On the road: Zealong Tea Estate

The perfect cup:

  • Warm the teapot with hot water then empty before putting in the leaves
  • Zealong Pure should be made with water just boiling, the others with water at a rolling boil
  • Oolong leaves can be used up to eight times (for a small pot) – the second and third brews are judged the best as the leaves are “awake”
  • Black tea leaves can be used four times
  • Do not stir or mash the tea leaves, this releases bitter tannins
  • To make oolong iced tea, let the tea cool in the fridge for a few hours and mix with sparkling water
  • Enough tea is drunk annually to reach to the Moon and back 12 times.

Paddock to plate doesn’t get much better than at Zealong Tea Estate near Hamilton in New Zealand where visitors can drink tea made from the bushes surrounding the tea house.

Taiwanese immigrant Tzu Chen suggested to his son Vincent that tea might grow well in the Waikato region after seeing a thriving camellia shrub in his neighbour’s garden and, like any good Kiwi, Vincent decided to give it a go.

In 1999 he went to Taiwan and collected 1500 cuttings from Camellia sinensis, the Chinese tea bush (Indian tea is made from Camellia assamica) which then went into MAF quarantine.

Ten months later there were only 133 plants but, thanks to the help of plant experts, by 2003 Vincent Chen had 4ha of thriving tea bushes. Six years later he opened the Zealong Tea Estate where today there are 1.2 million tea bushes on 48ha.

Zealong guide Grace Linton prepares tea for a Taiwanese tasting ceremony. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Only the top three leaves of a stem are used to make tea – they are the closest to the sun, therefore the most nutritious and flavoursome. The leaves start to wilt immediately so the process to dry the leaves begins quickly.

Plants are harvested in November, January and March, although the March picking in 2013 was cancelled because of drought.

“The plants need a lot of moisture,” Zealong guide Grace Linton says, “and that’s why tea-growing areas are also high rainfall areas. It’s more of a challenge here but we have our famous fog and the bushes seem to like that, plus we have that all-important difference between the day and night temperatures.

“In Asia tea is grown up to 2500m – here in Hamilton we’re 40m above sea level.”

The dam on the property could be used for irrigation in an emergency but holds only enough water for three days. Instead, the water is used for frost protection.

About 20 tonnes of tea are produced annually and made into four types – Pure, Aromatic and Dark (all oolong) and Black. The four types of tea all come from C. sinesis, it’s the processing that creates the differences.

Tea pickers at work. Many in this group were from Cambodia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Oolong is the most complicated to make,” Grace says. “The leaves are rolled into balls and as they are repeatedly infused with hot water, the balls unroll a little more each time. It’s beautiful to see the leaf unfurl.” Oolong means “black dragon” as the unfurling was likened to a dragon waking up.

Grace also explains the origin of the word “tea” – if the product was moved overland to be sold it was called “tea”, whereas if it was moved by sea it was known as “cha” – and adds that tea is the second-most popular drink in the world, after water.

Twenty percent of the estate’s pickers come from overseas with the women helping train local employees. They wear small blades on their fingertips so they can work quickly and cause as little damage to the plant as possible.

High tea at Zealong includes all sorts of delicious tea-flavoured treats – highly recommended. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Zealong also has its own “tea master”, Ming-Hsun Yu, who is the processing manager and who, Grace says, works by “sense”. The company, which is becoming organically certified, is ISO22000 certified, unique among tea producers, and is able to claim to be the world’s purest tea. Harrod’s department store in London began stocking Zealong tea last month.

  •  Zealong Tea Estate is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. Tours can be combined with High Tea, other meals also available. Bookings essential. For more information see the website or phone 0800 932 5664.

This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been expanded.