David Walker began his tea journey in 1962 but his path has been far from straight: his career has zigzagged, looped around, doubled-back, and reinvented itself numerous times.
In early 2011, he launched his newest venture, bringing smaller lots of specialty teas from Africa to the United States. Walker has worked for nearly 50 years at almost every aspect of the tea (and coffee) business.
“I started off as a 21 year old, after school and military service. 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: the withering stages, the rolling stages, the fermentation stages, the drying etc. So that you got that discipline down pat,” says Walker.
Listening to Walker describe his tea career you can hear the rolling rhythms of his South African accent.
After years working in production, quality control, and brokering for a number of companies, David launched Walker Tea Corp in 1973 in New York. This entailed working as an importer/broker in tea; and led to Walker’s consulting with many tea and coffee businesses around the world.
In 1990 he was asked to rehabilitate a tea plantation and factory. As Walker explains, “This was in western Uganda. And by the time I came back (to the states), specialty tea and specialty coffees had taken off and a whole new career lay before me, because I had to figure out what this specialty tea was.”
“You see I started off in orthodox factories. That was all there was at the time. Then in the early 60’s came the CTC (cut, tear curl). Most of my career from then on was with CTC.”
“I found out with the specialty tea, we were looking for long-leafed teas. We were looking for stylish teas, we’re looking for tip, we’re looking for twist, we were looking for all of the things I had learned way back when I began in orthodox tea, knowledge that we had shelved when we started with CTC,” says Walker.
“It was quite nice, it was like a revival, and some of the estates that I had been to in Kenya had long scrapped their orthodox machinery. We had to do a lot of reconstruction to see if we could get it up and going,” says Walker.
In these reconstruction/rehabilitation efforts Walker speaks warmly about his many collaborations with Nigel Mellican, of Teacrafters, based in Bedford, U.K.
“Nigel is the field man, I’m the factory man,” says Walker. “When Kenya started to look at orthodox again, we found each other. We teamed up at that point. And we continued from there. We’ve done quite a few projects together.”
“We were instrumental in starting the orthodox production efforts in Kenya,” he says.
Walker is very active with USAID projects working with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and consulting with local tea industries around the world.
“USAID employs me to go and assess certain areas, like I’ve just done in Nepal. Assess the growing, how the tea is in the field, what kind of planting material is used, what kind of management is used in the field. Rate what they are doing in the factories, etc. Then try to link up the factories that are now very very eager to enter this specialty market with specialty tea buyers here in the states,” he says.
“I did the same thing in coffee also, with USAID, where I would go to places like East Ethiopia. My job is not to tell people what to do. My job is to observe how they do it and show them the kinds of tea and the kinds of coffee that sell in the specialty market. And then assist them in producing that quality,” says Walker.
“So, it’s a bit sketchy… what I do. I jump around from being a farmer, tea manufacturer, to a part-time salesman if you like.”
When Walker consults, either with USAID or for private ventures, he’s not just a “suit” with a clipboard. Walker is more likely to be clomping up and down tea fields, immersing his hands in withering troughs of fresh plucked tea leaves, feeling-sniffing-examining the leaves with a critical eye.
“Getting your hands dirty” is a literal description, when Walker is tea consulting.
When asked about his future, David sighs and says, “Oh Bill, you know now, I am getting up there in years. I asked USAID why they wanted me to go to Nepal and they said: ‘Well David listen; the decade of guys who are younger than you have already retired or are already dead. So you fit in this weird category.’ “
He shares this story with a laugh, then immediately launches into a detailed description of how much he enjoyed working in Nepal.
Walker is quick to reply about what he enjoys the most. “I like the challenge of production – which takes you out in the field. The older you get, the more short-tempered you get, and at least the tea bush doesn’t talk back to you… thank god.”
“You have the feeling of really making something and then seeing the results. Sometimes the results are not so good: tea-wise or price-wise. It’s not an easy thing: you’ve got the weather to watch out for, you’ve got strikes, you’ve got disease, you’ve got all kinds of things. But more often than not if everything is going right you can do it.”
In this photo Walker is “tasting the day’s manufacture outturns in a factory in Kenya,” as he describes it. The lineup of white ceramic cupping sets, the tea taster’s spittoon, the lab coats and aprons, all set the stage for the moment of truth; have all of their efforts and experience produced a tea that lives up to their high standards?
David enthusiastically describes his latest venture, with Walker Tea LLC.
“We’ll be starting up in Tanzania, and I’m not involved in the actual production of the tea. But I have enough contacts locally throughout east Africa; I’ll select the teas as they come up through auction, and buy small lots, and then bring in mixed containers,” he says.
“Instead of having 500 bags of one or two particular teas, I’ll be bringing in manageable quantities, perhaps 20 bags of each tea. In many cases I can reduce packaging from 50-60 kilo bags to 10 kilo bags. Then I want to go one step further, and have the tea vacuumed packed.”
“They will all be specialty teas, the long leafy teas. I’ll try to keep as much tip as possible. I learned a lot by the way in Nepal and Darjeeling, that’s one thing about tea, you never know everything. You learn something new absolutely every day. Fifty years can pass and suddenly you are confronted with something new and a fellow that is only recently in the business is showing you something you’ve never even thought about,” says Walker.
David is also looking forward to working with his son, Carl Walker, owner of Walker Coffee Trading of Houston. Carl will handle transport and logistic concerns.
Walker is quick to acknowledge the many tea people he has learned from over the years. This ranges from the experienced tea men who first taught him when we was young, to pluckers and workers in the field, to old tea men in Nepal, to tea colleagues he holds in high regard like Vic Ferritti (of KenTea and Martin Bauer) and Mike Spillane (of G.S. Haly). This regard extends to young tea professionals.
“In STI (the Specialty Tea Institute), you have two young people who were judging with me at the North American Tea Championships in Las Vegas, two excellent tasters, excellent tasters. In fact, the last time I judged, Marty (Marty Kushner-long time tea man of Southern Tea) and I both agreed that these two kids taught us a lot.”
Listening to David you get a strong sense of that community which binds tea people together, in particular the way we constantly learn and build upon the knowledge of those around us. So much so, that what we do becomes more than a job.
As David puts it: “When people ask us ‘What’s your job?’ We say that we don’t have a job, we have a way of life, tea. Tea is a way of life.”
David Walker can be reached at [email protected]. David is ssisting in a presentation by Nepalese tea growers today at the World Tea Expo.