By Ivy Ashe
HILO, Hawaii (AP) — On the second-story porch of his Papaikou home, Mike Longo poured steaming tea from a small glass pitcher into a set of cylindrical porcelain cups painted pale yellow.
“You don’t want to waste a good oolong,” Longo said, passing the cups — called aroma cups — around the table. Each was capped with what looked like a miniature bowl flared like a bell: a tasting cup. All at the table held their aroma-and-tasting-cup combination between their thumb and middle finger, and flipped it upside down with a wrist flick.
It was the third time the oolong had been poured out, and after everyone carefully separated their two cups so the liquid spilled into the tasting portion, Rob Nunally took note of the scents lingering in the aroma cup. It was stronger than the previous two pours, he said. Cinnamon tones, with a little peppermint. A Christmas tea.
People lifted their tasting cups, and sipped the perfectly-brewed oolong, which tasted not like spice but flowers.
Tea, the second most popular beverage in the world after water, is a showcase for the possibility contained in the shiny, serrated leaves of Camellia sinensis, part of the evergreen tree family. White tea, black tea, green tea, oolong tea: it all comes from the same source.
This is one of the first things Longo and Nunally point out to guests who visit their 1.5 acre certified organic tea farm, Onomea Tea Company, and one that they say consistently blows visitors away.
“When people say tea, at least in the U.S., they have kind of a generic understanding of it … something that’s brewed with hot water,” Nunally said. “But really, tea should be just from Camellia sinensis, not herbal (plants) like chamomile, mint.”
And even after 12 years of farming, of experimenting with Camellia sinensis seedlings and cuttings from around the world, trying to find the plants that will yield a smooth drink both flavorful and aromatic, Longo and Nunally themselves are still impressed by the power of the tea plant.
They began growing in 2003, four years after buying a stunning expanse of former sugarcane land above Onomea Bay. The original property deed hangs in their living room, beneath a framed black-and-white photo of the old sugar flume passing high over the land.
At first, the plan was to grow daylilies, building on Longo’s success as a daylily hybridizer on the mainland. They brought 800 different varieties to Hawaii on returning to the Big Island.
The elevation did not agree with the flowers.
“99 percent of them didn’t bloom, or bloomed very sporadically,” Longo said.
But they wanted to grow something. The land was zoned for agriculture, and, being along the Hamakua coast, had an established heritage the men wanted to promote.
Longo, whose father was a nursery man, had a background in organic gardening. Nearly all of the pieces were there.
Neither knew anything about tea — Nunally used to work in technology sales and Longo is a semi-retired chiropractor — other than that they liked to drink it. But one day while drinking Earl Grey, Nunally became curious about what tea plants actually looked like. A Google search turned up Camellia sinensis, and the intriguing fact that it was a subtropical plant.
The same week, Longo and Nunally heard that United States Department of Agriculture scientist Francis Zee, who was leading an effort to diversify Hawaii’s agricultural economy, would be giving cuttings and seeds to anyone who wanted to try growing tea.
“So, OK, this is a sign,” Longo said. “And we discovered they grew very well here.”
Attempts were made to develop Hawaii tea beginning in the late 1800s, but those focused on creating a commodity market that ultimately could not compete against the global tea powerhouses of China, Japan and India.
“Not until the interest in specialty tea came about did it make sense to be able to produce tea in Hawaii,” Nunally said. “You really have to specialize. Hawaii should have a reputation of high-quality clean agricultural products.”
With help from Zee and Kang Fang, a Taiwanese tea man who visited the farm several times and helped Longo and Nunally get the right processing equipment, Onomea Tea Company was on its way.
Fang’s visits, as well as a trip made to Taiwan in 2009, were instrumental in solidifying the tea routine, from picking to processing to packaging.
The middle step is crucial. It’s there that Camellia sinensis becomes green, black, or oolong depending on whether it’s cooked, left to wither longer, or tossed so that the leaves bruise. Nunally and Longo prepare almost all of their tea orthodox style, meaning the whole, unbroken leaves are used.
“We could do it, but (Fang) helped us fine-tune our process,” Longo said. Still, the first two years came with a steep learning curve because of the variability inherent to tea plants.
“Tea grows differently in every terroir,” Nunally said.
Like wine, tea is heavily influenced by regional characteristics. Part of Hawaii’s terroir comes from the volcanoes — tea loves to grow in acidic soils.
“There’s a similarity in many of the teas grown here,” Longo said. “The black teas have a certain similarity no matter where they’re grown, Volcano or here. There is a Hawaii note and that’s what we’re trying to establish with all the tea growers here.”
In November, during the first-ever Teas of the United States tasting competition, the Onomea-grown entries picked up awards in six of the nine categories they entered, including a first-place green tea.
“I enjoy this method,” Longo said. “It’s more of an art.” (end)