Each tea Zealong produces is available to smell at the their gift shop, the start of the tour, which is housed in the same building as their processing factory.
We start with a sample of the Zealong Sweet Amber blend which is a combination of lemon, ginger and black tea whilst we wander through the tranquil shop space. One imagines they’ve created the space as a place of reflection and mindfulness in line with the qualities of tea ceremony.
As Zealong is a working farm, with strict organic certification standards to meet, tour guests are kept well away from the fields. We start on a stroll through a sculpture garden as our guide begins to tell us about the history of Zealong and the Oolong tea produced there.
We learn that Zealong’s specialty, premium oolong, is rolled tea that is then roasted. Each oolong ball contains the top three leaves from a branch rolled incredibly tightly.
Tea, as we’ve learnt throughout the year, has it’s origins in China and was cultivated and popularised through monks. There was another sculpture of the pack donkeys on the tea trail as our guide explained how tea was transported.
The process of rolling oolong tea is fascinating. Leaves were placed into cloth, tied and rolled until little balls are formed, manually this took around 12 hours.
Each of the 1.2 million camelia plants at Zealong was cultivated from 130 cuttings. Each bag of tea, or teabag, that they sell is traceable down to the row it was grown on and who picked it.
The picking staff at Zealong wear traditional clothing, a sampan hat with a bandana and sleeves that hook over the fingers to protect them from the sun. Because the farm is organic anyone handling the tea cannot get chemicals, like those from sunscreen on the tea.
To hold ‘premium’ tea status, all the tea that Zealong produces must be from only the top 3 leaves of the camelia’s branches. These are the youngest, sweetest leaves. Most commercial tea includes none of these leaves but rather the older leaves on the plants.
To prevent frost from harming the young, sweet leaves helicopters are on call any day frost could be a problem. The helicopters simply have to hover over the plants which prevents frost sticking. The farm utilises catchment ponds to keep water use as low as possible.
Each Oolong sack traditionally weighed around 23kg. At Zealong a mechanical process replaces this technique however they utilise traditional equipment wherever necessary, such as drying tea on bamboo trays.
The tour ends with a tea ceremony which has a Chinese origin. By this point it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot to take part in a ceremony like this. From a gastrophysics perspective they’ve really nailed it.
We try 5 of Zealong’s premium teas. The green, 3 grades of Oolong and a black tea. The difference between this loose leaf tea and any I’ve seen before is astounding. You can really see the tea, it still looks like leaves and is quite different from the dust found in most teabags.
The traditional, wet tea ceremony is calming and interesting. Each tea is designed to be drank in 3 gulps.
The tea in 3 stages, from fresh camelia lives, to oolong ball, to unfurled tea from the pot. Each serving of Zealong tea is designed to be brewed multiple times throughout the day as the leaves continue to rehydrate.
We booked our tour to end with high tea. Both of us chose a herbal green tea to accompany our tower of treats. After the tea ceremony we had enough oolong for the day. The high tea was lovely, and again was enhanced by the perfect setting. Each table had a personal gas warmer to keep our hot water warm if we wanted to brew our leaves multiple times.
As I progress through this learning journal more threads come to the surface. Like the fact that tea is now being grown successfully in New Zealand in the 21st Century, from it’s beginnings in China over 4000 years ago. Then I thought about the quality of this tea and how it would surely make it a joy to ferment into kombucha and I also learnt about pu-erh tea which is a variety of fermented tea leaf. Finally I thought about the high tea. All of the elements had flavours from around Asia, like the delicate pandan chiffon cake with coconut icing, the spicy satay chicken skewers and the flaky curry puff. It was somewhat unexpected – no cucumber sandwiches in sight – but here, in this wonderful country, full of people from around the world, it felt right at home.