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Hawaii camellia sinensis “true tea”

Tea is finicky. There are specific conditions and a particular climate needed for camellia sinensis—or “true tea”—to thrive. Acidic soil with good drainage, a 70-90% humidity range, elevation, ample sunlight, and light rainfall are all required. Hawaiʻi has all of those attributes, plus another big bonus: volcanic soil.

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This makes the Hawaiian islands (mainly the “Big Island” but also upcountry Maui and certain parts of Oʻahu) one of only a handful of places in the U.S. that can successfully grow tea. 

Brittnee Lau is the owner of Treehouse Teas and is committed to using only 100% Hawaiʻi-grown teas and botanicals in her products. It’s safe to say that she likes tea; “Tea is the second most-consumed drink after water. Water. We are only second in this world to water,” she says. 

Treehouse Teas hosted a virtual event in February, “State of the Hawaiʻi Tea Industry with Eva Lee,” which is currently available as a replay on Treehouse Tea’s website. Eva Lee is one of Hawaiʻi’s first growth tea farmers and has had a major impact on increasing the accessibility of Hawaiʻi-grown tea. The seminar recounted the history of growing tea in Hawaiʻi, where the industry currently stands, and its hopeful future. 

Tea was originally introduced to Hawaiʻi in the late 1800s. Commercial-scale production was experimented with but abandoned after less than a decade. It was written in the tea leaves: the coffee industry was just far more profitable. In the 1960s, Lipton considered giving it another try but the high cost of production and labor in Hawaiʻi ultimately steered them away.  

Tea began its reintroduction in Hawaiʻi in 2000. Henceforth, while China and Japan have been perfecting the farming of tea for centuries, Hawaiʻi growers are mostly first-generation novices in an industry that is locally in its infancy.
 “Even though 20 years of tea planting in Hawaiʻi sounds like a lot, we are still very much in an experimentation and innovation period. We’re still figuring out what processing methods work with our climates, our soils, and our cultivars,” says Brittnee. 

And while Hawaiʻi tea farmers—mostly “backyard growers” with a small percentage working on a commercial scale—are growing oolong, green, black, and white tea, the final product is unique to the islands. 
Brittnee explains:

When you are a tea grower anywhere, you are always a slave to the environment because the tea plant is a sponge. It will soak up the flavor of the flowers, seasons, etcetera. Tea also has terrior. Think about wine: you can use a clone grape from Burgundy, bring it to California, and make it in the exact same way. You will still end up with a very different wine. The same is true with tea. So I like to say we have “Hawaiʻi Tea” because our growing methods are different (we literally grow tea bushes around ʻŌhiʻa trees to keep the natives. Most other countries would just clear the field).” 

Nearly all growers in Hawaiʻi are also picking and processing their own tea, whereas elsewhere in the world, tea would be grown in one location, processed, and roasted in other locations. Tea in Hawaiʻi is being produced artisanally, not only on a small scale but with great care. 

Brittnee is also ardent to point out that true tea in Hawaiʻi should be referred to as “Hawaiʻi-grown tea,” reserving the word “Hawaiian” for herbals, natives, and medicinals (think: māmaki). “I purposely avoid using the term ‘Hawaiian’ in anything because tea is not native,” she says. “I don't agree with how ʻisland-inspired’ cheap flavored imported teas are marketed as ‘Hawaiian Tea’. As a Native Hawaiian, I have an extra responsibility not to partake in any form of commodification of culture or misleading packaging.”

While the culture of tea in Hawaiʻi is still in its early days, the islands’ growers are steeping in hope. Hawaiʻi-grown tea has the potential to be a cash crop, commercially produced and exported, making a positive impact on the local economy and communities. Tea grown in Hawaiʻi must be made more accessible and local tea drinkers must reach for local tea options again and again. This will create the sustainable tea economy for Hawaiʻi that Brittnee dreams about. 

“I have never really understood why the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture has not put more money behind true tea. Just looking at history, and even modern-day practices of other countries, tea farming literally stimulates economies. I truly believe tea has the potential to be Hawaiʻi’s next major export,” Brittnee says. 

Right now in the Common Ground marketplace, shop Treehouse Teas’ "Milk Chocolate Oolong,” made with tea grown at the Volcano Tea Garden, cinnamon from Kona, and vanilla and cacao shells from Oʻahu. Also available, Treehouse Teas’ “Prime” Blend, with a primary ingredient of māmaki, a medicinal, endemic to Hawaiʻi. The flavors of moringa, ginger, lemongrass root, and hola santa make a cup of “Prime” tea a herbaceous taste of Hawaiʻi.

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