By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Birds caw and twitter in the jungle. Koi circle lazily in a small pond. We're sitting in an old barn transformed into an open-air studio, where Eva Lee is pouring some tea.
Lee wipes the rim of a large tea bowl, circling the teapot over its perimeter. She pours the light, bronze liquid into tiny porcelain "aroma cups." This is a gung fu cha tea ceremony, informal and chatty.
The new oolong we're about to drink had about only 50 yards to travel from bush to teapot. It grows under the shady canopy behind the studio. The proximity wouldn't be surprising in prolific tea-producing regions. But we're not in China or Japan. We're at Lee's home and garden in the jungle, just outside Volcano Village on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The 50th state is often celebrated for its Kona coffee, the premium beans grown on the Big Island's west side. But these days there's a new stimulating beverage on the island: tea. Actually, it's the oldest and second-most popular drink in the world, next to water.
Lee is one of the island's new breed of tea pioneers. She planted her first camellia sinensis bushes ("the mother block," she now calls them) nearly eight years ago in a semi-sunny spot outside the Volcano Village studio she shares with her husband, Chiu Leong, a potter and photographer.
Tea was introduced to Hawaii in 1887 but, over the years, farmers' fits and starts with the plant failed to produce a commodity-level product. Still, the Big Island's rich, volcanic soil and moody microclimates mirror many of the places where tea thrives — the slopes of China, the forests of India. Around the turn of this century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several state agencies gave interested tea growers in Hawaii a leg up in starting small-scale tea operations.
"The people behind the programs weren't as interested in turning tea into a big cash commodity for Hawaii. They wanted people who would experiment and play, developed something new and interesting," Lee says, between pours.
"My husband and I knew virtually nothing about growing tea before we started," she adds. "We were interested in starting something new that would have meaning to us, and we contacted Dr. Francis Zee [of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo], who was really trying to get it going here. He was skeptical, but when I mentioned that Chiu was a potter, the door went wide open. He didn't want to turn to farmers for this, because they wouldn't take the risks artists would."
Seven years later and Lee — a founding member of the Hawaii Tea Society, around 40 members strong — is hosting tea ceremonies in her Tea Hawaii studio. It's nestled in the rain forest behind Volcano Village, a comfy tourist town on the edge of the still-steaming Kilauea crater. She samples her own teas, as well as those of neighboring grower Mike Riley, pouring them into handmade cups and pots made by Leong.
Like wine, tea plants take a few years to establish before real production can begin. Lee's plants are thriving now. Her teas are for sale around the island and are served — in creative recipes, as well as alongside them — at restaurants such as Alan Wong's in Honolulu (808-949-2526, www.alanwongs.com).
"We have just the right temperature, just the right humidity," Lee says of the Hawaii climate, as she pours another cup. "We grow ours here under the shade, under the canopy, which is slower but makes the tea sweeter — better for matcha," referring to the Japanese-style powdered green tea.
Other Big Island growers specialize in different varieties of tea. Rob Nunally and Mike Longo of Onomea Tea Co., west of Hilo, use the same plant to make darker oolongs, assams and other black teas.
"I love tea — good black tea," Nunally says, walking back from several newly planted rows of the dark-green bushes. "I grew up in Fiji, drinking tea as a kid. Once we realized this opportunity was available to us, and we had this land, we thought, 'Perfect!' "
Like Lee, Nunally and Longo had no dirt under their nails when they starting planting their 2,400 tea bushes four years ago around their cliff-top home overlooking Onomea Bay. Nunally sells computers and Longo is a chiropractor.
Also like Lee, the "tea boys" at Onomea Tea have no ambitions to become big commercial tea farmers. Theirs is a specialty operation, run on a small scale for boutique buyers.
"We just plant and pick. We do the wilting over there on our dining room table," Longo says, pointing. "Then we host teas for groups and tourists. It's the perfect-sized operation to be both a beloved hobby and a serious business."
The couple behind Mauna Kea Tea has slightly bigger goals. On the slope of another of the Big Island's towering volcanos (this one dormant), Takahiro and Kimberly Ino grow "a little oolong, really on the light side, some yellow tea, but our main thing is green tea." Still a young operation, planted just three years ago, the Inos have previous experience in organic farming and hope to make Mauna Kea Tea more widely available around Hawaii.
"We'd like to keep it a speciality, but we'd also like to provide commodity items for people on the island," Takahiro Ino says. "We like to be connected to the land and let people know they can enjoy that deeper connection, too, and it can be affordable."
Whether serving a niche market or a wide population, as Lee says, "there is room for all Hawaii tea growers."
By 2010, according to the Sage Group's yearly Tea Report — this year headlined "Specialty Tea Is Hot!" — annual tea sales in the U.S. are projected to double to $10 billion.
"When we traveled in China," Takahiro Ino says, "we were amazed by how Chinese culture is so connected to tea, and how it's a part of everyday life. It's like coffee is here. Everywhere there you find a teahouse. It's very natural to them.
"If we and the other Hawaii tea growers can influence that in this corner of the world or anywhere," he adds, "that would be great."
IF YOU GO
Most tea farms and gardens on the Big Island welcome visitors:
- Tea Hawaii is nestled in the jungle behind Volcano Village, a cozy outpost along Hwy. 11 at 4,000 feet, near the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eva Lee welcomes visitors for tours and tea service by appointment; (808) 967-7637, www.teahawaii.com. Lee's studio and tea plantings also are part of a joint tour with the nearby Volcano Winery; the Wine & Tea package includes a guided tour of both places at 9:30 a.m. daily, $25; (808) 967-7772, www.volcanowinery.com.
- Big Island Tea is another upstart garden between Hilo and Volcano Village, in a town called Glenwood; (808) 968-1800, www.bigislandtea.com.
- Onomea Tea Co. also welcomes visitors and groups by appointment to its farm with stunning cliff-top views of the Pacific. It's west of Hilo on Hwy. 19 on the renowned Hamakua Coast, www.onomeatea.com.
- Mauna Kea Tea is further west on Hwy. 19 in Ahualoa, on the slopes of its namesake volcano. They host groups by appointment; (808) 775-1171, www.maunakeatea.com. Mauna Kea's tea fields are also part of a tour, organized by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, including two other Hamakua Coast farms (the Long Ears Coffee Co. and the Volcano Island Honey Co.) at 8:45 a.m. daily, $75; (808) 775-1000.
Between Hilo and Volcano Village, be sure to stop at the Hilo Coffee Mill. Despite the name, this shop also sells and serves locally grown teas. Owners of the shop also recently planted their own tea bushes out back; (866) 982-5551, www.hilo coffeemill.com. (A tip: For the coffee junkies in your party, drink the Ka'u brew here instead of Kona coffee. It's much smoother and more delicious.)
WHERE TO STAY: Hilo offers a few convenient, comfortable options. But Volcano Village is the snuggest spot to lay your head.
Kilauea Lodge has 12 roomy rooms and two cottages ($170-$225) just off Hwy. 11. It's homey, has up-to-date amenities (even WiFi) and sports a fine restaurant with rich dinners and fresh breakfasts; (808) 967-7366, www.kilauealodge.com.
On the other side of Hwy. 11, the Volcano Rainforest Retreat has four creatively designed, amenity-packed cabins nestled into the rainforest ($110-$260). Tranquil and cozy, these retreats pamper merely by the beauty of their natural and man-made surroundings. The hot tub during a rain forest rain shower ain't too bad, either; (800) 550-8696, www.volcanoretreat.com.
IN HONOLULU: No doubt you'll be flying into Honolulu before hitting the Big Island. Take the time for a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration at Urasenke Foundation, 245 Saratoga Rd., in the shadow of Donald Trump's Waikiki hotel that's under construction. In an exquisitely crafted teahouse, visitors are shown an abbreviated version of the formal gongfu ceremony (a full one would last up to four hours), complete with matcha tea and tasty treats. At 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; (808) 923-3059.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.