (Loose Leaf) Tea Competition will take place Sept. 16-17, 2017, in Boulder, Colorado. Entry deadline is Sept. 1.