Time for tea
New Zealanders once consumed more tea per capita than any other nation in the world. A resurgence in the popularity of boutique varieties, and—for the first time locally grown tea, may make it time for tea once again.
Until the introduction of specialty coffee into New Zealand in the late 1980s, tea was the preferred drink of New Zealanders, and it is this ancient drink that is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. While New Zealand has its own native tea tree—manuka, or Leptospermum scoparium—this article focuses on real tea, that is, the leaves from the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Compared with the 5000-year-old tradition of tea consumption in China, New Zealand’s own 200-year history seems quite modest. However, the Kiwi spirit has left its imprint on the world of tea through innovations such as John Hart’s 1929 invention of the ‘Thermette’, a lightweight outdoor cooker to rapidly heat water. This spirit also led to a unique tea culture in this country.
The first black tea probably came to New Zealand with sealers in the late 18th century—a time when the British trading of New Zealand sealskins for Chinese tea flourished—but it was not until the arrival of British missionaries in the first half of the 19th century that a tea culture became established here. By 1850, tea had become the beverage of choice in all classes of society. As it had done in Britain before, tea slowly replaced the traditional ale for breakfast during the second half of the 19th century. It was strongly promoted by the temperance movement and was advertised as a drink that “refreshes but does not intoxicate”, possessing a wealth of health benefits. While many of these health claims were of a dubious nature (mainly due to adulteration through added ‘filler’ materials such as ash, other leaves, colouring minerals and even ore), the simple fact that the water had to be boiled to prepare tea brought with it a substantial improvement in public health.
Around 1850, the British East India Company had engaged a Scottish botanist by the name of Robert Fortune to commit one of the biggest corporate thefts in history. His mission was to steal tea plants and seeds from China to be planted in company-controlled territory in the Indian Himalayas.
The coup was designed to free Britain from dependency on China as a monopolistic trading partner. By 1900, the success of Fortune’s mission led to substantially lower tea prices by supplementing and eventually replacing the expensive Chinese black tea with cheaper tea produced in India.This increased tea consumption throughout the entire British Empire. By 1906, less than one per cent of tea imported into New Zealand was of Chinese origin, and from then on, nearly all tea came from the British colonies in India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).
There were a number of reasons for the meteoric rise in the popularity of tea. Rapid social change between 1850 and 1950 can be partly correlated with the growing importance of tea during that period. While tea changed social behaviour, in turn new cultural developments changed the way tea was consumed.
Until the introduction of tea gardens in New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century, women were limited to socialising with female friends in private homes. The establishment of tea gardens allowed women and men to promenade and attend a variety of entertainment together, in the outdoors. Between 1850 and 1880, numerous tea gardens—including Dunedin’s Vauxhall Gardens, Christchurch’s Cremorne and Cokers’ Gardens, Wellington’s Wilkinson Tea Garden and Auckland’s Waiata Tropical Gardens—were established and attracted large crowds. While the actual tea drinking was only a small part of this culture, it is doubtful that this would have ever developed in the absence of tea.
By the 1870s, New Zealand, together with Australia, had the highest tea consumption in the world, and by the turn of the century imported 3.1 kg of tea per capita per annum the English imported just 1.2 kg. (Today, New Zealand has an annual consumption of approximately 650 g per capita—45th highest in the world.)
The establishment of the first tearooms, which were to become an iconic part of New Zealand culture throughout the 20th century, did more for the liberation of women. Although the presence of men was tolerated, tearooms were essentially women’s territory and enabled them to socialise outside the confines of their homes.
Even after the decline in popularity of the tea gardens, Kiwis enjoyed drinking their ‘cuppa’ in the company of nature. One of the best examples of New Zealand’s obsession with taking tea in the outdoors is Harry Ell’s partially realised project. His vision was to create a network of walkways with conveniently spaced teahouses for resting along Christchurch’s Port Hills. The work on the project started in 1914, but of the 14 planned tea houses, only four were built. The iconic ‘Sign of the Kiwi’ on Dyers Pass still serves its original purpose to this day.
The duty on tea imported into New Zealand has always been a prominent factor in its price. Spurred on by the British East India Company’s success producing tea in India, the idea of growing tea in New Zealand surfaced, in part to avoid import taxes. However, it was not until the 1920s that tea received serious consideration as a cash crop. The rapid increase in the use of motor vehicles signalled the end of profitable horse feed agriculture, and a number of farmers around Motueka began looking for a new crop.
After careful analysis, the two most promising crops were deemed to be tea and tobacco. The latter seemed likely to bring easier and faster profits. It became the area’s staple cash crop until the 1970s, when its profitability diminished due to the abolition of legislation protecting the industry, because of growing health concerns about tobacco. Tea was considered again. After a visit to Australian tea farms by Motueka tobacco farmer Bert Skill-corn, the New Zealand Tea Company was formed by a co-operative of about 100 farmers. Test plots were established at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Riwaka Station in Motueka. It became clear that the original idea of growing black tea would not be economically viable due to the changing global tea markets. Enthusiasm for the project waned and most members of the co-operative left.
Through a stroke of luck, a Japanese businessman discovered the abandoned tea bushes a few years later. After initial tests, his company contracted the remaining 23 farmers of the co-operative to supply fresh green tea to Japan during the northern hemisphere’s off-season. The members of the New Zealand Tea Company were sworn to secrecy by their investor and a clause in the contract demanded that all existing tea plants in the South Island be destroyed prior to commencement of the project.
The destruction was intended to prevent cross-pollination by existing Camellia sinensis with the desired Yabukita variety. All tea plants that remained from failed experiments growing tea on the West Coast in the 1960s—as well as the plants originally planted around Motueka during the earlier trials—were destroyed and replaced by a single cultivar.
Over the course of six years, the original cuttings imported from Japan in 1981 were propagated to provide two million seedlings to cover the proposed 100 ha. At its peak, about 95 ha was planted in tea, with the first harvest produced a decade later in the spring of 1991. New Zealand’s climate, and possibly the use of the wrong cultivar for the local conditions, soon put a halt to the budding tea industry. A couple of severe frosts in the late spring of 1994 and 1995 destroyed the majority of the high-value first-growth crop. The high UV levels in New Zealand also led to tea leaves which did not have the desired bright-green colour of high-quality Japanese tea, but a yellower tone. While tea was grown in Motueka until the late 1990s, it never became a successful industry and was soon forgotten.
Around the same time, another effort to grow tea in New Zealand was under way in the North Island. Robert Evans from the Purangi Estate winery on the Coromandel Peninsula had a desire to preserve what remained of the tea plants in New Zealand. Having grown up in Hong Kong, he remembered the destruction of entire tea gardens for firewood. When he heard about the impending destruction of tea plants in the South Island, he gathered every variety he could find and established the Purangi Tea Collection. Over time, he collected 63 varieties of Camellia sinensis from as far away as Germany and planted them on his property outside Whitianga.
Throughout the 1990s, he investigated the possibility of black tea cultivation in New Zealand by visiting tea gardens and manufacturers in Asia, and conducted trials on his own property. These efforts culminated in the submission of a report summarising his findings to the Thames Valley Coromandel Business Development Board in 1997. The report demonstrated the feasibility of a profitable tea industry in small tea gardens on the Coromandel Peninsula, and possibly creating a new form of tea tourism with associated job opportunities.
As a testament to his efforts, the exotic cultivars on Purangi Estate now form an impressive grove up to three metres high. But though Evans continues to experiment with propagation, the industry he dreamed of has made little progress on the Coromandel.
It was not until that the first New Zealand-grown tea was successfully introduced to the international market. That year, the Waikato tea company, founded by Hamilton-based businessman Tzu Chen and his son Vincent 13 years before, launched its Zealong-branded tea with a mature, high-quality product that received industry-wide acclaim.
Zealong produces Taiwanese-style oolong teas under the supervision of Taiwanese tea master Ming-Hsun Yu. The harvest of leaves for high-quality tea is done by hand. During the three harvest seasons of late spring, summer and early autumn, Zealong employs 50–70 harvesters, half of whom are experienced tea pickers from Taiwan and the other half local workers, the latter being specifically trained for the demanding work. The freshly picked leaves are processed in Zealong’s own tea factory on-site at Gordonton, north of Hamilton, and made into a finished product over the course of 36 hours. Dairy-dominated Waikato has happily adopted the enthusiastic enterprise—after a period of scepticism—and the long green rows of tea bushes now create a feeling of otherworldly serenity among paddocks of cattle.
The success of Zealong, when compared to previous attempts to establish a tea industry in New Zealand, is perhaps partially due to timing. In recent years, a global trend towards higher-quality teas has also made its impact on New Zealand’s consumption habits—the public taste that was once limited to a “cup a’ gumboot” now favours single-estate varieties, leaf teas and herbal infusions.
Even the oldest tea company in New Zealand has acknowledged the trend. Bell Tea has been blending imported teas for more than a century and is best known for its ‘Original’ blend in the red box. But since the appointment of Bell’s master blender, Matt Greenwood, eight years ago, the company has created a number of blends ranging from green tea to oolong, and even tea aimed at children.
The demand for higher-quality mass-market tea also drives an emergence of specialty tea shops and better-educated tea consumers. In addition, the Kiwi penchant for travel and the resulting experience of exotic teas in Asia and India are partly responsible for growing demand in exclusive loose-leaf teas. After more than a century of failed attempts, a new climate of customer curiosity, experience and higher expectations of quality finally bode well for the cultivation of world-class Camellia sinensis. But whatever its commercial success as a commodity, tea has always formed a focal point of social life in New Zealand. In Littledene, a 1938 study of rural life in Oxford, North Canterbury, Crawford Somerset described the importance of morning and afternoon teas as events that “often assume the proportions of meals”.
“Go into their homes and tea appears as if by magic,” he wrote. “But the morning and afternoon tea habit is not by any means an adornment of the day. It grew out of pioneering times when to offer refreshment was to be a real friend.”