Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

The Archipelago of Tea

story by Willa Jane Tanabe
photos by Jack Wolford

In 2001, Big Island potter Chiu Leong was preparing to ship a few of his stunning ceramic creations. He pulled out a stack of old newspapers and began wrapping his pots when a headline caught his eye and, curious, he began to read. The article detailed a then-novel idea: that the tea plant could take root in Hawai‘i as one of the Islands’ most significant
artisan crops.

Leong showed the article to his wife, performance artist Eva Lee. Lee, whose father was from the ancient birthplace of tea, Yunnan, China, was as intrigued as her husband. The couple decided to approach the article’s author, Dr. Francis Zee, a horticulturalist for the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (PBARC).

Leong and Lee were not the only ones whose imaginations were captured by Zee’s article. Volcano farmer Eliah Halpenny, who was looking for a sustainable crop to grow organically, also read it. As she recalls, “It was like someone had a great big bell over my head and was ringing it.”

The idea of tea continued to steep and to seep through the community. At about the same time that the article appeared, Volcano woodworker Mike Riley stopped by PBARC and ran into Zee. The horticulturalist, who was busily testing the viability of small-scale tea growing and processing in Hawai‘i, excitedly told Riley that he had just realized that the facility had an old tea hedge. In no time he’d brewed a pot of tea to share with Riley and given him some seeds to plant. Riley, hooked, became a part-time tea farmer even before he understood what was involved. “If I’d known in the beginning how difficult it was,” Riley says as he proudly brews a pot of his own tea, “I might not have started.”

But he did—and he is now at the forefront of a burgeoning agricultural movement. Joining him there is Halpenny, who today has more than 6,000 tea plants growing in her gently sloping field, and Leong and Lee, who now both grow tea and host tea ceremonies. As for Zee, seven years after his article appeared, he is known as the godfather of tea in Hawai‘i.


All tea (non-herbal, that is) comes from a single plant, Camellia sinensis—a much-loved plant clearly since, water aside, tea is the world’s most consumed beverage: Americans alone drink more than 50 billion cups of the stuff each year. In Hawai‘i, Camellia sinensis grows especially well in Volcano and on the Hamakua coast, where the soils are rich and acidic and the climate alternates between heavy rain and periods of sun.

There are now twelve tea farms located on the East Side of the Big Island—all small but all increasingly viable. Riley currently has only half an acre in production, but he estimates that in a good year even a field of that size can gross $32,000. Halpenny has cleared land to plant two or three more acres. Mike Longo and Ron Nunally, who have nine acres overlooking spectacular Onomea Bay, plan to plant three to four acres in tea. Most farmers, even those with large properties, are keeping their tea acreage limited—the whole idea is to promote quality over quantity, a strategy that Zee embraces wholeheartedly for he, better than anyone, knows the history of tea in the Islands: first introduced in 1887 and then reintroduced almost a century later, both times with an eye to large-scale production aimed at a mass market. But Hawai‘i tea could not compete with tea from Asia, where labor costs were much lower. By the time Zee’s article arrived on the scene, tea had virtually disappeared in the Islands—and hence his conclusion that the key to profitable tea farming in Hawai‘i is to treat tea as a specialty product aimed at discriminating customers.

Keeping the farms small also allows for hands-on cultivation and for the processing of the tea leaves to be an intimate and creative affair. “Processing tea requires as much skill as making wine,” says Sherri Miller, president of the Hawai‘i Tea Society. Each batch of leaves, notes Miller, reflects the conditions of the land at a particular moment in time; just as wine enthusiasts speak of the terroir of a wine—the taste of the land that imbues the wine with a particular personality—so, too, do tea growers speak of the terroir of tea.

There are three kinds of tea—green, oolong and black—and they are produced by controlling the oxidization of the leaves. Heat the leaves soon after they’re picked and the result is green tea, which is unoxidized. Kneading the leaves to break down the cells and exposing them to air for a short period before heating produces oolong. Extending the oxidation time yields black tea. Skillful processing that extracts a wide range of flavors is a key component of artisan tea, and knowing just when to stop the oxidization is critical. “The tea leaf itself,” says quiet-spoken Takahiro Ino, “tells me when to stop.”

Ino, a descendant of Japanese Kutani potters who is now growing tea in Hamakua, says it takes five pounds of fresh tea leaves to produce one pound of finished tea. Standing amidst his plants, he picks a flush of two leaves and hands it to his visitors. “It takes about two and a half hours to pick, and twelve to fourteen hours to process just one pound of finished tea,” he says with a sigh. “If a processor is tired, the tea will suffer.”

Most of today’s Big Island tea farmers began as artists who just happened to have green thumbs—now they express their creativity through the tea. “It’s not just a commodity; it is an aesthetic experience,” says Lee. “Tea has always been associated with the arts.”


 

For Chiu Leong, sharing tea involves sincerity, simplicity and, above all, consciousness of the moment. He and Lee host visitors at their Volcano home where, sitting in the large main room with its high ceilings and 12-foot-tall shoji doors, visitors look out into the rainforest where Leong and Lee have planted tea among ‘ohi‘a trees and giant ferns. Heavily shaded, this wild forest tea will be similar to the highly prized sweet and mild Japanese tea called gyokuro.

Ceramics, landscape gardening and ceremonies of consumption are, says Lee, essential elements in the art of tea. She serves tea in the Chinese gongfu style, which emphasizes flavor and fellowship over ritual and is much more low-key than traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Lee pours hot water over the utensils to warm them, then places tea leaves in an unglazed teapot. After rinsing the leaves quickly with the first pour, she adds new hot water to steep the tea, which she then pours into narrow aroma cups. Guests first inhale the tea’s fragrance from the aroma cups, then transfer the tea into small tasting cups and drink it.

Longo and Nunally use a simpler ritual of making tea in a gaiwan, or covered cup, before serving it in the aroma and tasting cups. Sitting on the veranda of their art- and antique-filled home, Longo and Nunally pass languid afternoons with their guests “cupping,” or sampling various teas and amicably debating differences in color, clarity, aroma, taste and even the shape of the leaves. Ino, too, prefers a relaxed style. “Japanese tea ceremony is too formal,” he claims. “I like tea for the taste, not the ceremony.”

That taste is increasingly acclaimed—most recently by no less an authority than world-renowned tea connoisseur Dr. Amanda Stinchecum, who won a James Beard award for her writings on tea. On a recent trip to Hawai‘i, Stinchecum carefully brewed Hawai‘i-grown tea in her own gaiwan (she carries one on all her travels). As she waited for the tea to steep, she noted how impressed she was that Hawai‘i tea is grown organically and is pesticide-free. Then she carefully sipped the tea. “Despite its rough processing, compared to what the Japanese do, this tea has excellent flavor and aroma,” she concluded. “It is clean and brisk, with a slight floral note. It can only get better as the processing skills of the farmers improve.”

Little by little, the growers are introducing their teas to the wider world. Halpenny took teas from several Hawai‘i farms to the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas last May. Noted chefs like Peter Merriman and Alan Wong are beginning to use the tea in their restaurants. “Tea is a young, budding industry, full of potential,” says Wong, “The farmers put love into their tea, and you can taste it.” Wong, who notes that the fresh leaf is bitter, like arugula or chicory, has tried it in soups, salad dressings and other dishes. In May he hosted a Farmers’ Dinner at his Honolulu restaurant and highlighted tea from Lee, Riley and a grower named John Cross. Oolong was paired with the first course of taro vichyssoise. Black tea came with several desserts made with hand-ground green and black teas. Eva Lee was present as tea sommelier for the evening, suggesting types of tea and explaining tea production.

Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms was also a featured farmer at Wong’s dinner. Okimoto is president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau and a tireless promoter of Island agriculture. After the meal he approached Lee. “You know,” he said, “the future of tea is … is …” He was momentarily at a loss for words, then finally completed his assessment: “Tea can become as big as Kona coffee.” Lee laughed appreciatively. The tea growers might not aspire to produce on quite that scale, but they do hope that in the future, Hawai‘i’s tea will be as famous and renowned as its coffee. HH

To learn more about tea, tea growers and tea ceremonies in the Islands, visit hawaiitea-society.org, teahawaii.com, onomeatea.com, bigislandtea.com and/or maunakeatea.com.