Way back when I was in high school I worked at a nursery. A customer came in looking for Camellia sinensis, a beautiful plant that grows well in shade and produces a pretty little flower. I knew it well. It’s not something I’d have suspected a tea farm would grow, though.
For an entirely different kind of food growing experience take a glimpse at the Royal Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.
When he told me that he intended to harvest the leaves of the plant to make his own tea, I scoffed. (Inwardly, but I scoffed.) Tea? Pfft. I’d never heard of such a thing. Things have a funny way of coming full circle, don’t they? Turns out I had no idea how to grow tea.
I recently had the opportunity to tour Mauna Kea Tea, owned by Kimberly and Taka Ino.
So here’s the deal. Producing tea is not as easy as one might think. Harvesting the premium tea is tedious — only the top two leaves and a new bud from each branch is used. These are very light green and soft. (More mature leaves are used for their bolder sweet roast green tea.) Once harvested, these leaves are rolled. By hand. Instead of the leafy flakes you might be used to, these are curly little swirls.
In the field at the tea farm I asked Taka about the plants. They are all Camellia sinensis, he tells me, but there are different varieties—much like there are different varieties of apple trees—each one with its own strengths. Some are better for green tea, others better for oolong or black tea. The tea plant you’d grow to make your own tea would depend on what you like to enjoy with your favorite breakfast waffle.
That’s right: Green tea, oolong tea, and black tea all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. The thing that makes these teas different is not so much in the leaf, but in the processing. Green tea is processed as quickly as possible to retain the nutrients and antioxidants. Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize for 18-24 hours or so. Black tea oxidizes for longer (though Mauna Kea Tea does not produce a black tea).
Following our tour, we had a chance to sample three different teas, all organic: Premium green tea, premium oolong tea, and sweet roast green tea. The sweet roast green tea was the most robust and would be the best choice for someone who is primarily a coffee drinker, I think. Our hands-down favorite though was the premium oolong.
Mauna Kea Tea is available online. If you’ll happen to be on the island, check the website for information about open farm days or schedule a farm tour (available by appointment only).