What I love and adore about tea is the subtle yet sophisticated range of delicate flavours that have something to offer every taste on pretty much any occasion you choose. A real tea – not tea bags, but delicious, healthy loose-leaf tea – is steeped in history and tradition which somehow enriches the experience of every last sip.
It’s precisely because we normally associate tea with the rich traditions of China, India and Asia that I was totally taken aback to discover a tea plantation in New Zealand this year.
An Unexpected Discovery
My family’s 10-day holiday in New Zealand over the Christmas break had a strict itinerary (in order to go go everywhere, and see everything!) so when we drove past a tea plantation on our journey further north, we just couldn’t stop and go back to look around – we had to be somewhere by that evening! In anguish (at driving right past a potential tea plantation visit) I agreed we had to continue, but did the good old ‘Google’ to see what I could find out. After taking some time to look at the Zealong tea website, it soon became clear that I simply had to go back at some stage on this holiday, no matter what had to be sacrificed!
There’s very little information about Zealong tea in the normal tourist information, so if we hadn’t driven past the sign, we might never have known it was there. But even though we had to take a significant detour and do some extra driving one day to enjoy a tour of the plantation, as a passionate fan of really good tea I’m really glad that we made time to explore.
Tea doesn’t grow everywhere. In fact, the picturesque, green New Zealand landscape is probably one of the last places I might have expected to find a tea plantation and I just had to know how it came to be there.
The History of Zealong Tea
As the story goes, the young Tzu Chen came to New Zealand from Taiwan and recognised a Camelia bush growing in his neighbour’s garden. Discovering that this plant grew easily in this temperate climate, and knowing that the tea bush, Camelia Sinensis, thrives in similar conditions to Camelia garden varieties (such as japonica and sasanqua), this young man realised he might also grow tea in his new home country.
After working his way through a pile of red tape and New Zealand’s strict quarantine laws, the determined Mr Chen managed to import tea bushes from his native Taiwan and begin to grow it in his home. What started as a hobby grew over 20 years until it became the 1.2 million-plant business that is now Zealong Tea.
Stretched over 48 hectares, today’s tea plantation is arranged in large ‘blocks’ of tea plants that stretch across the landscape, dotted with individual humans picking the tips and weeding the site by hand. Situated on the outskirts of densely populated Hamilton, it’s a surprisingly beautiful sight with the city just a stone’s throw away.
The Purest Tea in the World
Our tour took us around one block of the plantation, before experiencing a delightful tea ceremony and an opportunity to sample their truly delicious teas. As we walked amongst rows of beautiful Taiwanese statues, we were told about how traditional methods of picking and processing tea have been brought to New Zealand, and the company’s dedication to creating the purest tea in the world.
Zealong is without a doubt a premium tea. Only the top 3 tips of every branch are hand-picked and processed to create aromatic and delicate flavours that can be infused 6-8 times (depending upon the tea) before the flavour is spent. Even more impressively, the company has worked for 13 years to achieve a fully organic status, and become the only tea brand in the world to achieve ISO 2000, the highest possible food standard achievable today.
Hand picked, and grown without fertilizers or any chemical additives, each batch of tea is fully traceable, down to the block of plants it was picked from and when. Some mechanical processes have been introduced – such as automating the roasting of the tea because of health and safety concerns – but wherever possible the work is done by hand. Having tasted their teas, I’d say that you can certainly taste the difference as a result!
As we walked, we learnt that the company is dedicated to retaining traditional values, with 20% of its workers coming from Taiwan. Their Taiwanese Tea Masters, who oversee the picking and processing of the tea, are now training a new generation of local Tea Masters to carry on their good work.
As any tea enthusiast who has done any reading at all on www.teapartygirl.com knows, all the teas are produced from the same plant, with the amount of oxidisation deciding whether it becomes green tea, oolong or black. However, different soil or moisture conditions mean different plants are more suited to different types of tea, and it is the Tea Masters who decide which block of the plantation is best for each type.
Even the picking is a highly skilled art. Our Australian guide, Brenton, has been at the company for 5 years and proudly claimed he can pick 900g of tea per hour, but the skilled pickers can produce 15 kg of the very best tips every hour that they work!
A Tasty Treat
These skills and dedication to quality is reflected in the price of this premium tea – purchased for 50g for $NZ30 in New Zealand – but this is a beautiful tea. This is a completely pure tea, a tea picked by hand. I feel it is still good value at the Beijing price. I felt thoroughly spoilt to enjoy tastes of all 5 different teas at the end of our tour, tasting the green teas, a black tea and three different oolong teas grown and produced at the plantation. Even our children enjoyed the tasting, although our smallest little boy couldn’t manage all 5 tea varieties.
As a tea enthusiast, I couldn’t believe my luck happening on the Zealong Tea plantation on our family holiday, and I loved every moment of our tour from the beautiful plantations and the story of how the tea is made, to the delicious tastings and the ‘wet’ tea ceremony where water was generously splashed on the floor. This was a fantastic day out, and a discovery of a really amazing brand of tea with a unique history that I couldn’t wait to share with you.