Gilbert Kendzior’s tea career that has spanned across four continents began in 1980 in Lipton’s United Kingdom office. After training there for one year, Lipton transferred him to Sri Lanka where he was involved in tasting, auctioning and buying tea. Then he went to Malawi for two years and to Mombasa for five. Afterward, he moved back to the tea consuming countries of the U.K. and Canada and in 1993 landed in the United States where his focus became tea sourcing, blending and quality control. In 2011, he retired from Lipton to Wilmington, North Carolina, and formed All Points Tea Consulting LLC through which he advises the tea industry on his topics of expertise.
What sparked your interest in tea?
Way back in 1980 I had just been in the British Army for a few years and based in southeast Asia. When back in the U.K. seeking employment, I always felt that something to do with the tropics and agriculture would suit me well. Luckily I spotted an opportunity from Lipton, which was seeking a trainee tea buyer with the most important requirement being “a willingness to learn from the bottom up.” A week later I was offered the position and immediately started working in the tea tasting room and attending the London Tea Auction on Mondays.
How/where did you learn about tea?
I spent my first year with Lipton tasting, tasting and more tasting in the London buying office. Fortunately, after one year I was offered the opportunity of one year in the Ceylon office. Tasting continued a pace and was at least 1,000 cups per day followed by purchasing in the weekly tea auctions. I made many visits to high, medium and low grown tea estates throughout the island. My next learning spot was two years in Malawi, followed by five years in Mombasa, again intensive tasting and tea factory visits. I then accepted a position to be a tea taster and buyer for Lipton in New Jersey. I made many visits to tea-producing regions around the world, tea-research locations, and learned about decaffeination, cold brew and instant tea manufacture, blending, packing and quality control. Truthfully, my learning never came to an end as there is always more to know.
What are your criteria for judging the hot tea?
First I will study the dry leaf to compare it to the leaf description, if for example it is described as “tippy” I will be looking for them. Next is a look at the infusion (spent leaf) and, if for example it is black tea, I would be looking for a bright coppery color. Black, dull or grey infusions are a no-no. Next and most importantly is to taste the liquor, I will be evaluating the liquor on color/brightness/thickness and flavor. I will evaluate all the samples and if uncertain on any then I will move on and come back to finish the set.
Do you judge any other tea competitions?
I have judged for several years in the Kenya Agricultural Show in Nairobi. More recently I was chairman of the Tea Grading Committee of Canada. It was not so much a competition but rather an assurance to consumers that tea they purchased met the standard as described by the label. We tasted samples blind and gave feedback to the participating businesses.
What kinds of teas do you usually drink, and why?
In winter, I really enjoy thick, strong teas, a juicy Assam is a favorite and a good bright golden Kenyan tea from the east side of the Great Rift Valley is an excellent second. With a little milk (and no sugar) they warm the body. In summer I tend to prefer oolongs from Taiwan, they are lighter than a black tea and very refreshing on those hot summer days. I will also enjoy a light and “flavory” Darjeeling.
Do you grow your own tea?
Yes! My wife, May, and I are keen gardeners and we managed to find a citrus farmer in South Carolina who also sells tea bushes so we now have about 10.
What is your favorite tea moment?
There are many, but the one that springs to mind is a visit my wife and our two daughters made to Ecuador. We had just spent about six hours descending from the Andes Mountains along a narrow road with huge drops to one side and finally reached our gracious tea host’s home. An unbeatable moment was enjoying tea while sitting on the veranda, looking up at the snow-capped Andes and surrounded by the calm and quiet of lush green tea bushes.