Big Island trying to grow top-quality tea
HILO » Some East Hawaii tea growers are cautiously hoping for a time when connoisseurs associate the Big Island with unique, high-quality tea.
They are aiming to do with tea what Kona growers have done with coffee on the west side of the Big Island.
Francis Zee, a horticulturist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center, said Volcano's morning sunshine, evening clouds and cool misty nights make the area a perfect place to grow tea.
Zee said a tea broker visiting from Taiwan tested Volcano-grown tea and declared that it was as good as Taiwan's second-best tea. This thrilled local growers, as tea is hugely popular in Taiwan.
Milton Yamasaki, manager of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Mealani Research Station in Waimea, has been tinkering since 1999 with ways to make Hawaiian tea stand out.
He has used different pruning methods, growing some plants in rows of one and others in rows of two.
He has also varied the spacing between the plants. Yamasaki believes tea grows better when the plants are placed close together, because the growth becomes more dense and uniform.
The university and the USDA research center aim to find what works for tea on the Big Island by trial and error. Zee said private growers cannot be expected to undertake such experimentation at their own expense.
Producing average-grade tea on the Big Island would be a financial failure, said Richard Nelson, president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce.
Farmers here cannot compete in what he called the "commodities game" because of high costs associated with shipping, land and labor. Instead, Hawaii growers must produce high-quality niche products like Kona coffee, he said.
Big Island coffee has turned into a world-renowned product after years of growing experiments and marketing efforts. Tea growers here say they hope they are at a juncture the coffee growers passed years ago on their way to success.
But turning high-quality tea leaves into a high-quality brew is more complex than it sounds, according to the researchers. "Anybody can produce a $5 tea, but it takes somebody special with a lot of patience and talent to produce a $200-a-pound tea," Zee said.