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Zealong tea – the poster child for the burgeoning market of exotic teas

 [ IMAGE: tea grown in New Zealand  ] As announced in my last post, today’s article is about a very special tea: Zealong. Zealong teas are special in more than one regard, as they are not only amongst the best oolong teas produced today, but they are also grown and produced in an unlikely place: the Waikato region here in New Zealand!
I see, I’ve got your attention now!

I don’t want to re-tell the Zealong story, how a father and son – who’d come to New Zealand from Taiwan to start a real estate business – had the vision of growing the world’s best tea here and imported 1500 tea seedlings, just to see nearly all of them die in quarantine. And how they pushed on and have now, nearly 15 years later, 50ha filled with over a million tea plants. You can head over to Zealong‘s website to read the full story and watch a nice video about the company. I’ve seen the story repeated too many times and don’t feel like reiterating it here. This post is about my personal take on Zealong.

As the title suggest (and as I mentioned in my last blog post about teas grown in exotic locations), Zealong does something right. Actually, the company does an awful lot of things right. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

My start with Zealong was a rocky one. Sometime in early 2010, one of my customers sent me an email, asking whether I had heard of a company called Zealong. A company that supposedly produced oolong tea here in New Zealand. I hadn’t, so I started doing research. This was around the time when Zealong released a large number of press releases and got featured on a couple of TV programs. To be honest, my initial reaction turned from curiosity to distrust. Distrust, because the press releases were, in my opinion, obviously geared towards attracting investors’ interest. The quoted possible wholesale prices for oolong teas were cherry-picked from the extremely limited production high-end oolongs – obviously not the type of tea that Zealong could produce in larger quantities. Furthermore, the intended market seemed to be China and with a 100g price of around NZ$100, New Zealand certainly wasn’t really a target market. The other thing that put me off was – funnily enough – their slick marketing. Admittedly, they did EVERYTHING right, from selling a story to creating a memorable brand (c’mon: Zealong? What a stroke of brilliance to create a new word by combining New Zealand and oolong!) and an appealing packaging. Somebody seemed to have done their homework and read every tidbit that marketing guru Seth Godin ever published. But this whole textbook approach made me immediately think of all the companies with the glossy packaging that sell average products at premium prices. On top of that, I’m always suspicious of companies that have their own marketing department and PR manager.

The beginning of  my relationship with Zealong wasn’t helped either when it seemed impossible to get any samples sent to me. Naturally, I wanted to test my assumption of “fancy wrapper and not much substance” and contacted the company for some samples. Somehow, we exchanged a few emails and in the correspondence, I never lost my initial bad feeling. Granted, I was fairly open with sharing my suspicions (those of you who know me will know what that means) and never received any samples. At this stage, I saw my assumptions confirmed and lost interest.

Earlier this year, my attention was aroused again after I kept reading reviews of Zealong teas on a large number of tea blogs. There was a lot of buzz around Zealong and the company made an impact on some of the bigger tea expos. After reading some mixed reviews on blogs that I hold in high esteem, it became clear from the comments that there might have been a shift in quality between last year’s and this year’s tea. This year’s tea generally received a lot of praise and I can’t remember reading any negative reviews about it. Coincidentally, Zealong had also introduced a new Everyday-line of teas, which featured the same oolongs, but in a more basic packaging and at a more affordable price. I was curious again and decided to get in touch one more time.

And this time, it couldn’t have gone better. But I guess you expected that – judging by the title of this post. Anyhow, I registered my interest in trying Zealong teas and – if they were up to our standards – making them available to our customers. The interactions this time were extraordinarily helpful and constructive and I could sense a pride and strong belief in the product when I spoke to Zealong‘s marketing manager. He arranged to have some freshly packed samples sent to me and I eagerly awaited their arrival. While the niggling skepticism was still there, my overall attitude was much more positive than last year. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of first brewing the tea.

 [ IMAGE: tea grown in New Zealand  ] When I poured the hot water over the first batch of leaves (Zealong Aromatic) and smelled the aroma, I instantly knew this was a winner. A very pure, rich aroma without any of the wrong notes. And the liquor was even more divine: extremely smooth, full of subtle nuances and completely without off-flavours – something that is relatively rare. Needless to say that I enjoyed this first session immensely. The ‘Pure’ and ‘Dark‘ varieties don’t have to hide, either. They are equally good and complement the ‘Aromatic‘ with different flavour profiles achieved through different levels of roasting. I was hooked and knew I had to offer these teas through Ya-Ya.
The only possible downside of these teas might be their price. With $30 per 50g, they definitely aren’t cheap, but they aren’t outrageously expensive, either. They are around the same price level as our Da Yu Lin high-mountain oolong from Taiwan, which is one of the best oolongs that this country produces. And at about $1 per cup (which can be infused up to 8 times!), these high-end teas are much cheaper than your daily cup of coffee at the cafe…

So, what inspires me to call Zealong the ‘poster child for the burgeoning market of exotic teas’? I think Zealong should be applauded for doing nearly everything right. They didn’t cut corners, they didn’t ‘dress-up’ an average product – instead, they created a high-quality product with a unique selling point: the clean and pure environment of New Zealand. While we here in New Zealand look at this image of our country with a healthy amount of skepticism, this is the image that the rest of the world has of us. And why not use it to your advantage? One man’s vision has taken the best from Taiwan and combined it with the best from New Zealand to create something new and exciting. And Zealong teas certainly don’t have to hide from their ancestors in Taiwan. I’ll drink to that.

PS: Mr. Chen’s Zealong enterprise is by no means the first tea venture in New Zealand, but it is the first one to succeed. More about New Zealand’s ‘tea history’ will follow in a future post.

We carry all 3 of Zealong’s current oolongs: Zealong ‘Aromatic’, Zealong ‘Pure’ and Zealong ‘Pure’ (all for $29.90 per 50g). You can place an order through our ordering page.

Photo credit (Zealong plantation): Zealong Tea

4 Responses to Zealong tea – the poster child for the burgeoning market of exotic teas »»


  1. Comment by Jackie | 2011/10/07 at 11:28:42

    Very interesting and honest Zealong review! In fact so well written, that I feel like having some while reading this. Any hunches why the first round of communications went so wrong? Do you think they changed their sales strategy, or have a new marketing director?
    The Zealong I had must have been last year’s, so I’m curious what I’d make of the ’11 harvest. We’ll see.
    As you said, the name “Zealong” – near genius.

  2. Jo
    Comment by Jo | 2011/10/07 at 12:29:03

    Hi Jackie,
    thanks for your comment. I believe, it always takes two to created bad communication (although I wouldn’t have said that at the time). I was pretty honest then, I must say – sometimes my ‘nice’ filter doesn’t work. I was honest now, too. But it was received very differently. And I just got the right vibe from the person who contacted me. There’s a pride in their tea. And after trying the tea, I understand why.
    But to be honest, if I had tried the tea first, I would have probably not cared about the level of communications at all. I would have ordered it straight away.
    BTW, I’m going up to the Zealong Estate in about a month’s time for a visit and will report back on my experiences.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

  1. Pingback by Spring Time – Tea Time | Ya-Ya’s Tea-Board | 2011/11/07 at 21:42:22

    […] And of course, New Zealand’s own Zealong teas (read more about them in my last blog post) are the perfect match for a spring day, especially the Zealong Aromatic, which brings out the floral aromas to perfection. […]

  2. […] I took the opportunity of  a long weekend (Canterbury day last Friday) to go on a research trip into tea cultivation (and culture) in New Zealand. I’m currently working on a magazine article on the subject with a photographer friend of mine and we visited some important people that play a role in New Zealand’s tea history. I will write more about this subject here in due time, but I wanted to quickly share some of the photos I (the photography amateur in the team) took of our visit at the Zealong plantation just outside of Hamilton. I have written about Zealong’s wonderful oolongs before on this blog (see the article here). […]

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