by ali on July 18th, 2014
Canton Tea Club Week 94: Zealong Pure Oolong
Jane Pettigrew introduces this unusual tea from New Zealand and explains the origins of Zealong tea.
I first met the Zealong team in 2010 when I visited the Japanese Green Tea Festival in Shizuoka, Japan. Amongst the milling hundreds of tea lovers at this three-yearly event, I came across Vincent Chen, the determined and tenacious tea farmer behind this impressive new brand of oolong teas grown near Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island. I was so fascinated and impressed by the teas he was making that I pestered him for his story. Four years and many emails later, I visited the Zealong plantation, tasted more teas, walked the estate, took afternoon tea on the wide airy deck of the gorgeous tearoom and came away more impressed than ever.
The four oolongs and the new green tea made at the garden are so wonderful that it is hard to choose a favourite. But perhaps I do lean very slightly in favour of the delicious ‘Pure’ oolong that captures all the expected intense floral aromas of a really well-made balled oolong and layers of sweet buttery fruity notes with hints of green grapes and melon and just a vague suggestion of spice.
The idea of growing tea in New Zealand took root shortly after Victor’s family moved to New Zealand from Taiwan in 1996. Because they loved Taiwanese tea, they obviously took a stock with them when they headed off to their new home. And then, one day when Vincent and his father Tsu Chen were admiring the profusion of camellias blooming happily in a neighbour’s garden, they had a eureka moment and realised that of course they didn’t need to import a regular supply of tea from Taipei but could probably grow their own tea right there in New Zealand.
So in 2000, they bought a fifteen acre plot of land that had once been a dairy farm and organized for 1500 leaf cuttings to be harvested from plants in Taiwan, packed into wet paper and shipped to Hamilton. As soon as the cuttings entered the country, New Zealand government officials took charge, planted them in specially approved compost, and kept control of the plants development in strict quarantine. When they notified Vincent more than a year later that his baby plants were ready for collection, Vincent headed off with a hired truck to collect them but, to his dismay, found that only a hundred of the plants had survived!
Instead of complaining and criticizing the customs officials for allowing so many of the cuttings to die, Vincent adopted the true spirit of a pioneer who has resolved to succeed no matter what and took the view that the surviving plants were obviously the strongest and most robust and would make perfect mother bushes from which to breed new plants. He was proved correct and, since then, has planted out 1.2 million tea plants – all propagated from those original hardy little bushes. The aim is to eventually have 2 million plants in the ground.
In 2004, a factory was built and fitted out with essential oolong-processing machinery brought in from Taiwan and the first teas were launched in 2009. Today, the entire operation is expanding and a new factory is currently being built on a four acres site next to the tea farm and by the end of 2015, as well as the Camellia Tea House and Pavilion that already attract thousands of visitors every year, there will also be a plant nursery and new conference centre. At the moment, the estate’s annual yield is some 100 tons of fresh leaf which is processed into 24 tons of tea, but the farm and factory will be able to process 40-50 tons of tea when all the current building work is finished.
As well as the ‘Pure’ oolong, Zealong makes an ‘Aromatic’ oolong that has sweet syrupy, bakey notes and hints of apricots; an intense and complex ‘Dark’ oolong that is powerful and floral and carries hints of dark chocolate; and a gentle ‘Black’ that is light and soft and sweet. And the Zealong green tea is a work in progress that promises to be every bit as exiting and delicious as the oolongs.