When Tony Gebely visited China and Southeast Asia in the mid-2000s, a new love for tea developed. He turned that new passion into a small business, Chicago Tea Garden. After closing Chicago Tea Garden last year, Tony started work on a book that focuses on the technical aspects of tea that he hopes to complete by next year. After catching up with him after his first World Tea Expo presentation and after several research trips for his book, I had a chance to catch up with Tony to discuss this exciting new project.
Ryan: I love that you’re taking a different route with this book, focusing solely on the technical aspects of tea and foregoing discussions of culture. What was the driving push behind this focus — too much culture to cover, the fact tea culture has already been covered in depth elsewhere, or do you find it unimportant? Did you initially intend to include more than the science and then shift focus partway in?
Tony: I intentionally decided not to include the history of tea from day one. For example, I thought that instead of explaining the 16 myths that describe the origination of oolong, I would just explain what oolong is. It sounds easy, but many definitions in the tea world refuse to be simplified. As for culture, I had an entire section on tea culture, and I was working on defining distinct tea cultures around the world. Once I reached 30, I realized that I needed to shelve the culture section for the future, maybe another book.
What types of things have you learned while researching that have most surprised you?
No single person, tea shop, or tea association has defined a simple nomenclature for speaking about tea. For example, we call the fresh leaves, the processed leaves, and the drink made from the leaves, “tea” which is hugely confusing to a newcomer to the tea world, in my book I use distinct terms for each. I also made a decision to call green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark teas “tea types” and things underneath the types like bi luo chun, gyokuro, and longjing “tea styles.” Starting off the book with such a clearly defined nomenclature really helped me make sense of confusing concepts and hopefully will help readers understand them. I guess this is the database programmer in me!
Will you be covering US-grown tea and the challenges the growers face?
Most likely not, I do explain how and where most tea is grown but US Grown tea is too much in it’s infancy for me to delve into it too deeply. Hawaii might get a mention in one of the tea type chapters.
You recently had a hands-on chance to make tea on a trip to Hawaii. What part of the tea production process proved to be the most difficult? The easiest?
The hardest part of tea production is the learning process. It’s easy to make an acceptable black or white tea but you really have to know the leaf and have a ton of experience to pan fire leaves for a green or yellow tea. I’m not even going to mention oolong because I didn’t even attempt to make oolong due to lack of time. Black tea was amazingly simple, I used only rudimentary knowledge from my readings. I knew to stop the whither when the grassy smell subsided and the floral smells arose, and I kept rolling the leaves periodically allowing them to oxidize until they turned coppery in between.
Do you have any background in science? Or did you find yourself learning a lot about what the science meant as you went along, too?
I went to college for Computer Science, and unfortunately (or fortunately) I never took Organic Chemistry. I believe such a course would have given me a greater understanding of the hundreds of scientific papers I’ve read while researching this book, however, through many conversations with tea scientists, chemists, and botanists, I’ve gained the basic understanding necessary for writing the book. I’ve also been having sections reviewed by peers in the tea industry just to make sure everything is solid.
Do you have any Chicago Tea Garden remnants sitting at your desk right now, as a reminder of the good old days?
Oh yeah. The remnants are all over my house, mostly teaware I’ve collected from around the world, but the best reminders of the CTG days are my friends that I’ve made along the way, many of my closest friends including my fiancée, I met while running the business.
Find out more about Tony’s book by signing up for his incredibly interesting monthly e-mail update where you will get bits of book content, exclusive updates from his research, and photos he’s been shooting for the book. You can also catch up on Tony’s other writings at World of Tea.