Did you know that tea is the second most consumed drink, after water?
An invitation to visit Zealong Tea Estate – the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand was something I couldn’t ignore. The fact that the estate produces organic tea and that healthy teas are my go-to choice of beverage meant this was an invitation I had to accept. Hubbie was invited too which meant I got to share the experience with my favourite human being.
Situated on the outskirts of Hamilton, in Gordonton, Zealong Tea Estate is a pleasant 1½ hour drive from Tauranga. We met our host Sen Kong, marketing manager of Zealong, in the new purpose-built, pristine tea centre that houses The Vista function rooms and a retail outlet on the ground floor. A luxury executive board room, offices and function spaces on the upper levels make the centre eminently suitable for corporate and private events.
Next door, The Pavilion function venue offers fabulous views over the estate making it a perfect setting for corporate or family functions and, with its neutral palette, a splendid wedding venue too.
The story of Zealong Tea Estate
The amazing story of Zealong began over 20 years ago with the chance sighting of a single flowering Camellia tree. Knowing that the tea plant is a type of Camelia (camelia sinensis), Vincent Chen realised he might have found the perfect place to establish a tea estate.
In 1996, Mr Chen imported 1,500 of the best tea plants from Taiwan. Because of New Zealand’s strict biosecurity programme, the plants spent 10 months in quarantine and only the strongest survived – 130 of them! The plants thrived and today, through propagation, Zealong has more than 1.2 million established bushes over 48 hectares.
Pure, clean and green
The quality of the air, water, sunshine and soil makes this area of New Zealand the perfect spot for growing tea and, with the demand for organic products on the increase worldwide, Zealong is leading the way. Farmed without chemical sprays or fertilizers, the tea is ISO certified across every step of the production process which makes it fully traceable from soil to first sip – vitally important when you’re competing on the world market. Two thirds of Zealong tea is now exported to Europe and Asia and last year their tea was awarded a Great Taste Award in the UK (considered the ‘Oscars of the food world’).
At the Fall 2017 Global Tea Championship, which took place in Colorado, USA in late February, their Oolong and Black teabags placed first in their respective categories, and their Green teabags also took the top prize in its category.
“The climatic conditions allow for the optimal stressing of the plants during the growing cycle,” Sen Kong explains. “Combine this with the environmentally controlled production area once the leaves are picked and an exceptional, premium tea is the result.”
Another landmark achievement was the signing last year of an export agreement with TeeGschwendner, the world’s largest speciality tea retailer. Only an elite percentage of the annual tea production world-wide – 0.5 per cent – is considered for purchase by these German master tea tasters, who ensure rigorous testing is carried out before and after purchase for heavy metal residues and pesticides. Research shows overseas consumers are very discerning and want to know how and where things are grown so, with Zealong, they can drink their tea with a clear environmental conscience.
The black dragon
We learn more about the Zealong story on the Tea Tour Walk which guides visitors through the history of tea as they explore unique sculptures along the way. Visitors are shown how only the top two leaves and single tender bud are removed and used to make tea.
“Oolong means black dragon in Chinese and it is these three leaves that make up the dragon. The bud forming the head, and the two leaves the wings.”
Leaves are picked three times a year (November, January and March) and a tight 36-hour window – from picking to roasting to packaging – is adhered to. Making perfect tea requires more than just a perfect crop, and Zealong’s Tea Masters oversee the production to ensure the 20 tonnes of tea produced each year is top quality.
The Tea Tour Walk ends at The Tea House – a fabulous on-site restaurant overlooking the plantation – where guests can experience a traditional tea ceremony. Green, black and oolong tea all come from the same plant. The differences in flavour are created by different types of processing. Green tea’s leaves are lightly steamed before being dried, whereas the black tea is fermented and exposed to air so that flavours and colours intensify.
“Just tea for two and two for tea,
Just me for you
And you for me alone …”
The art of the tea ceremony
“No matter how busy you are, you need to take the time to make and enjoy a really fine cup of tea with those you care about.” With these words Sen Kong introduces us to the mysteries of a traditional tea ceremony.
He shows us how to make and enjoy the perfect brew. First of all by warming the teapots and encouraging us to smell the tea. My husband and I learn how to suck the tea (imagine a grimace whilst inhaling air into your cheeks!), so that you taste the tea in different parts of your mouth – on your tongue and as it hits the back of your throat.
We experience five different teas – Green, Pure, Aromatic, Dark and Black. Each so unique in its taste and each evolving into something different with the addition of more water and longer infusion times. Each serving of tea leaves can be used for at least eight infusions in a day and will give a different aroma and taste each time.
Our VIP tour rounds off with a delicious High Tea – tiered cake stands filled with unique tea-infused sweet and savoury delicacies.
Teabags to take home
We conclude our trip back at The Vista – the boutique retail shop. So we can purchase a few extra boxes of tea to take home. Last year Zealong introduced its first tea bag – a biodegradable triangular prism with space for the leaves to swirl around. Each bag can be infused multiple times and will make a perfect travelling companion for me on my trips away.
“Our teabags use the same tea as loose leaf but in an environmentally sensitive, fine mesh bag. It’s convenient and gives a consistently good brew.”
I would thoroughly recommend a trip to Zealong’s Tea Estate. Tours usually run twice a day (closed on public holidays), of approximately 12 people and cost $85 for the tour and Signature High Tea. You can choose to do the tour only for $49. Or you can skip the tour and go straight to The Tea House and choose from a delicious selection of seasonal home-baked pastries, great light lunch options or, if you’re really hungry, choose from a selection of mains. Indoor and outdoor dining is available and the venue is wheelchair friendly. Make sure you book in advance, either online www.zealong.com or call (07) 853 3018.
Zealong Tea is available at many food emporiums throughout New Zealand or you can order the tea direct www.zealong.com
Words Dee Collins | Images Supplied