This video story presents an overview of the development of Zealong tea – the only tea commercially grown and processed in New Zealand. Starting with only 130 imported tea plants, Zealong now has an established tea plantation with over 1 million healthy tea plants in the Waikato where it produces its high-quality New Zealand oolong tea.
Zealong tea is certified organic by BioGro. This requires them to use only natural forms of fertilisers and farming practices. All products Zealong uses to grow and process their tea must be on the approved BioGro list or undergo testing to ensure they meet the standard.
- ISO 22000 certified: ISO standards are developed and audited by the International Organisation for Standardisation and are internationally recognised. ISO 22000 applies to food safety and requires the implementation of systems to identify and control all potential hazards at each step of the food chain from farm to final packaged product.
- Traceability: Traceability is a system that allows each batch of tea to be tracked through the supply chain from the patch where it was picked through processing and packaging to retail customers.
- Terroir: Terroir is a term that refers to the unique set of characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a particular region interacting with a plant’s genetics expresses in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate and tea.
Drinking tea is a Chinese tradition that’s over 5000 years old.
Most of the world’s tea is produced in Asia where growing conditions are ideal, but now a Taiwanese immigrant to New Zealand, Vincent Chen, is challenging this tradition. This is the story of Zealong – New Zealand’s first and only tea producer.
Discovering that camellia, a relative of the tea plant, thrived in New Zealand’s Waikato region started Vincent on the road to discovering how he could grow tea in New Zealand.
To grow tea in New Zealand, no one’s think about it before. But because my family immigrate into New Zealand in 1990s, during that time, you know, be a Chinese or Taiwanese people, we like drinking tea a lot. We drink the oolong tea, but we can’t find the oolong tea here.
One day, my parents with me and we are drinking the oolong tea, which we bring from Taiwan. Suddenly, we hear about the neighbours, he’s trimming the hedge. We ask him, “What’s this?” and he said, “It’s a camellia.” The camellia looks very beautiful. The leaf is very, very green, clean, like have someone polishing every day, looks like it’s no pollution at all. During the conversation, we’ve been thinking, camellia is kind of tea – tea and camellia is very similar – so if camellia can grow so well in New Zealand here, maybe tea can do that too.
Oolong tea is different from the more familiar green and black teas.
Green tea is much more stronger because they are not fermented, they are not oxidised, so it’s very strong, very sharp for your stomach. Fully fermented black tea, some people think it’s too strong for them, but you know, the oolong tea just between those two, it’s very enjoyable.
Convincing the world’s largest tea-drinking nations in Asia to buy New Zealand oolong tea is an important step in Zealong’s business plan, but they’re aiming to market it throughout the world.
Our markets can be all over the world, because a lot of the population is drinking tea and the tea is good for your health. So we change our marketing, become not just local, not just China or Taiwan, will be around the world.
The name ‘Zealong’ comes from combining ‘New Zealand’ and ‘oolong’. This carefully chosen brand name identifies the origin of the tea and highlights its point of difference as a high-quality high-value food product. Being the first commercial tea plantation in New Zealand and growing in the Waikato, traditionally known for its dairy industry, Zealong is challenging traditions both in New Zealand and in Asia.
Zealong’s Quality Control Manager explains what’s unique about Zealong’s oolong tea.
We are the only tea plantation in New Zealand, so we are pioneering in the industry here.
The second aspect of innovation at Zealong tea would be from growing to packaging. We do not treat the tea as a crop, we treat it as a food product all along the chain, and to our knowledge, we’re the only ones to do so in the world.
I think now overseas people see the difference. You’ve got Chinese tea and you’ve got New Zealand tea, and your New Zealand tea is organic and ISO 22000 certified – it certainly makes a difference in people’s mind. They know that their tea is safe to drink, they know what’s in it, and we can trace it all the way back to the block it was picked from.
Vincent’s idea of trying to grow tea in New Zealand started after observing how well camellias grow here. But with no background in horticulture or tea-making and with no history of successfully growing tea in New Zealand, finding information would be a challenge. Talking to a wide range of people here in New Zealand and in Taiwan was essential.
How do we start to grow tea in New Zealand is no one know that. So we go to the garden centre to see how do they grow the camellia. Another thing is the people who working in the council, so we ask them, if we’re interested to import plants, how do we do that?
The local MP, Tony Steele, give us a hand. He tell us what to do, and even he take his opportunity when he visit Taiwan, my parents show him what the tea industry is in Taiwan. So when he, after he come back to New Zealand, he helping us to apply for how do we import the tea plants in. So without a lot of people’s help, we can’t make it.
It took 13 years to develop the tea from the initial idea to the first commercial launch. There were many challenges along the way as Vincent learnt how to propagate, grow and process quality oolong tea in New Zealand.
After we get the green light to bring the plants in, they say you can’t bring anything with soil or roots. So we cutting the tea bush, take the stalk with the leaf but no roots, and we need to propagate. We cutting 500 lots, and then when it arrive into New Zealand, we cutting into 1500 little leaf and doing the propagate.
After 10 months in quarantine, only 130 of the original 1500 seedlings had survived. Now, Vincent had to learn how to keep them healthy in the New Zealand climate.
The first 2 years, they didn’t grow too much. Because I maybe do something wrong there, I didn’t give them the right fertiliser or even I give them fertiliser too early so they didn’t grow very fast. You know, the plants sometimes you give it too much water, they will stay, they just not dying away, but if you give that less, maybe they will start grow. So you have to find the right way to grow them.
The next challenge for Vincent was to propagate from these plants to increase the size of his plantation.
New Zealand environment, the temperature between day and night is very, very different, very cold. The situation is very similar to high mountain in Taiwan. But in Taiwan, when people doing the propagate, they all doing the low altitude, probably 600 metre high where air is warmer. So when we propagate in here, it is very difficult. I try to propagate in the wrong season. But come the end, we find out the best way is end of autumn beginning of winter.
Despite the challenges, Vincent persevered, and his success rate with propagating healthy plants has improved from about 20% to almost 80% today. From the original 130 plants, Vincent now has over 1 million!
Processing the tea also brought its challenges. Even though Vincent brought in an experienced tea-maker from Taiwan, the first batch didn’t taste like tea because of the different humidity in New Zealand. Then when he built a factory to create a more suitable environment, he faced more challenges.
So after we have the factory ready, we think we can make a good-quality tea. But before we making the tea, we got a lot of problem because, in New Zealand, food safety there, anything into your mouth have to be food grade. But in Taiwan or China, tea’s a horticultural products, it’s not the real food standard. So the factory standard in Taiwan or China is totally different than here. Then here, the people have to be wearing the uniform, wash the hands, no smoking inside, no food inside. So after we find out maybe we are OK for making the tea but we have to be adjust again.
Sales are increasing as the brand is promoted in overseas markets and its unique features are meeting demand from more discerning consumers.
Growing the tea plants organically, treating tea as a food product rather than a crop and traceability are unique aspects of Zealong’s approach.
Those things make Zealong special. It’s totally different than what the tea industry normally doing, because we are doing naturally. So right now, because more people is concerned about who make it, how do they make it and who is the people to guarantee it, we can tell people our traceability number, who making it, which block we are picking from and who doing the processing, who doing the packaging, all the things and can make people trust in it.
I tell all the customers drinking my tea you can feel the greenness of New Zealand, you can feel trust and confidence because New Zealand is the most clean land of the world. The way we are doing it is from our heart.
Zealong knows that environmental conditions in New Zealand contribute to the unique quality and flavour of their tea, so the company’s on-going research is looking at the composition and seasonal variations of the crop.
Tea very much depends on the environment – we call it terroir – so the soil, the climate, the rainfall, the sunshine. The tea that we grow here, it tastes different to the tea that you would find anywhere else in the world because New Zealand is unique.
We are currently monitoring the seasonal variation in caffeine and antioxidant content to see what is the effect of the environment on the tea composition. We want to see if spring is best for low caffeine tea or high caffeine tea, if the autumn harvest will result in a higher antioxidant component, so that we can maybe start thinking about picking or developing products according to the time when they are picked.
Being able to define the unique composition of Zealong teas and to link this to particular environmental factors will help with on-going product development and strengthen Zealong’s niche market position as a unique high-quality tea from New Zealand.
Vincent Chen, Fabien Masionneuve & Feng Lin, Zealong Tea
Zealong, Eterna Holdings Ltd
Camellia Tea House
Ben Discoe, Ahualoa.net
Anne Roberts http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en