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Hawaii's Volcanic Soil Makes the State a Tea-Producing Paradise

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Hawaii is the hippest state in the country to grown tea.

Kathy YL Chan

The bulk of the world's tea is grown in Asiathink China, Taiwan, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka. A combination of climate, traditions and culture are the primary reasons the tea industry has thrived for over centuries in these countries. But the newest hotbed for tea production is not in Asia, but Hawaii.

The U.S. tea industry is a quickly growing 11 billion dollar business, and practically all of those funds stem from imported leaves. But things are changing. The tea plant was first introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800s in hopes that it would become a commodity crop, but it didn’t turn out to be as profitable as pineapple and sugarcane. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of farmers re-explored the idea of commercial tea farming. Hawaii’s local USDA office, along with University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, aided in research and helped to establish cultivars. Fast forward thirty years and today there are approximately two dozen tea farms in Hawaii. A small fraction of that number operate as steady businesses consistently producing quality tea.

Photos by Kathy YL Chan

Visualize this on a map. Hawaii consist of eight islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Niihau, and the Island of Hawaii (the Big Island). The heart of Hawaii’s tea growing industry is on the Big Island, specifically on the Hilo/east side. Kona, which is on the west side, is world famous for coffee. The Kona climate is perfectly suited to grow coffee, while the Hilo climate is ideal for growing tea. That means, for tea to thrive in Hawaii, a farm needs acidic soil, good drainage, higher elevation, 75 to 90 percent humidity, 65 to 80°F temperatures, ample sunlight, among many other factors.

Hawaiian tea is especially noteworthy for two reasons. Since all tea is essentially grown on volcanic soil, the leaves take on a distinct flavor. Similar to how an experienced tea drinker can distinguish between a tea produced in, say, China versus India or Taiwan versus Japan, tea from Hawaii stands out with it’s own flavor profile, which generally tastes bright and clear, with elements of citrus and a subtle honey-esque sweetness.

As a newer tea-producing state without a longstanding tea culture, farmers don’t adhere to one particular type or style. Also, many tea varieties flourish in Hawaii's warm climate. Japan is known for its history of green teas and Taiwan for oolongs. But in Hawaii, each individual farm has its own method of growing and style of production.

One of three noteworthy tea farms on the Big Island, Eliah Halpenny and Cam Muir started Big Island Tea in 2001. They’re located in Kilinoe Forest, 40-minutes south of Hilo town. They hand pick (as opposed to machine pick) and process all leaves, which are grown at 3,000 feet elevation (cooler temperatures found at high elevation help produce a naturally sweeter tea). They focus on two types of tea, one named `A`a Black Tea and another called Kilinoe Green Tea. The black brews up a deep mahogany liquor with notes of dried cherry and caramel, while the green is fresh, hinting of citrus. Both black and green dried leaves are distinct for their twisted appearance.

Twelve-year-old Onomea Tea Company is a venture by Mike Longo and Rob Nunally, and their leaves grow closer to the northern tip of the Big Island, right along the cliffs of the Hamakua Coast. Here, they experiment with a number of tea cultivars including Yabukita, Yutaka Midori, Benikaori (all popular in Japan) and their own hybrids (Longo was previously a daylily hybridizer). Onomea’s organic teas are processed in small batches, and they offer an Ono Black, Green, Oolong, White, and Ono Koko Kia dark and rich fermented tea akin to pu’erh. On occasion, they create delicate teas scented with native Hawaiian flowers (not to be confused with flavored teas, other examples of scented teas are jasmine pearls and osmanthus oolong).

Eva Lee and Chiu Leong run Tea Hawaii & Company, tucked away in the rainforest. They’re at 4,000 feet elevation and produce a Forest White, Volcano Green, Mauka Oolong (with notes of papaya and honey), and a brisk, bright Makai Black. The husband and wife team approach tea from a cultural and arts background, which is evidenced in their focus on aesthetics, from the tea garden's landscaping to ceramics (made by Chiu) they sell with the teas.

Hawaii's high cost of labor and growing tea leaves ensures that tea will never be a bulk commodity crop for the state, but rather a speciality item. Island land is limited, and each farmer’s commitment to creating a particular style of tea assures that the focus is on small, very high quality production. And that is for the better.