starting a tea company with tony gebely of the chicago tea garden

Tony Gebely is the founder of the Chicago Tea Garden; a tea store based out of, you guessed it Chicago. He’s the official US supplier of the New Zealand oolong, Zealong, and he sells the most adorable wild orange pu-erh tea I’ve ever seen.  Tony took some time to answer my questions about setting up a tea company, tea-travel and about buying from small tea farmers in Japan.
You can find him at The Chicago Tea Garden online store, at World of Tea and on Twitter as @worldoftea. Tony has also created wonderful RSS bundle of over 100 tea blogs and news sites, you can find this here; and his Hackers Guide to Tea can be found on his site and on LifeHacker.
Tell me a little about who you are and how The Chicago Tea Garden came to be.

I went to Rowan University for Computer Science. During my studies there, I was given an opportunity during my studies there to spend a month in China with the geography club. So I went to China and traveled throughout the country studying the geographical features of the Tibetan Plateau, Jiuzhaigou, Huang Long, the Three Gorges Dam, etc. I also learned about tea and tea culture. I ended up staying in China for 10 days after the trip and was able to visit Huangzhou (home of Dragon Well Tea) and learn the Gong Fu Tea Ceremony.

Upon returning to the United States, I took up an intense interest in tea and read anything I could get my hands on. In 2008, I quit my job as a project manager for a software company and backpacked much of South East Asia, India and Nepal studying tea and tea culture along the way. Six months later, I returned once again to the United States and I started my blog: World of Tea. A year later, I started Chicago Tea Garden.

tony gebely founder of the chicago tea garden

The night before you made the decision to do this, to set-up your own tea company, what was going through your mind.

It was a decision that took several years to make, but a trip to San Francisco where I met James Norwood Pratt and David Lee Hoffman gave me the inspiration I needed to make the decision. I remember coming back to my hotel after spending the day visiting tea shops and tasting tea with David Lee Hoffman. I had so many ideas running through my mind, I couldn’t sleep. I was about to embark on an amazing adventure. I wasn’t just thinking about selling tea online, my mind was wandering to years ahead when I’d be traveling throughout the hinterlands of Asia, searching out amazing teas, and helping others embark on their own tea adventures.

Do you have any tea heroes or people in the tea world that you admire.

After seeing the film “All in this Tea” with David Lee Hoffman, he became my tea hero. Since then, I have become friends with him and he has taught me nearly everything I know about the tea business. He is truly a tea adventurer.

tony at the boh tea plantion, cameron highlands, malaysia

I think that you have a great presence in the social media world. Which other tea brands do you think do a great job of interacting with their customers through social media.

Thanks. I think that social media 98% about helping people and learning, and 2% telling people about your company. I think that David from American Tea Room, and Adagio are doing well with the online presence. It is important to be transparent, to be able to put a face behind a company, that means a lot.

You buy from some small and unique tea farms, I think this is a real strength for a tea company – what have you learnt from dealing direct with these boutique farms that you may not have if you were dealing with larger companies.

Thanks, our goal is to buy all of our teas directly from tea farms whether on our own or with help from David Lee Hoffman. Much like agriculture in North America, smaller farmers are being ousted by large factory farms. Small farmers simply can not meet the demand of large tea companies that require a consistent tea year to year.

That said, why shouldn’t small tea companies buy from small farmers? The profit margins are smaller, sure; but I feel good about helping these farmers rather than helping the large companies get larger.

kaimairi cha farmer

Tea, like wine, can be viewed as this massive slightly intimidating category, one that may need expert knowledge, where some of the names are hard to pronounce.  What advise would you give to someone who’s been drinking teabag tea, and wants to learn more about loose leaf tea – where is a good place to start.

The number one thing to do when starting out is experiment. Start with white teas, and move up to greens, oolongs, yellows, blacks, pu-erhs. oversteep the tea, use water that is too hot, under-steep the tea, and use water that is too cool. Break your tea. By doing this, you will quickly learn how you like your tea. Try each tea free of sugar / milk / flavors.

The tea-plant already has thousands of flavors (much like grapes / wine) to share with you. Green tea from one mountain in China, tastes different from that in the next. This is the beauty of tea.

In terms of tea-travel, what’s your favorite destination that you’ve been to and what made it really special.

I’d say Huangzhou. It was my first exposure to tea the manufacturing process. I drank longjing on the hills surrounding West Lake. It was a beautiful place and where I first enjoyed the peace of tea.


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  1. […] After all, a successful business is a profitable one, not just one with the most Twitter followers. Tony Gebely said that “social media 98% about helping people and learning, and 2% telling people about […]

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