Hawaii-grown is a rare thing in general, compared with other
locally farmed products, said
Byron Goo, owner of Tea Chest Hawaii, a longtime importer and specialty tea provider and a sort of godfather to the Hawaii tea industry, who introduced Alex and Andrea de Roode, owners of Maui Tea Farm and Pono Infusions, to the Halekulani.
The most recent “Hawaii Tropical Fruit and Crops Report” published in 2017 by the U.S. and Hawaii departments of agriculture, lists 96,000 tea trees from which 84,100 pounds of tea were harvested, with a farm value of $22,000, in 2016.
By way of comparison, there were 950,000 ginger plants in cultivation in the islands, producing 520,000 pounds of ginger root at a farm value of $1.7 million.
Both are dwarfed by coffee, of which 25,416,000 pounds were produced in the islands in 2017.
But Goo said he sees the de Roodes’ recent success with Haleakala Black Estate Tea as an indicator that the category is ripe for revolution, as happened with wines and then coffee as American consumers’ tastes evolved.
“What we saw happen to wine — it exploded in the 1980s, went from two colors to different varietals — and coffee was just starting to percolate in the mid-1990s, with Starbucks: All of a sudden, instead of just Folger’s, you had espresso, lattes, mocha frappe, whatever.”
It got him thinking about tea, he said, at a time when “people didn’t even know the difference between Chinese and Japanese green tea.”
His breakthrough came when Alan Wong selected Tea Chest Hawaii’s pineapple tea “as his private select blend” when the chef opened the Pineapple Room.
Maui Tea Farms’ Haleakala tea, Goo said, is the first finished tea to result from a USDA specialty crop block grant that Tea Chest Hawaii received to propagate tea around the state in 2012 and 2014, for an aggregate total of $90,000.
First, he said, the plants were propagated by Eliah Hallpenny and her husband, Cam Muir, a
biologist, of Big Island Tea, who grew them on their Big Island farm from seeds bought in India that matched their climate zone.
“It could fall into the category of black, but because it’s 100% hand-processed, it kind of borders on an oolong or a lighter-oxidized black tea — very soft, sweet, with a lot of amino acids,” Goo said of Haleakala tea. “It’s very special.”
Green, white, black and oolong teas all come from the same evergreen plant, camellia sinensis, which is indigenous to India and China, the de Roodes said.
The difference comes through processing.
Black tea is left to wither and dry overnight or up to 18 hours after picking to allow it to fully oxidize before it is rolled, then dried at a low heat to “slightly cook it and finish off the oxidation,” Andrea de Roode said.
Oolong tea is allowed to wither and oxidize after picking like a black tea, but only for about half the time before it’s cooked, rolled and dried, resulting in a sweeter, milder taste.
Green tea is heated immediately after harvesting by steaming or roasting to prevent oxidation, which turns leaves brown. The leaves are then removed from the heat source, rolled and dried.
White tea is the least processed and mildest tea: After the leaves are picked, they’re left to wither and dry, with no heating or rolling.
In addition to its Haleakala Black Tea, Pono Infusions offers a blend of green and white teas, a black chai (spiced) tea, and pure, caffeine-free infusions, such as mamaki and hibiscus/citrus, that do not come from
camellia sinensis, but from flowers, fruits and herbs.
Whatever type you choose, a good cup of tea should start with loose-leaf tea rather than tea bags, the de Roodes advise.
“Tea bags use fannings — the lowest-grade, crumbly, dusty tea,” Andrea de Roode said,
resulting in less complex tastes than premium, intact leaves. Plus, all tea bags contain some degree of plastic, she said.
And loose-leaf tea can be re-brewed four to five times in a French press, tea ball or strainer, using hot (190- to 200-degree), not boiling water.
As a general rule, the first brew should steep for no more than three to four minutes; add about a minute for each subsequent brew.