It was time for the tea party, and Barnabe, head cat at Maui Tea Farm on the upper slopes of Haleakala, was ready to go in his harness and retractable leash.
Bounding ahead of his owners, Alex and Andrea de Roode, the big, fluffy Siberian led the way downhill to the tea plot of the Kula farmhouse as his feral girlfriend, Blackie, trailed behind.
The view, from 4,000 feet above sea level, was distracting — a vast expanse of ocean and sky, the spreading coastal plain and dark mountains of South Maui — but guests had to keep their eyes on the steep path covered with black-plastic weed matting and slippery koa leaves.
It was a cool, sunny mountain day. In a level clearing, in the shade of a spreading koa tree, stood a small table set with four china cups and saucers, a French press and a small bowl with a smattering of shriveled black leaves.
“This is all that’s left, for now, of our Haleakala black tea,” said Andrea de Roode, 33, a tall brunette, with a laugh, referring to their new, organic Haleakala Black Estate Tea, which won a bronze medal at the 2018 Global Tea Championships in Boulder, Colo.
“We just finished a harvest, and all of it was bought by Halekulani, except for this little bit of less-than-perfect leaves that we kept for ourselves.”
“It’s not as pretty, but it should taste just as good,” said the even taller Alex de Roode, 42. “Hopefully.”
The couple explained that their Haleakala tea is so rare it can only be tasted, currently, at Halekulani Resorts in Honolulu and Okinawa, but their marketing company, Pono Infusions, sells it when available at ponoinfusions.com. They also sell mamaki tea they make from the Native Hawaiian shrub, as well as blends they make with organic chai, hibiscus, chamomile, lemongrass and citrus they import from Asia, Egypt and Mexico. All are certified organic except the mamaki, which they grow using the same methods.
“We’re slowly trying to incorporate more Hawaii ingredients, and we’re starting to grow lemon- grass,” said Andrea de Roode.
Her husband explained their production is limited because it’s just the two of them, with some family help, who do all the clearing, fertilizing (with compost, leaf litter and chicken manure), planting, weeding and other pest control (ladybugs help by eating aphids and mites), harvesting and processing by hand.
The good news, Alex de Roode said, was that their Kula soil was already rich and dark, filled with microorganisms. “We don’t really irrigate,” he added, “in part because we don’t have time, but also because this makes the seedlings send their tap roots deeper and become more drought resistant.”
In the sunlight stood neat rows of dark-green, waist-high camellia sinensis bushes, from which the Haleakala tea is harvested, plucked leaf by leaf. “We only take the new growth, known as pekoe,” said Alex de Roode, indicating some pale green leaves that had sprouted since the recent harvest.
Here and there, delicate, bright-yellow blossoms dotted the bushes; these had to be plucked, in order to direct the tea plant to focus its energy on growing rather than seeding.
Processing is painstaking, Andrea de Roode said: They pick the tea and let it sit overnight “because you want it to wither at least 18 hours to start dehydrating and oxidizing, which releases different flavor compounds, antioxidants and tannin.”
Then they roll it by hand to break down the cell structure, permitting more oxidation, which releases more flavenols and other chemicals, she said. “It also gives my wrists repetitive stress — almost no one rolls by hand anymore; it’s all by machine.”
All teas, she explained, come from the same species of plant, but there are many different varietals; their Haleakala black is descended from a variety called Darjeeling, which comes from India, “but because ours was grown here from seed, it has unique (Hawaii properties).”
Camellia sinensis is a tree that will grow to 15 feet if you let it, added her husband, but they hedge theirs at waist height, which is ideal for harvesting by hand; they hope to be able to afford a harvesting machine someday.
Their most recent harvest provided about 10 pounds of fresh leaf, which resulted in two pounds of finished, loose leaf tea that were sold to Halekulani.
The bushes were about 5 years old, said the de Roodes, who bought the 1.5-acre property and planted the camellia sinensis rows in 2014; they have half an acre planted in tea and hope to plant another half-acre next year.
Before then they were growing camellia sinensis from seedlings in pots at their previous home, lower down in Kula. By the time they moved, they had amassed 800 potted seedlings through a USDA grant obtained by distributor Tea Chest Hawai‘i. Later they received another 800 plants, some of which remain beneath their farmhouse deck, having rooted through their pots into the soil before the couple could find time to transfer them. Both work full-time jobs, she as a dietician at Maui Memorial Medical Center and he as energy commissioner for Maui County.
It was a race against time to clear and prepare enough of the land, which had been a protea farm until 2000, when the property became purely residential and overrun by weeds.
They also put up a fence to keep out pigs and axis deer, and planted native plants and trees; their goal is to have an agro-forestry farm, with the tea growing beneath the understory of taller trees, that supports a diversity of species, including native birds and insects. Diversity is also a hedge against climate change, which alters plants’ growing zones and vulnerability to pests, Alex de Roode said.
Which is also why they aim to grow several varietals of tea: “We don’t want to have all our eggs in one basket.”
What makes their Haleakala black tea so unique?
“It’s the terroir” — meaning the soil, the microclimate and the other plants and pollinators in the surrounding environment — said Alex de Roode, who grew up in France, his mother’s home country, and Maui, where his father worked for Intercontinental Hotels and he was a student at Seabury Hall. His wife grew up mostly in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and they met in New York.
Hawaii, he said, has thousands of microclimates, but Kula is ideal, overall, for growing tea, which thrives in sunny days with cold nights and winters, and the cloud mists that provide moisture without the heavy rainfalls that Haiku and Olinda receive.
Tea trees can be more productive and tough if they get periodically shocked by drought and cold, he explained as he poured hot water from insulated bottles into the French press on the tea table.
After a while he turned to his wife and asked, “Do you think it’s ready?”
“I think so. It’s steeped about four minutes, hasn’t it?” she replied. “If you use boiling water or brew the tea too long, it can ruin it,” she told their guests. “You want to taste the nuances.”
Lying outstretched in the shade of the iliahi, or sandalwood tree, where he was tethered, Barnabe watched as his master plunged the top of the French press and poured the tea into the cups.
It was a clear, medium orange- brown, warm rather than scalding hot, and tasted refreshing, light and delicious in a complex way.
Alex de Roode took a sip. “It’s a spring harvest. It tastes more astringent,” he said. “Fall and winter harvests are more malty, sweeter.”
“Yum. There’s a little umami,” Andrea de Roode said.
It tasted like honey, one of the guests said. It had a slightly salty, fruit flavor, said another. (Pono Infusions’ website describes it as having “notes of caramel and honeysuckle.”)
Alex de Roode carefully scooped up the remaining Haleakala black tea leaves into a small brown envelope and sealed it shut.
“We feel good about the work we put into our tea; it’s a labor of love and it’s beautiful,” he said, gazing around his land.
As he unhooked Barnabe’s leash, he pointed out how the iliahi grew over and around an aalii tree.
“Iliahi is epithetic — it needs a partner plant to feed off or it’ll die,” he said, “so we put aalii by it.”
“They make a pretty good team,” said his wife.
One could say the same about the pair who had planted them.