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.