Zealong Tea 2014

June 2014

Expansion at the organic Zealong Tea plantation and tea house

Zealong is New Zealand’s first tea exporter. Its plantation is now well established with around 1.2 million bushes planted on 48 ha. Exports of organically grown and processed oolong tea are going well and are having a very favourable reaction from top end international markets. Since Rural Delivery’s last visit (late in 2010) the company has added more tea styles to its exports and has more undergoing test marketing. Its restaurant and function centre have been expanded which, along with various outdoor exhibits, allow visitors to learn some of the history of tea making and experience the taste of their products. Most of the plantation is certified organic and staff are looking at new ways of controlling weeds and avoiding frost damage. Almost all staff including pickers are NZ residents, and international marketing is helped by the 15 nationalities represented amongst the staff. 

The Zealong venture was started by the Chen family from Taiwan in the 90’s after Mr Chen senior noticed that camellias grew well in the Waikato climate. He imported oolong tea camellia cuttings from the highlands of Taiwan but had little success in growing them. However, his son Vincent replanted the bushes and sought help from NZ horticulturalists and Taiwanese tea makers. By 2005 he was growing and making oolong tea that was as good as the Taiwanese product, and in 2009 he launched the Zealong brand. At that time many blocks on the plantation of around 1.2 million bushes were certified organic and the rest was in the process of certification. A tea house had been built for tourists and locals to taste the tea and to learn how the tea was grown and processed.

Picking was done by experienced pickers brought in from Asia, and a Taiwanese master tea maker came to oversee the processing of each of the three harvests in November, January and March.

Since then there have been significant advances. The entire plantation is now farmed organically with about half being fully certified organic by BioGro NZ and the rest is in the process of conversion. Pickings yield around 100 tonnes of leaf annually, which is processed into around 20 tonnes of dry tea.

Considerable improvements to parking and reception areas include a “tea walk” with various statues showing aspects of tea growing so that visitors can learn more about the culture and history of tea. A functions venue has been added to the grounds.

The company now produces four styles of tea in their Everyday Zealong range:

  • Pure – unroasted, fresh tea with light and floral notes
  • Aromatic – high temperature roasted for a “clear aroma and taste with a hint of fruit and flowers”.
  • Dark – repeated roasting gives “a rich deep taste with a hint of charcoal and no bitterness”
  • Black – a bold round black tea with a pleasant sweetness and honey undertones

A fifth style is currently being tested in selected markets.

Sales regions have expanded to China, Taiwan, other parts of south-east Asia, Australia, Canada and Germany. As part of its marketing strategy the company employs graduates with many different specialties and from different parts of the world. About 15 countries are represented on staff. Their knowledge of languages and culture are invaluable, says International Marketing Executive Sen Kong.

“From a marketing perspective our European buyers have very different requirements to Chinese or Japanese buyers in terms of shape, look, and taste. It helps to have someone here who understands the culture and is a native speaker,” he says.

“We are also happy for people to come here and work for even just a year because when they go back to their own country they take back the word about our tea.”

Trend differences between East and West have been highlighted recently. In Asia interest is growing in black tea while the Western world is consuming more and more green tea, so having an international team on the lookout for trends in their native countries or regions of the world is a great bonus, says Sen (who is a Kiwi, but born in China).

Attracting tourists to the Tea House will help to overcome such confusion and is an integral part of the international marketing strategy. “We need tourists because they take the message about our tea back to their own country and 80% of our overseas sales are generated directly or indirectly from here,” says Sen.

“We are expanding our facilities and hopefully by the end of the year we will have a new building that is both a factory for processing tea and a visitor centre designed to take tour bus groups. This will also help tourism in the region and we hope that one day the world will recognise the Waikato for its tea.”

Zealong’s achievements have led to inquiries from quite a number of horticulturalists wanting to know how to grow tea bushes. Some have been disenchanted kiwifruit or pipfruit orchardists looking for a new crop. R&D Manager Fabien Maisonneuve says that by the time he explains the difficulties in establishing a plantation and the five-year lead time before usable leaves are produced, the fact that processing must start within an hour of picking plus the rare expertise needed in fermenting and processing the leaf, the enthusiasm for the idea has disappeared.

“Our company has faced many challenges along the way and people do not realise how much work is involved,” he says.

“We don’t want to have a monopoly on tea growing but after so many years of hard work and investment we don’t want to see New Zealand’s reputation for producing high quality tea undermined by people taking shortcuts. Investors usually want a return as soon as possible and we are lucky that Vincent Chen is prepared for us to take time to get our growing and processing to the highest standard.”

The Waikato environment has proved very suitable for the business. As well as a favourable climate for tea bush growth, the Waikato is free from most pests and diseases and has none of the types of pollution and toxic residues commonly found in other tea-growing countries.

Being organic means using BioGro approved fertiliser products. No sprays can be used to control weeds and growth within and between rows. Weed control is mainly by hand at present. Pruning of the bushes is done by hand in late autumn and topping of the bushes to control their height and stimulate leaf development is done with a ride-on trimmer. Sprinkler irrigation is used as necessary, and frost control is at present done by helicopters. However, the sprinkler system is being upgraded for use in frost protection.

The seasonal schedule of operations in the plantation is as follows:

  • May: hand trimming of the underneath and lower sides of bushes
  • June: topping (ride-on)
  • July: side trimming (ride-on)
  • August-September: slow-release fertiliser applied
  • September to early March: hand weeding within and between rows
  • October: light irrigation
  • November: picking, then fast-release fertiliser to boost growth, topping
  • December: light irrigation
  • January: picking, sometimes fertilising, topping
  • March: picking
  • May: cycle starts again

Local people have now been trained for picking, a skilled task that involves taking the top two leaves and a bud from suitable branches, and they must be cut in such a way that the plant will regrow rapidly. A razor blade attached to one finger is the cutting method of choice. Speed is essential because most leaves reach the ideal stage around the same time so the pickers must work very fast. As soon as leaves are picked they start to deteriorate, so they are transported quickly to the factory for drying, wetting, roasting and further drying in a series of complex steps that comprise the tea making process. A tea master from Taiwan is brought in to supervise each harvest and ensure that despite the variations in day-to-day plant condition, the final product is of consistent quality with the same flavour and aroma as each of the other lots.

The end result for the majority of tea styles is that each leaf and bud set is rolled into a tiny dry ball and is packaged to enhance stability and appearance.