Translation into English by Dr. Peter Rohrsen – the interview in German: click here.
Today, I am delighted to personally introduce you to the author of the book „Tea – Cultivation, Varieties, History“ in my series „Fragen an Teefreunde“ („Questions to Tea-lovers“). I hope you enjoy a humorous and thought-provoking interview with a seasoned traveller in the world of tea!
Would you please briefly introduce yourself, Dr. Rohrsen:
I was born in 1942 in Epe (now Gronau) near the Dutch border, grew up in Hanover, studied in Göttingen, St. Andrews (Scotland) and Munich, then was awarded my doctorate at the University of Göttingen, where I spent 15 years researching and teaching English cultural history, and was co-founder of an educational travel company. After that for 7 years I managed the Asia Regional Division of the Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft in Cologne, and later the global tourism marketing for the City of Cologne. Following my retirement in 2001 and my move to Berlin, I founded my own educational travel company and managed its business until 2012, and among other things, in 2009 qualified as a tea sommelier by taking courses and examinations with the Chamber of Industry & Commerce and the University Institute of Nutritional Science in Bonn, gave lectures and in 2013, wrote the paperback „Der Tee“.
What is the significance of tea in your life? What relationship do you have to tea?
My dependence upon tea began in 1963 at St. Andrews and will almost certainly continue to the end: two to three litres a day … it would hardly come as a surprise if more tea than blood flows in my veins. No regrets – on the contrary: If I get tired of tea, I get tired of life. Then please off into the last tea chest and „two leaves and a bud“ on the lid.
What is special about tea for you?
Tea never was and never will be boring: After 50 years „in tea“, I often have the feeling that I just started and constantly have new things to discover and try: wonderful!
When did you have your first contact with tea and which tea was it?
Well, I can’t remember the type of tea anymore; it was a black tea, some kind of Earl Grey with candy sugar … But she was called Heike, was a professional actress and director of our student theatre group. And what a good-looker: neat red mane, slender as a willow, a silky-smooth mover, clothing and fragrance courtesy of Dior. And I was just 21, head over heels in love with Heike, had Hamlet and 1000 silly things in my head – and knew nothing about tea and very little about anything else. Heike’s invitation to tea was an accolade from which I have never recovered to this day. Since that day I’ve been convinced that tea is the most erotic drink in the world.
What has changed since then in your relationship with tea?
I’ve travelled around in most of the tea countries, seen a lot and spoken with tea producers and tea merchants and tea drinkers in Europe and Asia, collected and read a small library full of tea books … But despite all the experience and all the knowledge, the most important thing about tea is still the same: the enjoyment and the pleasure it gives – both of which are further increased if I can share it with people I like.
What was your best tea experience?
My best tea experience … possibly it really wasn’t, but for a European it was certainly a very memorable one: The Sikh in the Singampatti tea garden in southern India, who was responsible for the compliance with Steiner’s anthroposophic principles in organic farming and the composting beds for the fertilizer, pointed to a mound of earth in which the earthworms required to loosen the soil are cultivated: „In the evening, we sing mantras for them – they can do their work better then!“
Which is your favourite tea, what is special about it and how do you prepare it?
The question of the „favourite tea“ is a bit like asking a father of 20 children about his „favourite child“: if he names one, he wrongs 19 of them … But I love an imaginary first-flush walk through the gardens in Darjeeling in front of my tea cabinet, preferably with my wife or/and a friend: Soom, Ging, Steinthal, Castleton, Chamong – the choice is always part of the enjoyment, and the result is almost always a pleasure.
When and where do you prefer to drink tea?
When and where I prefer to drink tea? The question somehow reminds me of the Bible`s exhortation that „Evil is present – always and everywhere“!
What is your favourite tea accessory?
My favourite tea accessory is a very large teapot which is spotlessly clean, white porcelain or glass with a very large tea strainer. And very large, flat tea cups with handles.
What is your favourite ingredient for tea?
Favourite ingredient in the drink: nothing but good tea and good water. With the tea: home-baked madeleines, still warm from the oven with just a dusting of powdered sugar.
What is your favourite book with or about tea? What kind of music do you like for a beautiful teatime?
Reading distracts me when I’m drinking tea, especially if someone else is there: therefore, usually no book with tea. Music is almost always playing; but I only decide when I’ve smelled and tasted the tea and then know what might be appropriate: Jarrett „Cologne Concert“; Hahn or Stadtfeld „Bach pur“; Sting „Blue Turtles“; Van Morrison „Astral Weeks (live )“; Elvis, Tom Paxton, Chieftains, Adele „21“ – there’s lots of lovely music …
What is your favourite quote on the subject of tea?
I think you know all the Far Eastern tea lyrics, so here:
„What – No morning tea?“
(Anthony Cotterell, 1941: the journalist was called up by the British Army in the middle of the war and, in the book with this title, impudently and bluntly described everything that he and thousands of other soldiers did not like about their recruit’s existence – it was an immediate bestseller and was already in its fifth edition in 1943. Maybe he inspired Churchill to his rumoured insight: „For our soldiers tea is more important than ammunition“ – as a tea junkie, I can heartily sympathize).
Who would you like to invite to tea and what tea would you serve?
I would like to invite to tea at our house, our friends Merril, Dilhan and Malik Fernando and Andrew Taylor from Colombo and Hatton – out of gratitude for their wonderful tea which today they send all over the world and which one of Andrew’s Scottish ancestors introduced to Sri Lanka 150 years ago.
What else would you like to tell us about tea, that I forgot to ask?
In conclusion, I would like to continue to develop this thought: I am of the opinion that we, as tea drinkers bear a responsibility for ensuring that good tea has a future. The tea cycle does not only start in the tea shop or on the shelf of the supermarket or in the tea store of the wholesale importer: it starts with the producers, the tea farmers, workers, pickers, scientists, production managers, tasters and export managers of tea-growing countries who do everything they can to deliver leaf teas of the very highest quality. These only account for two percent of the world market and are being forced even more out of the competition by the 98-percent dominance of the tea bag industry. Only if we learn to appreciate quality teas, demand them from the tea trade and are also willing to pay for the extra expenditure of effort and care, for example, for the production of good organic tea, will good tea have a future. In this sense I wrote my book about tea and as the objective modified John Lennon’s peace motto for tea: „GIVE TEA A CHANCE!“
Thank you for the entertaining interview, Dr. Rohrsen!