Ceylon tea’s ambassador in North America David De Candia talks to Kaveesha Fernando David De Candia won’t tell you that Ceylon tea is the best tea in the world. For this Tea Ambassador, who conducted a Masterclass and was one of the judges of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf World Barista Competition held here [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A cuppa of experience, not only a beverage


Ceylon tea’s ambassador in North America David De Candia talks to Kaveesha Fernando

A true ambassador ot tea: David De Candia. Pic by Amila Gamage

David De Candia won’t tell you that Ceylon tea is the best tea in the world. For this Tea Ambassador, who conducted a Masterclass and was one of the judges of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf World Barista Competition held here last week, the comparison of different teas is not something to be taken lightly. “It’s not apples to apples comparison – you cannot compare black tea from Sri Lanka with Oolong tea from Taiwan,” he says. “I’d love to say that Sri Lankan teas are the best teas in the world but even if I were to say that no one would believe it because it’s not something you could say.”

He feels that although Sri Lanka might claim to have the best tea in the world, it’s his job as the Global Director of Tea for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to figure out exactly where a specific type of tea is grown the best. Sri Lanka is high up in the market of black teas, he stresses.

David De Candia was born in California and worked for an oil company straight out of high school, eventually becoming the regional distribution manager. When he was asked to move to Texas for work, he looked for another job and found one as the manager for Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf which entailed running the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf facility in California. The job was supposed to be a temporary solution but “I never realized that 90 days would become 18 years” he says, adding that the years have gone by quickly.

So how did he go from managing the facility to tasting and blending tea? “Tea came as a complete surprise,” he says, comparing his abilities to those of someone who did not know that they could paint until they were given a canvas. He never drank tea as a child unless he was sick, never had a particular affinity to the beverage growing up. However, when he discovered that the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf was buying teas and blends, he saw potential. He asked the owners if they had any interest in creating blends and tasting teas, and suggested that they source their own tea. It was the challenge which inspired him at first.

The path to becoming what he is today was not easy. “The first time I travelled to India was around ’97,” he says. He had never left America before. He contacted a grower in India who told him that he could fly to Mumbai and then to Calcutta and then take another flight to Bhagava, followed by a six-hour drive to the Himalayas. Halfway through the journey he panicked – the culture shock was almost too much to handle. “There’s nothing about India that makes you go – Oh! Kind of like home,” he says.
When he finally reached the tea estate, all vestiges of alienation left him. He felt a connection – as if the missing piece of the puzzle which he couldn’t fill in blending and tasting tea in the U.S. had finally been fitted. Next he visited Sri Lanka, then seven other countries followed and gradually his career grew, right until he was appointed the Global Director of Tea for the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. He has seen the tea sales grow from 1% of total sales right up to 23%. “We’re the only company in the world that does everything from seed to cup,” he says. The tea which is grown in the nine countries which the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf source their tea from is then sent to California where it is blended, packaged and served.

His role in the export of Ceylon tea is also special. In 2014 the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) appointed David De Candia, as the ambassador for Ceylon Tea, for USA and Canada to represent and promote Ceylon tea in the Northern US Continent.
David is honoured to have been chosen as the Ambassador for Ceylon tea in North America. He feels that it’s important that people know where the tea came from. “If you’re sitting in your living room drinking the tea which some lady picked, to me – that’s amazing. I feel that people need to know that and be aware,” he says. He even created the Caring Cup programme in 2004 for this reason. The Caring Cup Programme of the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf ensures that part of the proceeds from each cup of tea sold globally trickles back to the communities through various initiatives which David has set up together with the different growers in all the countries which he imports tea from. The initiative helps the Aids Lanka Kids Foundation and the CCC Foundation, while a percentage of the global purchases of Ceylon tea goes directly to initiatives which support workers of the Bogawanthalawa tea estate.

People in Northern America have little knowledge of Sri Lanka – let alone Ceylon tea. His main goal in the beginning was to educate people about Sri Lanka and Ceylon tea, then he needed to make people aware that there was something more than the cup of tea which they were drinking. He tries to explain what tea growers go through – from wage issues to being allocated a fair number of holidays – just so that people all over the world can enjoy their cup of tea with more appreciation of where it came from.
For David, the rights of the tea pluckers and estate workers are important. ‘When I buy tea from a grower – I make sure that they take care of their workers’ he says. He is pleased to note that the Sri Lankan government mandates that tea estate workers are taken care of – the only country which does so, he says. He does not stop at the assurance of a tea grower on the welfare of the workers. In fact, he doesn’t question them on this initially. “If you come to me and you’re only interested in my price, then I will look elsewhere. I’m only interested in growers who tell me about the people and the community,” he says – information which he waits for the grower to give him, failing which he loses interest. He also visits the estates to see the conditions for himself and attempts to ensure to the best of his ability that the workers are looked after. He attributes his ethics to a good upbringing – both his parents were teachers.

Drinking tea is a ritual he now relishes. “Tea allows you to experience the moment – it’s the only beverage which lets you do that – from the scooping of the tea leaves to timing the leaves just right to adding milk – the whole experience allows you to be in the moment,” he says. Spoken like a true ambassador.

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