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The Gospel of Good Tea

As the new ambassador for Ceylon tea, Ventura’s David De Candia works with Sri Lankan growers and government officials to spread the word of the world’s finest cuppa.

By Mark Storer

Hand harvesting in the early morning hours while dewdrops keep the tea leaves moist.

Good fortune seems to follow David De Candia. From answering an ad for a manufacturing manager at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf headquarters in Camarillo 17 years ago to being recently appointed ambassador for Ceylon Premium Tea of Sri Lanka, he’s gone down more than his share of rabbit holes filled with wonder and life-affirming promise. Now living a life steeped in the history, story, agriculture, and process of tea, De Candia uses the storied and worldwide beverage to change lives, just as it changed his.

De Candia lives in Ventura and used to work for Haliburton Corporation. But when the oil industry went into a downturn, he “took the [severance] package and decided to do something else” rather than move to Texas.

That “something else” appeared as a simple help-wanted ad for a warehouse and operations manager. Once he arrived at the headquarters of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, however, he found himself overwhelmed by the operation, particularly the leafy shipments of teas with their unique smells and flavors.

“I really wanted to get into tea, and there was no one here to help me do that,” De Candia said. He found samples of tea that wholesalers were sending to the company and began tasting them. It’s then that he approached CBTL’s owners and told them he thought he could make some tea blends himself.

“I told them I needed to get to the source, to visit the growers,” he explained. “At that time, the company was buying from wholesalers.”

CBTL doesn’t do that anymore. Instead, De Candia, now 54 and a sort of self-taught tea sommelier, travels to countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Africa, building relationships with growers and working to establish a legacy of giving and growth.

While he takes some eight buying trips per year, De Candia is particularly drawn to the small island country of Sri Lanka, where he works with the tea grower and production estate Walters Bay. “I found that Sri Lanka has mastered the sustainability aspect of tea,” he said. “They’ve provided agriculturally, socially, and economically. They’re far ahead of other countries.”

The relationship started with a two-hour phone conversation between De Candia and a Walters Bay representative, a discussion that focused mainly on the tea growers. “It wasn’t about just buying the tea, a purchasing position; it was about creating a partnership with these people.”

Tea in Sri Lanka is harvested by hand, and only the top two leaves of each plant—a bush grown and pruned to be around waist high—are picked. No pesticides or chemicals of any kind are used. “They also only pick the leaves in the early morning hours when dew is still on the leaves to capture that extra moisture,” De Candia said.

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, the country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, approached De Candia and asked him to serve as the ambassador for Ceylon tea, a Sri Lankan grown tea plant known worldwide. This meant, in essence, that De Candia would go forth and spread the good word of Sri Lankan Ceylon tea. “I remember sipping a cup of tea and watching people plucking the leaves and thinking, ‘How can I let people know about this relationship and these people?’”

In addition to preaching tea, De Candia wrote a children’s book called Master Davey and the Magic Tea House: Legend of the Blue Tiger, which chronicles the adventures of a young man learning not only the process of tea production, but of the social and even spiritual nature of tea. “I’ve read that book to kids in my wife’s elementary school class and kids in a children’s hospital I helped build in Sri Lanka. Kids get this stuff, and they gravitate to it.”

De Candia did relief work in Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004 and has since taken part in building schools, community centers, and a children’s hospital, among other charitable works. Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is also involved in the efforts, but De Candia describes himself as an independent operator, working closely with Sri Lanka’s tea growers, owners, and government to benefit workers and share the gospel of good tea.

This May he will be in Long Beach, sitting on a panel with the Walters Bay tea growers and conducting a seminar for the tea industry from the point of view of the grower and the buyer. He plans to explain the process from beginning to end: “How to pick it, how to roll it, dry it, and process it. Then how to ship it, make it, and drink it.”

Tea is consumed in a number of different ways—from lightly brewed to that familiar amber color to dark, thick, rich, and even oily. That’s why it’s the most popular beverage in the world. “It’s relaxing, and it puts you in the moment,” he said, speaking of tea’s spiritual qualities. “To make a good pot of tea, you need to focus on the process and make sure you do it correctly. It requires you to pay attention. You can put a cup in the microwave and put a bag in it, but that’s not a proper cup of tea.”

In addition to his recent appointment as Sri Lanka’s official ambassador of Ceylon tea, De Candia has evolved into something of an ambassador for tea in general. He travels the world judging teas in competitions and comparisons. “It’s the number one beverage in the world, next to water,” he said. “Thirty countries grow tea, and it’s been around for thousands of years.”

Like the explosive growth of wine in recent years, tea has enjoyed a surge in popularity. More people than ever are interested in premium teas—and not just drinking it, but knowing where, how, and by whom it was grown. These are conversations one never would have had in the 1970s, De Candia said, but now it’s commonplace.

“Most of the time when I travel, I want to go do my job and get home,” he continued. “But in Sri Lanka, I stay on the tea estate and spend time. When you’re doing the right thing and know the people who made the tea are being treated fairly, you don’t have trouble falling asleep.”

Ceylon tea history, sustainable cultivation
methods, and more:
pureceylontea.com

Additional info: email ddecandia@coffeebean.com

David De Candia in the Camarillo headquarters of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Portrait by Michael Montano

Green and fertile, the island republic of Sri Lanka provides optimum growing conditions for top-quality tea.

Only the top two leaves are harvested, and no pesticides or chemicals of any kind are used in the growing process.

05-01-2015

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