Origin: Hawaii Island, Hawaii, USA, teahawaii.com
Because it was grown and processed in Hawaii, this oolong’s flavor profile is a singular experience. The leaves are young, artfully consistent and vibrantly colored with slightly oxidized edges. They brew into a sophisticated, delicate, pale yellow-green infusion. The flavor of the brew is elusive and complex. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a Baochong oolong, but less fruity. It has some of the grassiness of a sencha, but it’s not brothy. It’s flinty, crisp, smooth and cooling, with mild, tropical notes of green papaya. Fleeting hints of pine, evergreen, Kahili ginger flowers (which are locally abundant) and honey add to the complexity of this enticing brew.
This Hawaii-grown oolong is grown at 3,600 feet above sea level near the active Kilauea Volcano’s summit at the Volcano Tea Garden. Locally, this oolong is called “Mauka Oolong.” Mauka means “toward the mountain;” it is a Hawaiian adaptation of the Chinese name “high mountain tea.” As a high-elevation tea and as a Hawaii-grown product, the Volcano Tea Garden oolong has an incredibly pure growing environment and a unique set of weather patterns as the basis for its terroir. The soil is fertile and acidic (precisely what tea plants need) and the water, air and soil are amongst the cleanest on Earth.
Volcano Tea Garden started quite unexpectedly after owner Mike Riley visited his wife, Carol, at the USDA Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii, where she worked. Carol worked under Dr. Francis Zee, who was soon to become a major contributor to tea’s newfound presence in Hawaii agriculture. Dr. Zee had just discovered that his predecessor at the Hilo research facility had planted a row of tea plants there many years earlier. Mike watched Dr. Zee pluck and process a batch of tea, which they drank at the end of the day. Mike was immediately hooked on the idea of Hawaii-grown tea.
Mike harvests the leaves and processes them by hand. He hand-rolls the leaves in muslin cloth and pan-fires the leaves. He repeats the process of rolling and frying about 25 times to produce a lightly oxidized, semi-balled, light-roast oolong in small batches that are under five pounds dry weight each.
Both Mike Riley and Eva Lee of Tea Hawaii & Co belong to a collective of local tea growers that has joined together to promote their products. Although they both work in Hawaii’s higher elevations and Mike’s farm is only four miles away as the crow flies, Eva’s plants flush at different times from his, just as he can feel earthquakes about three minutes before she can. Eva said this is all part of the rhythm of nature that goes on in Hawaii.
Eva also processes an Hawaii-grown Makai Black tea with leaves from Hakalau Tea Garden and Forest White tea with leaves from Tea Hawaii Tea Garden. She sees her role as helping growers bring their teas to fruition and customizing teas to suit the needs of tea vendors and drinkers. Now is the ideal time to taste Hawaii-grown tea and provide feedback to suppliers and growers in order to shape the future of Hawaii-grown tea.