I was first introduced to Hawaii-grown tea a little over a year ago as an MBA student at the University of Hawaii. During a consulting project with the College of Tropic Agriculture and Human Resources, my partner, Jane Gonsowski, and I researched the current status of the industry and the global tea market, producing a report with recommendations for how to foster a healthy industry. Jane and I were surprised by the advantage that Hawaii tea growers have and the vast opportunity there is to enter a quickly growing specialty tea market. The Hawaii-grown tea industry will be much different than the typical commodity industries we’ve known in the past. It will be a collection of independent growers that all possess their own unique characteristics. Marketing will be about storytelling and growers will need to connect directly with their consumers to ensure healthy profits. To tell these stories, Jane and I are building Tealet, a marketplace that connects drinkers with tea growers around the world.
As I’ve traveled around the world to connect with other tea growers, people ask me many questions about Hawaii-grown tea. The few people who have been lucky enough to taste Hawaii-grown tea love it and want to know how they can get more. It’s not easy to find and is quite expensive (averaging $400 per pound, four or five times more than what we are used to paying in the specialty tea market). All costs for growing tea in Hawaii are high – land, water, labor, and plant material. As the industry discovers economies of scale, the price should drop to $100-200 per pound, but this may not happen for another 5-10 years, if not longer. Growers may also find opportunities in value-added products, such as tea-infused chocolate, wine, and cosmetics.
There are currently 19 known tea gardens in the state across three islands – 17 on Hawaii Island, one on Maui, and one on Kauai. Each farm is in a different state of development and many other gardens are expected to pop up in the coming years. Organic and sustainable farming is important to all the growers, with six of the farms certified organic. All tea is currently hand processed and one farm has recently started to work with mechanical harvesters. Some growers are exploring machine processing and different grades of tea that will be sold at varying price points. Teas from nine of the gardens can be found on e-commerce outlets and seven growers are selling their tea wholesale.
If you are excited about Hawaii-grown tea and would like to try some soon, you can browse, buy, and review Rainforest White tea from the first grower we have added to our marketplace, Hawaii Rainforest Tea. We also expect to include a taste of Hawaii-grown tea in our next Global Tea Taster-curated tea shipment, which you can sign up for on our website.