About a year and a half ago, I traveled through New Zealand to piece together its historical involvement with tea. My research resulted in an article that was published in the May 2012 issue of New Zealand Geographic.* Since the full article is not freely available and some of you might be interested to read about our country’s history with our favourite drink, I decided to publish it here on our blog in 2 parts. The first part did cover New Zealand’s illustrious tea culture, while this second part covers Aotearoa’s long history of attempting to grow tea.
100 years of tea cultivation in New Zealand
The duty on tea imported into New Zealand has always been a prominent factor in its price. So, possibly to avoid import taxes completely or spurred by the British East India Company’s success of growing tea in India, the first ideas of growing tea locally in New Zealand’s North Island surfaced towards the end of the 19th century.
However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that tea as a cash crop received serious consideration. At this time, a number of farmers around Motueka in the north of the South Island were looking for a new type of crop after the rapid increase in motor vehicle use indicated the nearing end of their profitable horse feed agriculture. After careful analysis, the two most promising crops were deemed to be tea and tobacco. Tobacco seemed likely to bring easier and faster profits, so it became the area’s staple cash crop until the 1970s when its profitability quickly diminished due to the withdrawal of the government’s protective legislation based on growing health concerns.
Quickly needing a replacement for tobacco, local farmers were suddenly looking again at growing tea commercially in the area. After the visit of Australian tea farms by a local Motueka tobacco farmer, the New Zealand Tea Company was formed by a co-operative of about 100 farmers and test plots were established at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Riwaka Research Station in Motueka.
It quickly became clear that the original idea of growing black tea would not be economically viable due to changing global tea markets and enthusiasm for the project waned with most members of the cooperative leaving. Through a stroke of luck, a Japanese businessman discovered the abandoned tea bushes a few years later and contracted the co-operative, which now consisted of only 23 remaining farmers, to supply fresh green tea to Japan during the northern hemisphere’s off-season for his Japanese company. The members of the New Zealand Tea Company were sworn to secrecy by their investor and a clause in the contract demanded all existing tea plants in the South Island to be destroyed prior commencement of the project.
The destruction of other tea plants was intended to prevent cross-pollination with the desired plant variety of Camellia Sinensis by the name of Yabukita. This meant that all tea plants that were left from failed experiments of growing tea on the West Coast in the 1960s as well as the plants originally planted around Motueka during the earlier trials were to be destroyed and replaced by a single cultivar.
Over the course of six years, the original cuttings imported from Japan in 1981 were propagated to provide the necessary two million seedlings to cover the envisioned 100ha of land. At its peak, about 95ha were planted in tea and the first harvest was made 10 years after the start of the project in the spring of 1991.
But New Zealand’s climate and possibly the use of the wrong cultivar for the local conditions soon put a halt to the budding tea industry. A couple of severe frosts in the late spring of 1994 and 1995 destroyed the majority of the high-value first growth crop and the high UV levels in New Zealand led to tea leaves that had not the desired bright-green colour of high-quality Japanese tea but a rather yellowish tone. While tea was grown in Motueka until the late 1990s, it never became a successful industry and was soon forgotten.
Around the same time, another effort to grow tea in New Zealand was underway on the North Island. Robert Evans from Purangi Estate on the Coromandel Peninsula had a strong concern to preserve the genetic diversity of tea plants in New Zealand. When he heard about the impending destruction of all tea plants in the South Island, he collected all the different plants that he could find and established the Purangi Tea Collection.
Over time, he has collected 63 varieties of Camellia Sinensis from places as far away as Germany and planted them on his property outside Whitianga. Throughout the 1990s, he investigated the possibility of black tea cultivation in New Zealand by visiting tea gardens and manufacturers in various regions in Asia, as well as conducting trials on his own property. His efforts culminated in the submission of a report summarizing his findings to the Thames Valley Coromandel Business Development Board in 1997 in which he demonstrated the feasibility to profitably grow tea in small tea gardens on the Coromandel peninsula and the possibility to create a new form of tea tourism with associated job opportunities.
Unfortunately, little progress has been made since then and the exotic varieties of tea plants on Purangi Estate now form an impressive forest of up to 3m high tea bushes in which Robert Evans continues to experiment with propagation and growing parameters.
It wasn’t until December 2009, that the first New Zealand-grown tea was successfully introduced to the international market. Started by Hamilton-based businessman Mr. Chen and his son Vincent in 1996, it took 13 years for the Waikato tea company to prepare for the launch of their Zealong brand.
Patience and careful planning paid off for Mr. Chen and his team since they were able to enter the market with a mature, high-quality product that was received with high praise at industry fairs and tea expos worldwide. Zealong produces Taiwanese-style oolong teas and their production is coordinated by a Taiwanese tea master, Master Yu.
The harvest of tea leaves for high-quality tea is done by hand, a labourious job that requires a skill that has to be developed in New Zealand. During the three harvest seasons, Zealong employs about 50-70 tea pickers, half of which are experienced tea pickers from Taiwan and the other half local workers of mainly Cambodian descend, who have been specifically trained for the demanding work.
The freshly picked leaves are processed in Zealong’s own tea factory on site and made into a finished product within 36 hours. Dairy-dominated Waikato has happily adopted the enthusiastic Zealong enterprise after a period of initial skepticism and the long green rows of tea bushes now create a feeling of otherworldly serenity amongst the paddocks.
The future of tea in New Zealand
The success of Zealong, when compared to previous attempts of establishing a tea industry in New Zealand, is perhaps partially due to the right timing. In recent years, the global trend towards higher quality teas has also made its impact on New Zealand’s consumption habits.
Bell Tea, one of New Zealand’s oldest tea companies with a history of more than 100 years, is probably best known for their “Original” blend in the red box. But since his arrival eight years ago, Bell’s master tea blender Matt Greenwood has created a large number of new blends ranging from green tea to oolong tea and kids-specific teas. Reacting to consumer demand, he has recently even started to produce a single-country blend for Bell Tea, called Kenya Bold.
But while demand in higher quality mass-market tea bags from the supermarket has increased, this trend towards top quality tea is most clearly reflected in the demand from specialty tea shops. Jo Bind, owner of Christchurch-based online tea shop Ya-Ya House of Excellent Teas, observes that the amount of information available about tea has exploded over the past decade, leading to very educated consumers. While a large percentage of this information is propagated through websites and personal blogs, there is now a steadily increasing number of high-quality print publications – ranging from tea-focused magazines to books – available in the market.
Mr. Bind also attributes the Kiwi’s penchant for travel and associated experiences of exotic teas throughout Asia and India with the growing demand in his hand-selected range of exclusive loose-leaf teas. It is this climate of customer curiosity and higher expectations on quality, into which Zealong managed to launch their teas.
After more than a century of failed attempts, the Waikato-based tea manufacturer has finally proven that New Zealand can produce world-class tea. And if you bring together New Zealand’s clean environment with the traditional knowledge of Asian tea production and add a fair dose of Kiwi ‘number eight wire’ ingenuity to the mix, tea could have the potential of becoming New Zealand’s next big export…
* The text published here is my original article, which differs slightly from the one published in NZ Geographic.