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.”