|Statues at the Zealong Tea Estate.|
Turns out in all of New Zealand there is only one solitary tea estate. In a country famed for agriculture, horticulture and our basic enthusiasm for growing stuff, we don’t make any of the product so many of us drink on a daily basis. That is, all except for one patch of land in Waikato in the North Island.
Established in 1996 by Taiwanese-born Kiwi Tzu Chen, Chen named his estate “Zealong” – a combination of the words “Zealand” and “oolong,” a Chinese term for partially fermented tea. Chen’s tea has a cracking yarn attached, all the more given there’s a bit of mystery to the whole thing. And for a place so proud of its 100% organic and health-focused reputation, there’s an unexpectedly fun whiff of the KFC story to Zealong too.
Not “whiff” in terms of the goodness of a greasy, calorific smell, though nose-wise you unsurprisingly notice the country air of the 40ha estate. More-so, it’s that just as KFC has successfully dined out on the intrigue of their “11 secret herbs and spices” for more than 75 years, the Zealong Tea Estate also has a closely guarded secret.
|Rows of tea plants, Zealong Tea Estate.|
With tea normally only grown successfully at altitude in tropical countries, Zealong has found a way to produce acclaimed, entirely organic tea at just a few metres above sea level and at 37 degrees south of the equator. How did they do it? Well, apparently only a handful of people know for sure, namely Zealong founder Chen, his son Vincent and one or two tight-lipped New Zealand agri-scientists.
It all began in the mid-90s when Chen noticed the camellias growing enthusiastically in the garden of his next door neighbour in Hamilton (Waikato’s biggest city and New Zealand’s largest inland urban conglomeration with approximately 180,000 residents). Knowing the camellia is a close relative of the tea plant, Chen wondered if the prevalence of camellias in New Zealand might mean tea could also be harvested here.
Purchasing a dairy farm just north of Hamilton, Chen began his unlikely project. Importing 1500 tea seedlings from Taiwan, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry quarantined the plants for many months, by which time only 130 seedlings had survived. Rather than be angry at MAF, Chen took it as a sign the surviving plants were the best and strongest.
And it’s here the story gets intriguingly abbreviated. Watching a promotional video about Zealong, I was worried I’d reverted to my school days and drifted off at a crucial moment. Had I missed the explanation of how Zealong went from struggling to grow decent tea plants to somehow all of a sudden producing a range of varieties international buyers are prepared to pay big bucks for?
Asking Zealong’s marketing manager Sen Kong for clarification, he confirmed the video intentionally skips over how Zealong’s founders finally cracked the code for developing low-altitude, temperate climate-adjusted tea trees. There mightn’t be 11 secret herbs and spices at Zealong, but there is definitely something secret and spicily scientific going on that allows for one of the world’s few high-quality, low-land, non-tropical tea estates.
|Zealong Tea Estate Marketing Manager Sen Kong.|
Secrets or no secrets, in touring Zealong you still learn first-hand about the picking and drying of the leaves, the combination of man and machine, the family background of the estate and how they’ve managed to justify the brag of being “100% organic.”
The gardens next to the estate’s lake may be still to take full flight, but the beauty of the property is complemented by statues depicting the history of tea-making in Asia from centuries ago. There are also a dozen or so oversized teapots next to Zealong’s main drive-way that seen together create the image of a dragon – a Chinese symbol of strength and power that is also associated with water.
Naturally enough, high tea is a tradition at Zealong and is an event as much for the visual aesthetic as it is the taste. Opting instead for another, more firmly entrenched Waikato tradition – the eating of New Zealand steak – I decided to take photos of other peoples’ high teas while I topped up my probably not depleted iron levels. The lunch at Zealong’s restaurant was grand and was complemented if not by high tea, but a proper tea tasting ceremony.
Marketing manager Kong presented me with a range of very cute little pots, bowls and cups and showcased not just the varieties of different Zealong teas (there are five and the “Pure” blend was my favourite – sweet, refreshing and more-ish), but so too the somewhat quirky rituals of a tea ceremony. There was the smell test (much like at a wine-tasting), the mouth-swirling, the tipping of the tea from the cup to a bowl and back again and also the hand-rubbing of the cup.
Kong – a local Waikato lad in his early 30s – is passionate about Zealong and believes there is a big future for company internationally. This is primarily based on the strength of the product and the appeal of its clean and organic reputation overseas – deliberately marketed in close association with New Zealand as a country and as a brand in and of itself.
With Zealong being north of Hamilton it’s an easy day trip from Auckland at 90 minutes each way. But never one to pass up the opportunity to stay somewhere flash if I’ve got the option, I took Zealong up on their recommendation of a nearby farm stay called “The Club House.”
|The Club House Farm Stay.|
Just 10 minutes from Zealong is Des and Steve’s fully-functioning dairy farm. Pitching more to the foreign tourist who wants to experience an authentic Kiwi farm, The Club House will also appeal to Aucklanders who may not have milked a cow or gone clay-pigeon shooting any time recently. Or if you just want a bit of homely luxury with stunning rural views, the impressive piece of modern architecture that is The Club House is perfect too.
Des and Steve themselves were almost as much of an attraction as their property. Thoroughly relaxed and friendly, they cooked me dinner and breakfast and taught me how to fire a gun for the first time with the clay-pigeon shooting. Seventh time lucky hitting the disc, I sensed I’d peaked and decided to head inside. Terrific fun.
After dinner and hearing I was a mad music fan I was invited to watch a documentary about the Eagles (Glenn Frey had just passed away) before talk turned to sport. Steve’s a keen tennis player so a match between us was scheduled for 8am on his and Des’s court for the following morning ahead of the Zealong tour.
6-3, 6-3 was a flattering scoreline for me and Steve insisted if I’m ever in the neighborhood to pop in for a rematch. It was just a one night stay, but like so many Kiwis you briefly meet, these two felt like old chums. Let’s have that next tennis match soon Steve!
Zealong Tea Estate: 495 Gordonton Road, Hamilton.
The Club House: 15 Uapoto Road, RD 1, Taupiri, Hamilton.
My top 50 photos from the Zealong Tea Estate and The Club House: