HAMILTON, New Zealand — From my vantage point on the patio outside Zealong Tea Estate visitor’s centre, row upon row of lush green plants stretched as far as the horizon.
The 1.2-million bushes were about a month away from a November harvest.
A lifelong tea drinker, this was my first visit to a plantation that grows the elixir of life.
Soon, as host Fabien Maisonneuve explained, there would also be a drop or two to drink. The research and development manager of New Zealand’s only tea plantation provided the enjoyment of both aroma and taste by carefully brewing several teas from the 48-hectare estate.
Back home, many busy people quaff a “cuppa” bagged brew from a cardboard cup. Others prefer to scald a teapot, pour hot water over carefully selected leaves, strain, then sip slowly from delicate china cups.
The world’s second most-consumed drink — after water — likely originated as a medicine in China, where tea ceremonies are steeped in tradition. In the 1500s, travelling European priests and merchants brought tea home, a century before the aromatic beverage became popular in Great Britain.
After moving to New Zealand just over 20 years ago, high-rise developer Tzu Chen spotted camellia bushes in a neighbour’s backyard and wondered if tea — a variety of camellia — would grow in the Waikato region of the upper North Island.
He and son Vincent flew to their native Taiwan and bought 1,500 cuttings, which were quarantined for 10 months. Only 130 of the hardiest plants survived.
After years of steadily improving results, key staff were recruited to ensure quality oolong tea would be produced without using chemical sprays, fertilizers or additives.
Vincent Chen established Zealong in 2005, four years before his company, Eterna Holdings Ltd., went public. Now a $20 million operation, it produces up to 100 tons of tea annually for the world market.
“Your first sip will tell you this is special tea,” Chen says. “From the delicate colour and aroma, to the pleasant tang on the palate and sweet aftertaste, this is pure tea at its finest.”
A Zealong spokesman says it is the world’s only tea company fully certified by the International Organization for Standardization, a status maintained by systems that identify and control potential hazards at every step of the food chain.
Staff process leaves within 36 hours of being picked, while maintaining strict temperature and humidity controls, Maisonneuve explained in the Camellia Tea House.
He said oolong’s tangy taste is maintained with leaf tips intact. As for its black tea, leaves are hand-picked and rolled to produce a twisted, premium whole-leaf appearance.
The results, in tiny white porcelain cups, were quite different:âUnroasted leaves produced a pure, natural flavour; briefly roasted leaves produced an aromatic tea with a hint of fruit and flowers; a slight charcoal taste was produced from longer-roasted leaves; and, lastly, I sampled a more full-bodied deep amber black tea.
As for my favorite, well, that would be telling. To each his own, as they say.
A PERFECT CUPPA
For those with time to spend on the finer art of tea-brewing, here is Zealong’s recommended best method:
1. Pre-heat a clean teapot with boiling water.
2. Use one teaspoon of premium Zealong tea (about 5 grams) per 150 mL of water.
3. Pour freshly-boiled — not boiling — water over leaves and steep for one minute.
4. Tea leaves can be brewed six to eight times. Brew an extra minute after the third brew.
NEED TO KNOW
— For Zealong Tea Estate, 495 Gordonton Rd., Hamilton, zealong.com.
— E-mail for reservations at the restaurant and teahouse Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at: firstname.lastname@example.org
— Bottomless cups in four flavours, $7 Cdn.; “High Tea” including sweets, $31 Cdn. Light lunches $21-$33.50. Tea demonstrations and a traditional Chinese tea ceremony are also available.
— With about 10,000 visitors a year, Zealong is expanding its main Gordonton Rd. plantation and phasing out the smaller, original 11-hectare estate closer to Hamilton. A new visitor’s centre and processing factory are planned.
— Zealong is a 10-minute drive north of Hamilton, a city of 150,000 residents.
— Air New Zealand flies direct, non-stop from Vancouver (five times per week during the winter), daily out of San Francisco and twice daily out of Los Angeles. The airline flies to Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington to and from HamiltonâInternational Airport.
— Check aircanada.com for flights to Vancouver, San Francisco and L.A.