Zealong is New Zealand’s only commercial tea plantation. Zealong grows, processes and packages its tea in New Zealand and markets it as a niche product around the world including traditional tea-growing nations.

Thinking about growing tea is likely to conjure up images of tea plantations in Asia. The idea of a tea plantation in New Zealand’s predominantly farming landscape is more unexpected. While other teas may bear the New Zealand name because they are blended for the New Zealand palate, none of these are grown or processed in New Zealand.

Identifying the opportunity

Taiwanese immigrants to New Zealand Tzu Chen and his son Vincent, founders of Zealong, first dreamed about growing tea in New Zealand when they noticed how well camellias grow here. Tea is an important part of their Taiwanese culture, so knowing that the camellia was a relative of the tea plant, they were inspired to investigate whether they could grow tea in New Zealand.

Trial and development

Zealong launched its first commercial tea products in December 2009, but it was 13 years earlier that Vincent had imported tea plant cuttings from Taiwan and began developing a New Zealand-grown tea brand. He began experimenting with 130 seedlings – the only survivors after quarantine of 1500 propagated seedlings.

After years of trial and error learning to grow the seedlings into healthy tea plants and propagate new seedlings in the environmental conditions of the Waikato, Vincent now has a plantation with over 1 million plants. With no other tea growers in New Zealand to learn from, Vincent sought help and advice from a variety of sources in both New Zealand and Taiwan, including bringing in pickers and an expert tea-maker from Taiwan. Gradually, locally employed workers are developing picking skills. The nuances of the tea-making process, however, are complex and unwritten. Taiwanese tea-makers learn the craft through many years of observing and working with expert tea-makers until they become experts themselves. It will take time to record the intricacies of the process and develop local expertise.

Zealong’s point of difference

The Zealong brand name was carefully chosen to reflect its unique source (New Zealand) and the type of tea (oolong). The brand also reflects the unique qualities of Zealong tea that differentiate it from traditional Asian grown teas. It is these points of difference that are contributing to its increasing success in the international market.

Highest-quality food safety standards

In New Zealand, any product produced for human consumption is subject to New Zealand food safety regulations – a risk-based regulatory system underpinned by sound science. By contrast, in the traditional tea-growing regions of Asia, tea is classified as an agricultural product, which means there are less stringent regulations relating to food safety.

In addition to meeting New Zealand food safety regulations, Zealong has chosen to have its product certified to the strict ISO 22000 standard. Developed by the International Organization for Standardization, ISO standards are voluntary and are recognised around the world. To meet this standard, Zealong has implemented systems to identify and control all potential hazards at each step of the food chain from farm to final packaged tea. These systems are known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). Compliance with these standards gives consumers confidence that the highest food safety standards have been applied throughout all stages of the food chain, from farm practices to final packaging.

Traceability

Zealong tea is fully traceable. A unique identification code given to each batch of tea allows the batch to be tracked through the supply chain from the part of the plantation it is picked from and the date of picking, to factory processing, packaging and transport to retail customers. In the event of any issue, this code can be traced back to its source, and if necessary, the batch can be recalled. Food traceability protects consumers against foodborne hazards and deceptive marketing practices and gives customers confidence in the authenticity of the product.

Organic certification

Zealong grows its tea organically. In the New Zealand environment, this is relatively easy to do compared to Asian countries where the tea plant is more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Zealong tea is certified organic by BioGro. The BioGro trademark is trusted throughout the world, giving consumers confidence in the organic claim. BioGro requires farmers to use only natural forms of fertilisers and other soil-building practices. To maintain BioGro certification, Zealong must record all products they use in growing and processing their tea – these products must all be on the approved BioGro list or undergo testing to ensure they meet the standard.

Meeting demand from more discerning consumers

Zealong’s desire to ensure its tea meets the highest possible quality standards is meeting demand from more discerning consumers worldwide. Increasingly, today’s consumers are more aware and better informed about health concerns and global issues affecting sustainability and food security. People want to be able to trust the food that they choose, and this is driving demand for products with guarantees of quality, safety and authenticity.

A first for New Zealand

Zealong has transformed 50 hectares of traditional dairy land in the Waikato to a tea plantation. This alternative land use is more lucrative per hectare than dairy farming (growing tea makes about $120,000 per hectare, compared to dairy, which makes $40,000, and wine, which makes $80,000), employs more people and, by farming organically, has less environmental impact.

Not only has Zealong succeeded in establishing the first commercial tea production in New Zealand but the unique qualities of the tea are meeting demand from discerning tea drinkers around the world, including Asian countries where tea has been part of the culture for thousands of years.

Useful links

Listen to this interview with Zealong GM, Gigi Crawford, on Radio New Zealand 'Growing Chinese tea in Waikato'.

Find out more about ISO 22000 – Food safety management on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) website

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded in 1947. Since then, they have developed more than 19 500 international standards. Find out more about this organisation on the ISO website.

Learn more about organics on the BioGro website.

Comprehensive information on food safety regulations in New Zealand is available on the Ministry for Primary Industries Food Safety website.

    Published 24 September 2013, Updated 24 May 2015