Nestled in the rich, fertile plains of Waikato, lies the sole commercial tea plantation in New Zealand. Home to over 1.2 million lush tea plants, Zealong Tea Estate is a site to behold in the most unsuspecting of ways and places.
The Zealong story is what myths and legends are made up of. Caught in a zen-like trance, Vincent Chen was admiring a flowering camellia in Waikato when a thought struck his mind. Tea is a kind of camellia… maybe tea could grow here too.
"Always doing what is right – not what is easy."
In 1996, following this epiphany, Chen embarked on the arduous task of importing 1,500 rigorously selected tea cuttings from the top tea producing regions in Asia. Due to strict quarantine, of these, only 130 would make it through.
These plants were treated as precious as gold. In the years following, with careful propagation and working with Waikato’s natural, earthy riches, Chen and his team built up Zealong Tea Estate into the thriving plantation it is today. Their dedication to learning all there is to know about the art of tea in one of the most remote tea producing regions in the world, is nothing short of inspiring.
Transforming The Landscape
While Waikato is more popularly known for its rich history of dairy farming and inspiring the magical film set of Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings, Zealong has now pin-dropped the region’s place on the map as a world class tea producer. With a growing number of accolades, including their most recent in taking first place at the Global Tea Championship 2017 for its Zealong Black and Zealong Oolong, you can begin to understand why this is a big deal for a small producer as they are.
Zealong Tea Estate is aesthetically stunning, drawing visitors in from all over the world and making itself known as a premier tourist destination. True to the region’s reputation, their acreage was once formerly a dairy farm but now boasts a 40 hectare, 100% organic certified tea plantation.
But the beauty of this place doesn’t end there. The story of Zealong’s origins is both fascinating and inspiring. Through this process, they’ve drawn attention to New Zealand as a country worthy of global accolades for producing not only world class tea, but showcasing the potential for organic and sustainable methods in helping one do so.
The Journey To Organic
New Zealand maintains a global reputation for being a producer of pure and high quality produce. What may come as a surprise to many, is New Zealand’s lax organic standards. There is currently no specific legislation regulating organic certification. While companies are still required to abide by Fair Trade Laws, one could technically still use organic labelling without adherence to global standards. Zealong made the decision to seek third party certification that conforms to global standards as a commitment to their domestic and international customers and trade partners. They’re certified organic by BioGro which is also compliant with EU, USDA, and Canadian Organic standards.
In this commitment to maintain authenticity and transparency for their customers, Zealong stands out from the crowd. While it took 5 years to convert their land to meet organic standards, they reiterate, “It was very much worth it – to be sure we are growing our tea how we think is the right way – no compromises.”
Traceability and transparency aren’t just mere concepts for them. It’s how they do business.
“We don’t take shortcuts, so it has been a long, slow, and costly process to ensure our tea is 100% organic certified and fully traceable. In a market full of cheap commodity tea, this is a challenge. Fortunately, people are starting to think more about where their tea comes from, and see the value in premium quality teas.”
To The Matter Of Origin
True appreciation for tea must start with its origins. As the industry is plagued with the challenges of environmental degradation, labour shortages and fair trade conduct, concern for a tea’s place of origin cannot be ignored for a fancy label or trendy blend. Due to the increased globalisation of our supply chains, this issue of traceability has been brought to the forefront of many conscious consumer minds.
As many of the world’s top tea producing countries are being forced to face the consequences of these issues, Zealong is taking a more proactive stance; incubating ideas and methods for a more sustainable approach to tea production.
“A mindful consumer should look for tea which is clear about where and how it is grown and processed, in terms of food safety and traceability. Country of origin is also related to terroir – the environmental factors like soil, climate and terrain – which influences the quality of the tea. A clean environment free of pollutants will produce a high-quality tea, and whole leaf is the ideal for a premium brew. For those opting for tea bags, we also advise looking for a natural, degradable bag free of plastic, staples, bleaches, or glues, and choosing a tea bag which contains whole tea leaves.”
The Zealong team emphasises why understanding the origins of your tea is so important.
“Tea is one of those beverages that you really get what you pay for and with enough education and research, you’ll be sure to find something for everyone. We hope that with our no compromise approach to quality that we will attract more discerning tea lovers and inspire others through our story and quality.”
Chasing The Vision
From 130 to over 1 million tea plants and from where no tea had been commercially grown before, it’s humbling to take a moment and appreciate how a dream like that of Vincent Chen’s has unravelled. While on a global scale, Zealong’s operations may be considered small, the magnitude of its impact within the industry cannot be underestimated (as seen with their accumulating awards).
“The most rewarding part of growing Zealong Tea Estate has to be putting Waikato, New Zealand on the world’s tea growing map, especially with some of the international recognition we have received.”
This speaks volumes to any one of you out there looking to cultivate your own dream.
When asked for one piece of advice they could share with other visionaries, the response was this.
“Have an open-minded and diverse team around you from the start. Zealong Tea Estate would not be what it is today without the help and input from people with different backgrounds, be it cultural or otherwise. The Zealong family is made up of such passionate people from all over the globe who have made Waikato their home, and who are all so proud to tell the world that New Zealand can actually grow outstanding tea.”
Emily Uebergang is a writer, farmer and ecoprenuer who transitioned from the urban jungle to a working farmstead in the beautiful mountains of the Manning Valley in New South Wales, Australia. She writes like she's out to try and save the world... or at least make a difference for the better.