Tea is such a popular beverage, second only to water worldwide according to some aficionados, that new locations to grow it are always being sought. It takes many years of testing and growing the tea plants to see if they will yield leaves worthy of the notice of tea drinkers. Lately, Hawaiian grown teas are coming to the market’s attention. Is this just the latest tea fad?
Why Grow Tea in Hawaii
As much as many folks think of Hawaii as just a tropical paradise vacation spot and where exercise guru Gilad films his workout videos, they also have thriving agriculture with many well-known crops. These include sugar cane, ginger, pineapples and other tropical fruits, vanilla beans, and jasmine (used more for leis than to scent teas.
Tea has begun to be seen as another crop for farmers in Hawaii. One attempt was made by the Lipton company and another by John Vendeland. He was trying to help a sugar cane grower diversify into other crops in the 1980s. His venture didn’t work out, but recently (early 2000s) other growers took up the challenge and are succeeding so far.
The attractions of Hawaii to tea growers are the soil (fertile and acidic, which are perfect for tea plants) and the climate where the water, air and soil are very clean. A detractor is high labor costs, since hand harvesting and processing are the norm. Pesticides and fertilizers are not needed, which helps a bit in the overall costs of growing and processing the tea. Both the high production costs and relative rarity of the teas means the prices for buyers are rather high. Add in the fact that it’s Hawaii, so shipping to anywhere in the Continental U.S. adds to the cost. But then, shipping to the U.S. from China, India, Taiwan, etc., is also part of the price you pay. Overall, though, the price is less than a fancy cup of coffee.
Another reason for growing tea in Hawaii seems to be opportunity. Growers from Japan and China go there to make use of their skills in a more open setting versus the crowded and well-established tea growing communities in their native countries. Others want to grow in Hawaii due to a belief that tea growers in other countries are doing it wrong. No problem there. Many of the things we enjoy today came about by someone thinking he/she could do it better. And often that person was right!
Teas from Hawaii
Some small growers have formed collectives and sell their teas through larger companies who often do the processing. Other growers process the teas they grow and then sell them directly to customers. White, green, oolong, and black teas are produced. They are grown a elevations from about 900 feet to 4,000 feet. There are also versions with coconut, pineapple, and other flavorings added, plus things called “Hawaiian Herbal Tea.”
A sample of each type:
- Forest White — Grown at 4,000 feet elevation in the rainforest of Kilauea volcano under a canopy of native Ohia trees and Hapu’u ferns. Only the top bud and two leaves are plucked and processed for this tea. The leaves are long, loose and downy. The liquid steeped from them is a rich clear golden infusion with a flavor that’s floral, sweet, deeply satisfying, and comforting.
- Volcano Green — East meets West in this refined green tea reminiscent of signature teas in China. Like Forest White, this one is also grown at 4,000 feet elevation in the rainforest of Kilauea volcano under a canopy of native Ohia trees and Hapu’u ferns. A pan-fired green tea with an exotic aroma and pure flavor. The liquid is pale golden green with a lingering fresh taste.
- Mauka Oolong — Grown at 3,600 feet elevation near the summit of Kilauea Volcano. “Mau-ka” means “toward the mountain” (an adaptation of the Chinese name “high mountain tea”). A tea that is artfully consistent and vibrantly colored with slightly oxidized edges. This tea steeps into a sophisticated, delicate, pale yellow infusion. The flavor is elusive and complex. It is flinty, crisp, smooth and cooling, with mild tropical notes of green papaya and honey that add to the complexity of this enticing tea. Best paired with fresh fruit, lemon chicken, lightly smoked whitefish, dried apricots dipped in white chocolate, and other lighter tasting foods.
- Makai Black — Grown at an elevation of only 900 feet. The name “Makai” means “to face towards the sea.” This black tea is handcrafted with both Sinensis and Assamica leaves that steep into a crystalline amber infusion. The flavor is smooth, refined, and with no astringency or bitterness even if you steep it for a longer time. The body is crisp and yields delicate notes of caramel, barley malt with hints of chocolate, and a slight taste of roasted sweet potato. Each sip warms, refreshes and reveals new dimensions of flavor.
I personally tried a couple of green teas from Hawaii and found them comparatively weak in flavor and aroma versus green teas from Japan and China. For me, Hawaii-grown teas may need more time for the plants to mature. Rushing their products to market could set an impression in the minds of those most likely to enjoy their products. And the growers may never be able to overcome that impression of a lackluster tea. As for Hawaiian-grown tea being a fad, only time will tell.