China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka; these are all countries known for growing tea. But what about the USA? I had heard that there is a growing movement of farmers growing tea in the US, but I had never tried any American-grown tea. I recently visited Kona, Hawaii with my wife and while planning the trip, I was curious to see if in the middle of one of the most famous coffee growing regions in the world there would be any good tea. While planning the trip, I came across a name that rang a bell: Mauna Kea Tea. This is a company I first heard about on this very blog with a post by Elyse Peterson. One of my favorite tea bloggers, Nicole Martin, has also raved about their tea. I learned that their farm was only an hour and a half away from my hotel, and my heart was set. I had to visit. I quickly wrote a comment on their website, and promptly received an email back from Kimberly telling us that we could visit on a Wednesday morning.
The drive from Kona to Honokaa was beautiful. We drove past lava flows ranging from tens of thousands of years old to new flows from the late 1800s. As we neared the farm, at approximately 2000 feet elevation, we noticed that we were in the clouds, and it was raining. All around us there were fruit trees, flowers, and many forms of wildlife. It was apparent that the soil was very rich.
We pulled into the driveway and were greeted by Taka and his wife Kimberly, the owners of Mauna Kea Tea. It was still raining, but Taka provided us some umbrellas and we headed to the back of the house where there were several acres of tea fields. Am I in China or Japan? I thought to myself. No, I didn’t even pack my passport for this trip; I was still in the United States staring at lush tea fields. Taka told us that he planted the first plants ten years ago, and has been nurturing the plants since. “No pesticides or chemicals at all,” Taka was proud to tell us. This is pure tea in the most natural form. The leaves that are not picked provide energy to the plants, and then when they fall off provide fertilizer for the plants. There were several cultivars of camellia sinensis (tea plants) that each had their own characteristics.
“Here, try this.” Taka took a leaf off of a plant and told us to chew on it. It was tea, nothing like I’m used to drinking, but tea nonetheless. He showed us different plants that are used for different “flushes” and varieties such as green tea or oolong. I put the word in “flushes” in quotations, because unlike India where there is a first, second, and autumn flush, the environment in Hawaii allows tea to be picked throughout the year. We walked a few yards down the field, and Taka grabbed another leaf and told us to try it. It tasted completely different from the first leaf. Where the first was a bit bitter and vegetal, this was a much sweeter leaf.
What fun would a tour of a tea farm be without trying some tea? Kimberly invited us inside the house for some tea. The first tea we drank was their Premium Green Tea. My first taste of American grown tea, here goes nothing!
The tea was incredible! It was everything that I long for in a green tea. The tea tasted very fresh and had a nice floral flavor with a bit of a creamy mouthfeel. Next, a bit of an experiment for the taste buds: Taka brought out two big bags of tea, both harvested a few days apart from each other. They came from the exact same plants. We tried one, then the other. It was unmistakable. One tea was sweeter than the other, the other had a bit of bitterness and almost had a roasted profile.
“Which tea do you prefer?” Taka said with a smile on his face. Something was obviously different about the teas and I had asked him if the roasting process was different, but he said they were processed via the same method. “The first tea was picked on a cloudy day, the second was picked on a sunny dry day.” That is how much the environment matters when picking tea. The tea that was picked in the sun tasted harsher, as if the leaves were dry when picked. We then tried their oolong, from the same tea bush that an hour earlier I had eaten some raw leaf from. Thankfully when brewed, the tea was much tastier. Fermenting and roasting the leaf has such a profound impact on the final taste of the tea. I absolutely love Taiwanese and Wuyi Oolongs, but here I was, in Hawaii, drinking an oolong that was grown a few steps from where I was sitting. The tea reminded me of an alishan oolong. It had a bit of tannin to it but did not lose its floral character. As we were leaving, I had to buy some of this tea.
I’m very particular when it comes to green tea. Admittedly, it is not my favorite style of tea. I enjoy a good Japanese green tea here and then, or a Chinese green tea in the early spring right after harvest, but other than that, I stay away. Most green teas found in the grocery store or at tea shops in the local mall have been sitting in containers for months, or longer. Green tea is best enjoyed fresh, otherwise it goes stale within a few months. The tea from Mauna Kea was so good and fresh that I bought 2 bags of it! There is a huge benefit to their ability to harvest multiple times per year, the tea stays fresh.
Taka and Kimberly really have something special going on in the Big Island of Hawaii. They are growing pesticide-free tea in the United States, picking, processing, and selling the tea themselves along with a small staff. A few miles from Kona, one of the coffee capitals of the world, lies an amazing tea farm. If you find yourself visiting the Big Island, be sure to check out Mauna Kea Tea. As the farm is also their private house, it is necessary to make an appointment in advance before visiting, but it is definitely a can’t-miss thing to do if you find yourself anywhere in the Big Island. Their tea can also be purchased on their website.