Meet Dylan Rothenberg, China’s Instagram-Famous Tea Sommelier and Scientist
October 13, 2023
Hailing from the upstate New York City of Syracuse, Dylan Rothenberg knew from a young age of his gifted talent to speak foreign languages. The most important language he picked up while studying at the University of Colorado (UC) Boulder, Chinese, happened to dictate his life for the better.
When Dylan ventured to Beijing to study the language in a two-year programme, he found an opportunity to head to Guangzhou in south China to understand the business of tea. Soon after arriving in the city, his interest quickly turned to tea science and studying the biochemistry of the world’s favourite plant.
Going viral on Instagram by sharing his insight to life in China and study of tea, Dylan joined The Beat Asia over a call from his adopted home in Guangzhou to share his love for studying tea and why he wants to dedicate a life-career to the plant.
What brought on this fascination for China and your studies in Chinese language in the U.S.?
In my teens, I found out that I excelled at learning languages and, thus, studying a foreign language would greatly benefit me. Studying Arabic and Russian would direct me for a career in the military, but Chinese was interesting for business. In 2008, China and the U.S. looked like they were developing a healthy relationship.
I was interested in the U.S. and China’s relationship and wanted to grasp the language and culture. I was studying at UC Boulder and undertook a two-year study abroad in Beijing. I was there looking for opportunities and learning, and tea caught my interest!
When and where did your interest in tea first pique?
Studying at Peking University in Beijing, I met a Swiss sophomore college student who wanted to export tea to Switzerland. Tea in Geneva was taking off with the import of high-grade, expensive tea overseas. He saw a big business in tea, and I was enthralled.
We left from Beijing to Guangzhou to Fangcun Chaye Shichang, the largest wholesale tea market on earth, right in our backyard, to source tea on a two-week trip. The trip ended up taking four months as we were attempting to build a whole supply chain, a never-ending task to solve a new piece of the puzzle to export tea to Europe.
I saw how much it took for someone to successfully source tea from China and I kept meeting people in the field. The business never worked out, but in the process of building the business, I met my then-future supervisor professor at the university I am studying at, Southern China Agricultural University in Guangzhou.
At his teabag factory that he managed, my professor invited me to check out the university, enticing me to join him on a PhD programme to study tea science, a major I have never seen anywhere else being studied.
What is it like studying the science of tea in your university in Guangzhou?
In the classroom [at Southern China Agricultural University], I was completely immersed in Chinese language and culture every second of every day. Nobody in the West has studied tea science as a graduate student in China. The avenue to become a true expert in tea has promise and is good for humanity.
Studying the science of something in Chinese is intense. I was the only foreign guy in the College of Horticulture and had to learn the whole foundation of biochemistry in English before studying the science in Chinese. You must learn everything about the cell, basic biochemical structures, and how living systems work.
As the years went by, my comprehension level in the biochemistry classes taught in Chinese increased. Now, in my sixth year of PhD studies, I can teach the same classes I once learnt.
Beyond the progress you have made to comprehend science in a whole other language, what is it about the science of tea you fell in love with?
The piece of science that I've really come to love is how the tea plant interacts with the microbes in the [soil]. The relationship every single plant on earth has with the microbiome in the soil is a complex bartering system.
Energy is traded from the leaves through photosynthesis and pushed down into the roots used for energy. Sugars are fed into the soil with microbes around the roots to mine nutrients that the plant needs, in turn, to provide the energy with sugar, energy.
The study of how microbes and soil interact with the tea plant is the epitome of the beauty of Mother Nature at work. I am passionate about organic farming and environmental protection. A big way to reduce pollution on earth is through agriculture.
When I saw the science behind smart and [healthier] agriculture practices to farm, I was hooked, and I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life committed to tea and organic farming.
Why did you set up an Instagram account and YouTube channel to document your life and career studying tea in China?
Everything I want to do [in the tea world] gets easier and more efficient when I have a large social media following. I have an interesting story to tell as an American studying tea in China - people want to hear about it.
There is a connection between environmental science and a large social media following that allows me to reach more people, just like this interview!
You can never be sure what’s possible, but my Instagram presence increases the likelihood that unique or cool opportunities will emerge in the future.
When you graduate with your PhD in tea science, what area of work or industry can you work in?
I want to begin my career [working in the tea industry] in China, due the high density of tea fields here than everywhere else. I have made a lot of connections locally that I can use to branch out my work to the whole world after China.
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