If there is one thing a visit to Hawaii will reveal it is that the islands are a place of diverse, but fragile beauty. A close look at tea farms there reveals they are also struggling to find their place in the balance.
Hawaii-grown teas are not created equally. Producers work within a great diversity of climatic conditions, and varietal of plants, perhaps more so than any other tea producing region.
Before looking into the range of producing conditions and tea producers, a few things should be noted:
First is the sometimes used distinction between Hawaii tea and Hawaii-grown tea. Hawaii tea may be reserved for tea from the mamaki plant, an endemic herb in the nettle family that is traditionally steeped and drunk. Hawaii-grown tea is used by some to refer to tea from the camellia sinensis plant grown on the Hawaiian islands. This distinction is rather frivolous, given that production levels of Hawaii-grown teas is so low that it is relatively unknown on the larger tea market, and that most tea consumers are completely unaware of the existence of mamaki. In this post, “Hawaii tea” will refer to camellia sinensis teas.
Secondly, Hawaii tea growers are working with the state’s legislature to control use of terms like “Hawaii tea” and “Hawaii-grown tea.” The state and growers want protections from teas that are a blend of Hawaii tea with cheaper, non-Hawaii teas. In this scenario, the cheaper blend could be marketed as “Hawaii tea,” putting producers who offer 100% Hawaii teas at a disadvantage. Similar legislation was passed to protect Hawaii coffee, but it remains to be seen whether tea production and tea growers carry enough weight to see this kind of bill passed. Many in the state don’t know tea is being produced, or view it as more of an experiment than a serious crop.
Third is that tea farms can rise and fall fairly quickly. Many tea farms are not breaking even, or are not generating revenue mainly by tea production and sales. They supplement their tea revenue through other farm activities, through forms of tea tourism, and via the use of grants for things like eradicating invasive plants from their farmland. Farms may be here today, gone tomorrow when the scales tip in the wrong direction.
Diversities in production areas
While it is possible to find tea growers on several islands, some of the more well known, established producers are on the Big Island and Kaua’i. And these farmers contend with different soils, elevations, and weather conditions. Kaua’i is one of the wettest places on earth, and rich, red clay soil can be easily seen in the farming areas of the eastern side of the island. Farms and more populated areas are generally at an elevation of around 400 feet. The windward (eastern) side of the Big Island can also receive more rain than the leeward side of the islands, but soils there can be blacker and denser. Compactness can mean effectively drilling holes for planting tea bushes. Farms here range from 400 feet in elevation to over 6,000 feet. A couple are close to active volcanoes, and may have vog to contend with.
Diversity in varietal usage
Another factor in considering Hawaii tea farms is the varietal of tea plant used. Due to stronger connections with Japan, many of the earlier, more successful attempts at tea growing were based on Japanese varietals. But most tea growers are not putting all their eggs in one basket. Farms are likely to have assamica, bohea, and other varietals growing so as to learn more about which varietals perform better in their micro climate. The result has been that some farmers are moving away from overdependence on the yabukita varietal. These growers observed that yabukita leaves tended to develop brown blotches every few seasons and would need to be trimmed back, whereas other varietals did not exhibit this problem.
Diversity in processing
I talked with a tea maker in Taiwan who said that a good tea was 40% a result of how it was grown, and 60% due to processing. If that is true, Hawaii teas can be expected to change significantly as producers develop their processing skills and equipment. Some processors do everything by hand, including firing teas in a wok over the kitchen stove. Others have invested in professional grade equipment purchased from tea producing countries. Some hand pluck, while others use machinery.
Each producer is still very much in experimental stages of tweaking their process to suit their teas. This experimentation is compounded by the fact that the raw tea’s characteristics can vary with each growing season. And with experimentation, some seasons or batches will be more successful than others. Taste components of the finished tea may vary more significantly across seasons than at more established tea plantations across the globe.
With all of these considerations of cost, labor, and experimentation, Hawaii tea growers are generally charging $1 per gram of finished product.
Below is a list of some of the more established, more recognized tea farms on the Hawaii isles. Some of these are open to visits to their facilities. Some sell online.
Big Island Tea, (Hawai’i): Big Island sold exclusively to Harrods of London in 2011, and appears to have done so for 2012
Cloudwater Tea, (Kaua’i)
Mauna Kea Tea, (Hawai’i)
Moonrise Tea, (Hawai’i)
Onomea Tea Company, (Hawai’i)
Tea Hawaii & Company, (Hawai’i)
Walker Tea Review- a tea blog with tea reviews and tea tastings.
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