By Kenneth Cannata
On a fine, almost spring Hawaiian morning, I set out with friend in tow from Hawaii to Honoka’a, from the desert of the dry side of the Big Island to the food producing rainforest side. I really couldn’t believe I was going to get to pick and process my own tea. It would be quite the understatement to say I was excited. The main issue we would face was whether or not it would rain on our teapicking parade. As we arrived at the farm it was still uncertain. Yet within minutes the sky opened up and the sun beat down, saying, “get to it.” Happy greetings quickly performed, we went to work for a few hours picking the tea. The timing of the harvest, like every other environmental factor, is important. However, I will leave many of the specifics related to that process to my farming friends and hopefully those brave tea people who wish to learn from experience the depths of circumstance that lay in their teas. As we picked, I remembered the spring of 2010 and how truly joyous it was to harvest fresh tea leaves. They seem to leap off the bushes, eager to be imbibed at some future time. This particular morning showed those plants that were ready and those that were a little pensive. The pensive plants (like people) are a little more dense and tight, and difficult to work with. We picked until the rain came. That day it downpoured harder than it had in many weeks, according to Taka.
Inside the large shed, we heated up the wok and prepared to “kill the green.” After the tea has withered, it is ready for high heat woking. This stops, or fixes, the oxidization and initiates the process of rolling and drying, which, when done effectively, is completed in a few rounds. In my case, it took many more arduous attempts. The first batch I did wasn’t left to wither long enough, as it was raining, which increased humidity in the air. Then the fixing wasn’t done succinctly, so it led to some oxidization (redness) in the leaves. The second batch was fixed a little better but was then pressed too hard and subsequently heated a bit too fast, thus creating a superficial dry layer with moisture trapped inside. I had to then dry the tea longer, which led to particles breaking off. All that being said, Taka was there with me in an open and honest way, demonstrating the basics. His invitation to learn from this experience really provided me with a great chance to make mistakes and gain some perspective (however small) into this ageold art form. All in all, this leg of the journey lasted until dinner time or around 8 hours.
The constant effort we applied was rolling out the moisture content in the tea and then drying it in the wok, over and over again. Not too much heat, not too much rolling. Slowly yet surely the tea transformed into the final product. I was assured that once the skill is developed sufficiently, it doesn’t take as long to make such a small amount of tea.
I was really hungry and my friend had left for home long ago (he is 74). The gracious farmers allowed me a spot to sleep so I could see this process through to its completion. After dinner, we began the roasting process. It is basically the way to create the raw material, or “mao cha.” Into the tea den we went with a few bags of the day’s work. There was a smell to observe as it roasted that went from a dank grassiness to an aromatic nuttiness with floral hints. It would be rather impossible to express in words the many times I felt humbled at the enormity of skill it took to actually make tea. In time, the tea was finished and we let it rest along with our weary selves. Or rather, my weary self, as I’m not sure Taka was fatigued at such a little amount of tea making. This was after all his day off, and not even a pound of tea was made. Maybe my bumbling was more tiresome than the rain that day, but he and Kimberly were patient and kind throughout. We even had a nighttime tea session where they invited me to brew up some of their stash of puerh (of which I am a little obsessed). It was such a fun time to drink aged teas and “talk story,” as they say on the island.
This part of the journey was maybe the richest. It was over tea that we delved into the mission of Mauna Kea Tea Farm and their vision for themselves and people like me that come to visit. They shared with me the beautiful model for how they run their farm. The Ten Core Values of Mauna Kea Tea are: “Giving. Be humble. Listen. Exceed expectation. Deliver experience. Take ownership. Learn from mistakes. Have growth mindset. Enjoy. Number ten is left blank.” To me, that alludes to the nature of emptiness. The wordlessness of true reality. Words are useful tools we agree to work with, yet there is a spacious freedom of mind needed to see with clarity. Number ten is up to the person reading it. I went to bed feeling full of a sense of accomplishment and wonder at my life. I slept pretty hard, in gratitude.
Join us next week for the conclusion of this article! Read Part 1 here.
Kenneth Cannata began studying and serving tea at his Alma Mater Dharma Realm Buddhist University in 2005. Since graduating in 2009 with a B.A. in Chinese Studies, Kenneth has deepened his involvement in the tea industry through grassroots efforts in service and education with his company Cannata Imports and volunteering for nonprofit organizations. After working and consulting for many small startup companies, Kenneth spent a year working for Yunnan Sourcing and Taiwan Sourcing, leaders in the international premium tea industry. He is now applying to grad school at DRBU.org, and looks forward to continuing his lifelong passion for learning. Follow his posts on Instagram @KenCannata