Move Over Coffee—Hawaii Sees Growth in a New Crop

By Colleen Luckett

Hawaii is best known for its robust coffee production (Kona and Kauai coffee, Mmmmm), but did you know tea farming is increasing on the Big Island? With a lush and rich ecosystem, Hawaii is pretty much a shoe-in for productive tea crops. But is the market  sustainable? Hawaiian farmers are willing to take that risk.

Tea isn’t a brand new crop in Hawaii. Tea plantings in the area date back to 1887, around the time the first tea plants were arriving in Africa. In 1892, the Hawaiian Coffee and Tea Company planted five acres of tea plants in Kona. However, by the end of the 19th century, even with a favorable growing environment, tea became too labor-intensive to be profitable. Along came sugar, and tea production went quiet for nearly a century. After some time, the sugar industry felt the pinch of labor rights and changing markets during the first half of the twentieth century. Nearing the 1960s, it became more profitable to grow sugar outside Hawaii, and the “Big Five” sugar companies were forced to look into alternative crops to make up for the loss. That’s when tea reappeared, and only in the past couple decades has its production picked up steam.

Hawaiian tea is especially remarkable for this major reason: because it’s grown on volcanic soil, the leaves take on a distinct flavor, which generally tastes bright and clear, with elements of citrus and, because many of the teas are grown at a higher altitude, a subtle honey-like sweetness.

A Handful of Hawaii’s Tea Farms

The heart of Hawaii’s tea-growing resides on the Big Island and populates the Hilo/East side. Here are a few of the most noteworthy:

Onomea Tea Farm: Just north of Hilo, overlooking Onomea Bay, lies the Onomea Tea Farm. Onomea is Hawaiian for “good place.” With a relatively low elevation of 200 feet, it still boasts beautiful views and, evidently, you can watch whales pass by from the nearby tea fields! Proprietors Mike Longo and Rob Nunally grow delicious certified organic teas, but also put effort into returning the property’s other vegetation to a more natural state (it was overgrown with invasive, exotic plant species when they bought the property).

 
Tea Onomea_WorkersPlanting.jpg
Tea Onomea_blendofseedlings-600x397.jpg
 

They experiment with several tea cultivars including Yabukita, Yutaka Midori, Benikaori (all popular in Japan) and their own hybrids. Onomea’s teas are processed in small batches, offering an Ono Black, Green, Oolong, White, and Ono Koko Ki—a dark and rich fermented tea akin to pu’erh. Occasionally, they create teas scented with Hawaiian flowers.

 

Big Island Tea: Another notable tea farm on the Big Island is Big Island Tea (aptly named!), founded by Eliah Halpenny and Cam Muir in 2001. Set amidst vast preserved forest land at 2800 feet, Big Island Tea is in Kilinoe Forest, 40-minutes south of Hilo town.

 
BigIsland_Tea plants in the forest2.jpg
BigIsland_Tea plants in the forest.jpg
 

Rather than machine pick and process all leaves, they hand-pick. They focus on two types of tea: `A`(a Black Tea) and Kilinoe Green Tea. The black brews up a deep mahogany liquor with traces of dried cherry and caramel, whereas the green is fresh, with a hint of citrus. Big Island Tea’s entire production is purchased and sold by Harrod’s, London’s most famous high-end department store!

Mauna Kea Tea Farm:  Located at just over 2000 feet elevation on Kona's north side, Mauna Kea Tea Farm is one of the largest on the Big Island. Taka and Kimberly Ino founded this farm after extensive research and study in tea agriculture, and they take great pride in “following the way of nature” in their organic farming practices. Their standard offerings include Premium Green, Spring Green, Sweet Roast, and Oolong.

2013 3149 Feb 28 Mauna Kea Tea rows_72.jpg
 My father talking with Kimberly Ino about First Flush green tea growth. First Flush Premium Green Tea is harvested in early spring when Hawaiian rainy winter slowly warms and tea starts to grow again. Newly emerging tips of the first flush are timed precisely for best conditions to get a richer and cleaner-tasting flavor.

My parents toured this lovely farm and visited with co-founder Kimberly Ino. During the visit, my father talked with her about First Flush green tea. It's harvested in early spring when the Hawaiian rainy winter slowly warms and tea starts to grow again. Newly emerging tips of the first flush are timed precisely for best conditions to get a richer and cleaner-tasting flavor. My mother and father also experienced what turned out to be a private tea tasting with Kimberly, during which they learned a lot about growing, roasting, and grading methods for tea.

2013 3197 Feb 28 Mauna Kea Tea tasting Kimberly_72.jpg
 

As previously stated, Hawaii’s teas flourish in the warm climate. Japan is known for its green teas and Taiwan for oolongs. But in Hawaii, each farm has its own method of growing and style of production. Hawaii’s teas boast an incredible variety. Tea in Hawaii being less established, as well as Hawaii’s high cost of labor and limited land, ensures this will not be a bulk-commodity crop, but rather a specialized, diverse product—thus, keeping quality high and taste divine.

While brewing any kind of tea, don’t forget your favorite Tea Tabard teapot cozy from koffeekompanions.com to keep it hot and flavorful!

 Forest Florals  Tea Tabard teapot cover  is one of many cozy designs at koffeekompanions.com.

Forest Florals Tea Tabard teapot cover is one of many cozy designs at koffeekompanions.com.

 

Have you sampled some of Hawaii’s exquisite teas? Please let us know about it in the comments. 

Resources:

 https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/5/8/8558789/the-rise-of-tea-in-hawaii  Good general information on tea beginnings and locations in Hawaii (the Big Island). Bit on best conditions for growing and types of tea from Hawaii.

https://www.arborteas.com/news/discovering-tea-hawaii-style/  Covers tea agriculture (briefly) and describes the four main tea farms on Kona (the Big Island) Hawaii. Includes Mauna Kea, where we visited and sampled tea a few years back.

http://worldteanews.com/news/world-tea-community-news/tea-forest-hawaii-establishes-new-standard-quality  Interesting article about Big Island Tea and their made-from-scratch, biodiverse tea forest, which now plays host to about 6,000 tea plants. Shows how tea farmers are balancing tea production with Hawaii’s ecosystem.

https://www.freshcup.com/hawaiian-tea/  Good description of Hawaiian tea history, growing methods, types of farming, etc. A few paragraphs describe total number of growers, overall production, and potential.

 
Perry LuckettComment