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Our second tea from Hawaii is a toasty oolong made by furniture maker and tea-grower Mike Riley.

Mike Riley’s Hawaiian Mauka Oolong

by on November 9th, 2012

Canton Tea Club Week 6: Hawaiian Mauka Oolong

Following on from the Hawaiian green last week, we bring you another tea from Hawaii: an oolong made by tea-grower and fine wood-worker Mike Riley. Mike is Hawaii’s leading force in growing and developing oolong teas in Hawaii, and he spoke to Kate about Hawaii’s tea history and how tea and furniture compliment each other!

Kate: Eva told us last week that tea has been in commercial production in Hawaii for the past six years. Can you tell us a bit more about the history of tea in Hawaii?
Mike: Sugar plantations over a hundred years ago were bringing workers to Hawaii from China, Japan and the Philippines. Some of these workers brought tea seeds from their homeland and planted small backyard patches for their own use, none of them tried to make a business from tea. Lipton came to Hawaii years ago and experimented with growing tea in Hawaii but the cost of shipping and labour put an end to their efforts here. The first people to market and sell Hawaii grown tea began growing in the mid 1990’s and their tea has only been available to the public through a few retailers for the past six years.

Kate: What aspects of Hawaii’s climate do you think aid the production of tea? 
Mike: Hawaii’s climate makes it a perfect location to cultivate tea. On the windward side of the island we have abundant rainfall, deep rich volcanic soil and mild winters.

Kate: Why did you start growing tea?
Mike: My wife works for the USDA at the agricultural experiment station on the Big Island, her boss Dr. Francis Zee began researching the possibility of growing tea in Hawaii in the mid 1990’s, that’s when I became involved.

Kate: Tell me about where you cultivate your tea. 
Mike: Volcano Tea Garden is located at the 3600 foot elevation on the windward slope of Kilauea Volcano, we specialize in processing oolong but also produce white, green and black teas.

Kate: How do you process your tea?
Mike: We have been fortunate in Hawaii to have had some of the leading experts and scientists in the world of tea visit us, each one of them has shared freely their knowledge of cultivation, propagation and processing. Mr. Yamashita, a living treasure from Japan taught us how to process his green tea. Mr. Fan, third generation oolong farmer from Taiwan has guided us for many years in processing high quality oolong. I process tea using the methods they have taught me.

Kate: What is your favourite aspect of producing tea?
Mike: There is no set formula for processing high quality oolong tea, for it to be done properly many things must be taken into account. It’s like a chess match where every move affects the outcome, I enjoy the challenge.

Kate: How does producing tea fit in with the other activities in your life (i.e. your furniture making)?
Mike: The common thread of tea production and furniture making is art. To excel it is important to understand the basic requirements of your medium and know when to let your heart take control.

Kate: Finally, why do you think Hawaii-grown tea is special? 
Mike: There is only one Hawaii. Everywhere in the world people think of Hawaii as a paradise with pristine beaches, pure air and water and spectacular sunsets… now add tea!

Do you prefer your oolongs to taste: (you can choose more than one response)

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By the way, I can't choose more than one response in your questionnaire.


I'm trying it now with Gaiwan. After 2 infusions i have to say it's probably the most peculiar tea of the club since now. It's really toasty and i feel the broccoli and peas, not the honey but i'll go on with infusions and see what happens.

I hope i won't be killed me but it reminds something of a japanese tea, it's so herbal in my opinion


With Gaiwan method, as the tea unfolds, ones overall view changes.

Over 12 infusions, from 10 secs to several minutes, you get, in order:

Tropical fruit; definately not apricot, maybe pineapple.

A fish sauce nose and flavour (not unpleasant.)

Nuttiness, with a different, less specific and slightly sweeter fruitiness

Towards the end, buttery with linseed and vegetal and, still, an intense tropical fruit flavour.


This is a beautiful oolong, with loads of strong flavbours for a tea barely oxydised and really good staying power.

Using a "quick" method the tea impresses even more. 

3 mins, 4 mins, 5mins

The flavours are deeper, sweeter and there are extra ones, such as grass, boiled sweets, damp straw and even more tropical fruit gums.

A liitle of each infussion held back at the end and drunk together produces a fabulous cupfull. All the flavours are there, together and with intensity and a taste of, well, tea!

I was left feeling that this had slayed any top notch chinese or Taiwan oolong I'ld had, no mean feat, indeed.  5* Tea



STOP PRESS! Eva has just informed us that this week's tea is 'Mauka' oolong, not 'Makua'. Mauka means 'towards the mountain' - exactly where this tea is grown.


I enjoyed the oolong much more than the Hawaiian green. It has very unique aroma, sweet and floral but there’s also something indescribable in it. It could be more full-bodied but the sweet flavour of chocolate biscuits, flowers and fruit mixed in one tea is so lovely. It changes into more “typical” oolong from third infusion from, with sweet nutty and floral tones. Lovely tea!


Took me awhile to weigh in on this, but - believe it or not - I've actually tried this before about a year ago. Or at least, a permutation of it. Ol' Mikey isn't kidding when he says that the method varies per oolong. The crop from 2011 was VERY fruity in comparison to this year's. Almost tropical.


However, this year's took on a characteristic I didn't run into last time - butter. Lots of it. In every way, this reminded me of a "young tree", high-altitude Taiwanese Ali Shan - 'cept with twisty leaves instead of ball-fisted. It's definitely got a rougher forefront than its older kin, but it delivers where it counts.


Just like the green, this one has an amazingly unique scent, although I find the flavour is a little bit more predictable. Floral/buttery/honey, and yes even the broccoli/peas of the description on the aftertaste. I'm not so convinced by the description of red fruits/berries, however I do get some pleasant spiciness coming through.


 @lazy_literatus The Hawaii-grown teas do tend to vary from year to year - in the next blog Jane Pettigrew talks more about it.