Taking tea, New Zealand-style

Bronze teapots and the Zealong offices and tea factory.PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
Bronze teapots and the Zealong offices and tea factory.PHOTOS: CHARMIAN SMITH
Tea growing is associated with hot climates and high altitudes in places like China, India, and other Asian, South American and African countries.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith
New Zealand is probably the last place most people would think it could grow.

However, some 25 years ago, when Vincent Chen, from a tea-growing family in Taiwan, saw camellias flourishing in his neighbour’s Waikato garden, he realised it could grow well there too.

He searched for the best cultivars of the bush from which all tea is made, Camellia sinensis, to establish Zealong, New Zealand’s only tea estate.

Waikato, with its warm days, cool nights and a definite winter, is very suitable, says Sen Kong, Zealong’s general manager.

The estate is managed organically and all teas are traceable to the various blocks, rows and harvest dates, he said.

Now a large, elegant white and glass building housing a function centre, offices and factory, as well as a smart shop offering tours, tea ceremonies as well as teas, greets visitors driving into the car park. Behind, patches of rounded tea bushes march neatly across the lightly rolling paddocks. Bronze sculptures representing the history and some of the symbology of tea, both in New Zealand and in China, line the path to the teahouse where you can enjoy a "high tea" with sweet and savoury bites or a full lunch on the decks that spill down from the restaurant and overlook the estate.

Three times a year they harvest the tip of the shoot with the top two leaves and the bud. These are dried in a large climate-controlled glasshouse so there is no risk of contamination by birds insects or dust, something quite unusual in the world of tea, Sen points out.

"To process in New Zealand means you have very much the highest standard of tea production in the world."

Quality assurance manager Amy Reason tastes tea.
Quality assurance manager Amy Reason tastes tea.
After drying and withering, the leaves may be oxidised, roasted and shaped or rolled. How much they are allowed to oxidise and the degree of roasting, determines the style of tea — green, oolong or black.

Zealong produces all three styles, as well as teas flavoured with various botanicals such as spices or flowers, fresh single season and aged teas.

Their green tea, the least processed, tastes light and almost floral with a savoury hint.

At the other end of the flavour spectrum is black tea, fully oxidised and roasted, with a suggestion of roses and honey, flavoursome but without the bitter aftertaste you might expect.

Zealong produces three oolongs. The lightest, pure oolong has a more robust flavour than the green but still floral notes with a hint of nuts.

Aromatic oolong, what Mr Chen had in mind when he developed the estate, is a more traditional style with aromas hinting of the earth, with suggestions of fruit, toast and nuts, a lingering aftertaste, but still a bright freshness.

Dark oolong has more body and fragrance, a hint of wood smoke, and is lightly toasty, nutty and delicious.

Tea can be as intricate as wine and probably even as expensive. Zealong’s 2021 Spring Tea, harvested from the first flush, is $259 for 200g, about 10 times the price of most of their teas.

"I think the biggest thing for us, that makes our tea so like wine as opposed to your box of supermarket teabags, is that every harvest is different, and every season tastes different. It’s produce as opposed to a commodity that always tastes the same," says Amy Reason who looks after R&D and quality assurance.

"It still tastes like tea, but there are going to be nuances and flavours that come through or don’t come through."

New Zealanders have developed discrimination in wine, coffee, olive oil and other produce, but there is still a hurdle when it comes to tea, she says.

"I think it’s because that shelf is so packed in the supermarket, that it’s easy just to buy it there and not to think."

Because Zealong’s leaves remain whole, they can be re-brewed several times.

When water is poured on, the dried leaves uncurl and their colour changes. Amy makes tea in a pot with a strainer so she can remove the leaves after each brew then use them again.

"I find the first brew gives you all the top notes, the floral, sweet or almost fruity flavours. Then, as you keep brewing, you are cooking the leaves essentially, so that’s why in the third through sixth brew you are getting more of the flavonoids that are locked in the leaves. But I’m a fan of the first two brews," she said.

However, re-brewing will not work with supermarket tea. In teabags, the leaves are cut very finely so the surface area is much greater and the exposed edges will give off more tannins which is what makes tea taste stewed if you leave the bag in too long.

Before joining Zealong, Amy worked for a New Zealand supermarket tea brand, visiting tea estates around the world and blending the various teas so it would consistently taste the same.

"I’d just had my first child and it was very conflicting to me, because I like to feel we are treading more lightly on the earth and taking more care of our people. Then you go to places and you see things, and make more conscious decisions about your purchasing - I think this is probably the only way now I can make any difference."

Buying a box of tea at the supermarket for less than $4 meant someone had paid the price for that, the environment or the local community. That was something that was very close to her heart, she said.

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