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Tea Estates in Unlikely Places

By Alexis Rubinstein

When one thinks of “tea-growing regions,” certain areas in Asia and India would certainly come to mind. However, with the popularity of tea on the rise, tea estates have begun to pop up in the unlikeliest of places. We travel from Colombia to Hawaii and beyond to find some of today’s most unique teas.

What does it take to grow the perfect tea leaves? Camellia sinensis first needs a warm to moderate climate without extreme rainfall - too much moisture will encourage the growth of detrimental molds and mildews. Acidic soil is also required, keeping in mind that most tap water can decrease the acidity of soil over time. But tea estates do not need to be limited to the regions where the practice is already well established. With an experimental spirit and a driven dedication, almost anything is seemingly possible. Places like Colombia and Hawaii, which already have the elements needed for successful growing, have initiated their involvement in tea production. More surprisingly, areas not typically thought of as “ideal climates,” such as Tuscany, Portugal and Washington State have proven the success of nurture over nature.

Planting the First Seed
When starting a crop that is not indigenous to your particular region, it is always a gamble. There are no definite ways to tell if the efforts will be successful, if the bushes will flourish, or if the tea will be tasty. It is those beginning states that are crucial in the overall fortune of the tea estate.

San Miguel, on the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal, is not your typical tea-growing region, yet has been producing fine quality tea since the 18th century. The two main tea estates in San Miguel, Chá Gorreana and Chá Porto Formoso, are both instilled in traditional tea producing techniques and a large part of the island’s heritage. After tea was introduced to the island around 1750 from Brazil, small quantities of black and green tea (around eight to 10 kg) flourished. After seeing the success of the new crop, in 1978, the “Sociedade Promotora da Agricultura Micaelense,” a regional organization that helped promote local agriculture, elected the Tea Culture as one of the ventures to support. With this initiative, two Chinese men from Macau were employed to help the Azores tea plantations adopt Asian techniques. With their knowledge and assistance, tea factories and producers began springing up around the island.

While Colombia is a well-known coffee giant, there is one brave tea estate trying to make a name for itself. Located in the mountains of the state of Valle del Cauca, Agricola Himalaya (www.tehindu.com) started as a concept, a far-fetched idea, and developed into a success story. “Around the middle of the last century, the secretary of Agriculture asked Joaquin Llano to give his permission to have trials to find out which crops could be successfully planted in higher areas than where coffee was already growing,” explains Maria Beatriz Llano. “A few tea plants were planted and left to grow. Meanwhile, the project was forgotten. Around 10 years later, Joaquin’s son, Alberto, discovered the abandoned plants and started to investigate its cultivation and processing. In 1970, after conducting much research on the topic, the greatest part of the plantation was established.” Maria Beatriz Llano continues, “Alberto Llano was a tea lover. He had studied in the U.S. and Switzerland and was a visionary. As all tea was imported into the country, he saw a great opportunity for a unique business in Colombia.” Today, Agricola Himalaya is still the only company which has tea crops in the country.

Another key player in the coffee industry, Hawaii, known for its specialty Kona coffee, has also begun to explore the idea of growing tea leaves. While the first seeds planted may not date back as far as they do in Portugal or even Colombia, nonetheless this relatively “new” Hawaiian crop has already gained much attention. Eva Lee of Tea Hawaii and Company (www.teahawaii.com) grows tea on her five-acre estate in Volcano on the Big Island. “There are actively about six tea estates,” says Lee, “some with substantial yields for boutique sales as well as experimentation.” Presently, Lee is distributing tea through her company, Tea Hawaii, and has just finished holding the position of president of Hawaii’s Tea Society, which has been around for about five years, has approximately 100 members and was created to work with the University of Hawaii’s agriculture department with a mission to create a tea industry on the island. Lee estimates that “there are around 50 people that are growing tea in the private sector, with estates that range from two to a quarter-acre.” According to Lee, the first tea estate was established around 11 years ago, though the majority of the estates are going on the five-year mark.

The continental U.S., with its varied climates and topography, has also begun its quest towards locally grown tea. Charleston Tea Plantation, in Charleston, South Carolina, was known as the only tea plantation in the mainland U.S., until the Sakuma Brothers Farm, in the Skagit Valley of Washington proved that the notoriously rainy and chilly Pacific Northwest can support tea varietals. Already established, situated on approximately 1,100 acres, the Sakuma Brothers Farm grows small fruit, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. “There are five acres of mostly mature sized tea plants; to date we have not yet processed any commercial volumes of tea,” says Richard Sakuma. “Our partner, John Vendeland, propagated the tea plants from specimens he collected some 15-20 years ago and established in the Willamette Valley of Oregon,” Sakuma continues. “It is his original vision of creating a tea growing region in the Skagit Valley of Washington that we are working on.” The Sakuma Brothers Farm has found it hard to tend to the tea to minimize the natural weather affects, as well as focus their attention on the crop when they have an up and running, lucrative fruit business. “The seedlings have been in the ground for 10 years, but I have basically just kept them alive at this point,” confesses Sakuma. “The tea season conflicts with berry harvest and I’ve not progressed with the tea project as much as we have planned. However, an interest in our tea is pushing me to get something going.”

The Role of Mother Nature
Even more interesting than the varied locations where tea is now grown is the effect of the climate on the tea leaves. As with most crops, the rainfall and temperature can determine taste profiles and can alter from year to year, dependant on the climate changes. In Washington, the Sakuma Brothers Farm is still trying to determine the effects of the temperature on their tea bushes. “The temperature in the summer averages in the mid 70s°F,” Sakuma explains. “That may be a little cool for attaining the yields needed to be profitable.” While no determination has been made, The Sakuma Brothers Farm remains positive in their outlook.

Already producing high-quality teas, the Chá Gorreana and Chá Porto Formoso tea estate attribute their impressive teas to ideal conditions of the Azores. According to the Chá Gorreana website, “The islands, due to their positioning in the mid-Atlantic withholds optimum characteristics for producing tea. The land posses a soft texturing, is very fertile and rich in iron (also carrying a PH value ranging from 7 to 5). Also, due to the island’s hill-type terrains, the plantations benefit from special protection from nature’s elements. The tea plants in itself require very little human care and attention, however it is recommended that the plantations be organized in parallel lines to maximize the production proficiency. The plant is grown with biological techniques through the use of plant-based fertilizers for its growth. The natural fertilizer is produced from the bushy leaves and seeds originating from oily plants.”

Also taking advantage of rich soil and salty, wet ocean air are the tea estates of Hawaii. “In general, tea can be grown from the ocean all the way to mountains,” says Lee, “from close to sea level to up to 4,000 feet. The fleshing in the state of Hawaii takes place almost every month. Professionals and other tea producing countries are delightfully surprised when they find out we can produce here year round, due to our clean air, water and soil.” According to Lee, black tea that is grown up in the mountains of Hawaii tastes completely different than black tea grown near the coast. It is these differences in taste that can take Hawaii from a lesser-known tea producing state to a widely acclaimed leader. “Rare teas being produced in each elevation has a unique flavor and aroma all to its own,” states Lee.

While it has been said that too much moisture can facilitate deterioration of a tea crop, Agricola Himalya has seemed to find the perfect equation. “The tea is grown between 1,750-1,950 feet above sea level, an ideal height to produce quality tea,” Llano explains. “It is surrounded by a tropical cloud forest reserve, and encompasses around 50 hectares, 10 of which are for herbal teas like chamomile.” An additional 100 hectares of the Agricola Himalaya property is a natural forest reserve. “Its location on a tropical strip, its high rainfall and day light throughout the entire year enable us to have a continuous crop, which is harvested every 15 days,” says Llano.

Community Connections
In these regions where tea growing does not have a reputation of its own, the support of the community is a critical aspect of the estate’s success. “Truth in labeling” was the first hurdle the tea industry in Hawaii needed to jump. According to Lee, much of the tea that is imported into Hawaii can be labeled as “Hawaiian tea,” despite the fact that the tea was not actually grown on the island. Changing the terminology to “Hawaii grown tea” has allowed consumers to determine which is the “real thing.” This, along with other cultural sensitivities has helped the Hawaiian tea industry gain popularity. The tea produced in the small estates of the Big Island is the epitome of specialty tea. Yielding small quantities and hand-picked, the “aim is to gain the same value as Kona coffee, even going beyond that, but not making itself available for commodities market,” says Lee. She even reveals that some Kona coffee estates are looking to enter into a dual market, and start to grow tea as well. “The Hawaiian community has embraced the tea growing areas,” she continues, “Tea Hawaii and Company grows tea in a native Hawaiian forest. With that, the eradication of invasive plant species have been removed, and we brought back a natural, native forest full of ferns, blossoms and birds. It showcases how people can keep the land in tact and still produce this type of tea.” Lee explains “this particular area is conducive to green teas and matcha because it is naturally shade grown with acidic, volcanic soil.”

Aside from being available in local specialty shops and even art galleries, Hawaii grown tea is looking to expand their horizons by combining their product with locally made chocolate truffles, baked goods and honey. Lee says that their tea “will be premiered in fine dining restaurants well known for their Hawaii regional cuisine.” Because chefs have been requesting that Hawaii grown tea be harvested and shipped upon request to their restaurants, fresh frozen tea leaf is also being offered.

In Colombia, while things are being done a bit differently on the estate, the local feedback is equally as positive. The CTC black tea is being harvested by hand and produced with machines imported from India. Llano tells us “this year, we are starting to produce TBC green tea, as well as others. We also have machines and the possibility to produce Orthodox.” But, for a country that is so deeply rooted in the tradition of coffee, how is locally grown tea being embraced? According to Llano, “90% of our tea is sold in Colombia under the ‘Hindu’ registered trademark. We are the leading company of tea and infusions in Colombia. We export the finished product with the Hindu trademark to Venezuela and Ecuador, and bulk tea to England and Pakistan.” Agricola Himalaya is in charge of packing all the Te Hindu tea, aromatic and infusion products using eight MAISA machines. “We are a company committed to the region’s well being,” says Llano. “We have an employee community fund and a foundation, which develops social, educational and environmental programs that take care of the water, protect the forest and promote biodiversity, as well as programs for environmental education and activities for Colombia’s youth.”

A World Tea Tour
After you have taken one of Eva Lee’s “agro-tours,” visiting the different tea estates in Hawaii, even after you have gone to the jungles of Colombia, the islands of Azores and the valleys of Washington, your exploration of interestingly located tea estates has only just begun. The Tuscany Tea Plantation is based in S. Andrea di Compito, a small town near Lucca in the Tuscany region of Italy. Here, the tea bushes blend in with the rolling hills and the tea tastes as rich as the locally made wine. A yearly event, called the Antiche Camelie della Lucchesia features teas from the Compito gardens and tea-related exhibitions.

Countries such as Malawi, Georgia and Thailand, may have been producing tea for quite some time now, but have recently expanded their portfolios to include different varieties of teas and larger quantities. Malawi, known for its black tea, is now producing handcrafted white teas from the Satemwa Tea Estate; the previously low-scale tea producing country of Georgia is now the fourth biggest exporter of green teas into the European Union; and Thailand has finally crawled out from under the shadow of the Asian tea-producing “monsters,” such as China.

England, probably the most well known tea-consuming nation has also decided to give production a try. Taylors of Harrogate, a tea distributor based out of Harrogate, UK, has recently planted their own tea leaves on their estate in North Yorkshire. While it still may be too soon to tell if England is suitable for growing tea, as well as sipping tea, we have high hopes for the “Britain grown tea pioneers.”

Whether your country has yet to join the list of tea-growing regions, consumers should be encouraged to try teas from varying places and support their local communities, if possible. Tea producers can now think “outside the box,” and instead of traveling to origin, bring origin to them. It will certainly make the cup of tea that much sweeter.

Tea & Coffee - April, 2008

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