Most of the world's tea is grown and imported from south-east Asia: China, Taiwan, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka. But in August 2019, Eileen and I explored the big island of Hawaii, for made-in-the-USA tea to bring home.
For centuries, the perfect growing climate, diet and culture kept tea as a critical cash crop in Asia. While tea was first introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800’s, it never became as profitable as pineapple, sugarcane, and later of course, coffee.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that tea became interesting again. The University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and the USDA got involved to research and promote tea farming, business, and employment opportunities. While the new industry’s growth is slow, there are now a few dozen farms producing mostly on the big island, and nearly all on the wetter eastern/Hilo side. The western/Kona and southern/Ka'u sides are drier and more suited for coffee.
It turns out that eastern big island is just perfect for growing tea like in Asia. A tea garden needs 80°F temperatures, high 75 to 90% humidity, over 100” rainfall, acidic soil, very good drainage, and plenty of sunlight balanced with misty shade clouds. What is not perfect is the very high cost of producing Hawaii Tea. There is no bulk commodity tea in Hawaii due to the high cost of labor, fairly small farms (island land is expensive and limited), and very small quality production. True “Hawaii Tea” is a limited specialty, similar to true “100% Kona" coffee (these exact phases are the only way you legaly know it’s real). !00% Pure Kona, 100% Quality Kona, or Hawaiian Tea, or anything else means all bets are off for what you bought.
Bonus tip: Try “Ka’u” coffee. The locals on big island say the quality is same or better than Kona, tastes less acidic… and it’s usually cheaper.
Hawaii Tea is very desirable and worth the cost and effort to obtain for three important reasons. Since all Hawaii Tea is essentially grown on volcanic soil and the evenings are cooler than in Asia, the leaves take on a distinct flavor. Similar to how a tea lover can distinguish between a tea produced in China versus India, or Taiwan versus Japan. Hawaii Tea stands out with it’s own flavor profile, which generally tastes bright and clear, with elements of citrus and a subtle honey-like sweetness.
Secondly, the completely natural and organic biodiversity of many Hawaii farms is as important as the tea plants and trees themselves. There is more attention given to not only a chemical free environment, but to the compatibility and symbiotic relationship between tea and non-tea flora and forest. There are no large acres of just tea rows, but instead tea rows among other companion plants. This is the healthiest tea you can drink.
Finally, as a newer tea-producing zone without an ancient history of tea tradition, farmers don’t adhere to one particular type or style. Many tea varieties flourish in Hawaii's warm climate. China is known for black tea, 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. We visited many of the more established gardens. We picked & processed tea, had long discussions about their individual philosophies while drinking a lot of tea. We occasionally shared meals and stayed overnight at the tea gardens.
We had the privilege to spend an entire day with Stuart and Randy who oversee the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture, Mealani Research Station near Waimea. This is where the current day genesis of Hawaii Tea occurred with the cooperation of the USDA. We toured the facility, walked the tea gardens where the experimental tea was first planted in the 1990’s. We hand-picked and processed tea in their style to bring home.
Although the owners of Mauna Kea Tea were traveling on an adventure themselves, we had a great day with assistant Kayla, touring and tasting tea grown on the slopes of the highest mountain in the Pacific Ocean. Mauna Kea Tea produces a little more volume and a few different grades of green tea, so their prices are a little less expensive. We have decide to source a small amount to make it available to our customers.
We stayed a couple days with Eliah and Cam, owners of Big Island Tea. They’re located in Kilinoe Forest, south of Hilo. With them, we hand picked and processed green tea grown at 3,000 feet elevation to bring home. Large twisted leaf appearance, with taste crisp and fresh, hinting of citrus.
Visited with Bob at his farm Hawaii Rainforest Tea, in the middle of nowhere off the grid. Bob is a veteran farmer, with a background fit for an adventure novel, and a very small batch white tea specialist. We purchased a small amount of the best white tea we’ve ever tried.
Spent three days at the Onomea Tea Company run by Mike and Rob. The tea flourishes near the northern tip of the big island, 200 feet up from the surf along the cliffs of the Hamakua Coast. With them, we picked and processed tea, while watching schools of dolphins jumping in the bay. It’s just a surreal property.
Finally we spent a couple days with Eva and Chiu at the Tea Hawaii & Company farm, tucked away at the 4,000 foot elevation rainforest, and basically on the Kilauea volcano. This was the most zen portion of our trip. The aesthetics of the tea rows mingled in natural forest, the Japanese style house, studio, and tea production area, surrounded by meditative garden and ponds. Again we hand picked and processed green & black tea to bring home. We also picked up a couple unique ceramic bowls. This husband and wife team approach to life was amazing. We would love to return, and enjoy this place with a few other Trailhead Tea fans.
We’ve enjoyed sharing our experience with you. Let us know if you’ve found this interesting, have questions, or if you would even be curious about scheduling a similar trip like this. As mentioned, very small amounts of Hawaii Tea was brought back to Trailhead Tea. It is fairly expensive, so we pack in one half ounce packages. It's like having a small glass of fine wine, instead of buying the case. Just enough to savor the experience. It can be found in the store, and on its own main tab on the TrailheadTea.com