Hamakua farmer seeks to perfect Isle oolong
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
Tea plants like an even, warm temperature, high humidity and moist soil with good drainage. Sound like Hawai'i?
Tea can be grown here, and it is the subject of an experimental farming operation on the Big Island.
John Cross, whose day job is in agricultural research for C. Brewer & Co., has been experimenting with tea plants for seven years on his Hakalau Tea. Co. farm north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast.
Cross isn't selling the teas anywhere, but the word is out among his farm friends. Last month, chef Sandy Barr invited him to brew up some of his teas at Merriman's Restaurant for a gathering of press and farmers during the annual tomato tasting there. The teas were fragrant, a bit smoky and interesting.
Tea growing is relatively easy here, Cross said, but tea processing is ... well ... another cup of tea.
"Processing is an art," he said. "You can do so much with tea depending on how you process it. I'm still trying to perfect my teas."
Tea processing can be labor-intensive and complex: The tea is picked by hand, many of the subsequent processes require hand work and weather plays a significant role because teas may be withered and dried outdoors.
Although all tea comes from a single plant, Camellia sinensis, there are hundreds of varieties and hybrids. Cross is working with two hybrids he calls Hakalau 1 and Hakalau 2; both are big-leaf crosses of Assam (Indian) and Chinese varieties. Tea grows on hedge-like bushes or small trees, which "flush" that is, send out young greenery several times a year, the number depending on the variety and growing location.
Cross is attempting to perfect a "tippy" grade tea a high-quality tea made with what tea experts call "two leaves and a bud," the tender tips and new leaves at the end of the tea branch, where the flavor is concentrated.
With these, he is making an oolong-style tea, the halfway point between green and black teas. Green tea is virtually unprocessed while black tea is subject to numerous forms of handling (depending on the desired result) and is fermented anywhere from a few hours to several days. Oolong teas, which are the preference of many afficionados, are wilted on a screen set up in the shade, rolled by hand to break up the cells and release the compounds that create the flavor, then allowed to ferment briefly in the open air.
Cross said an advantage of growing tea in Hawai'i would be that we could enjoy fresher teas. "When you have a fresh tea, you taste a fruity, more fragrant and flavorful tea," he said. The compounds polyphenols and oils that give tea its flavor can dry up, leaving just a shadow of the full flavor.
Hakalau Tea Co. teas won't be sold commercially until Cross masters tea-processing sufficiently to assure consistent quality, he said. "Once we figure that out, I think tea has tremendous potential for Hawai'i just like Kona coffee."