A chance encounter with a camellia in 1996 led Vincent Chen from a career in subdivision and skyscrapers to tea making. Spying the impressive, prolifically flowering specimen, Chen's father, Tze Wan Chen, approached his neighbour and asked, in broken English, what kind of magic it took to get the camellia growing so well. The neighbour laughed and revealed his secret: dig a hole in the ground and place the camellia in the hole. But, the seed was planted. If camellia could bloom in Waikato, so could tea.
Tea is made from the Camellia sinesis, a sub-species of the camellia family. With his background in construction, Vincent Chen knew little about it. Visiting the mountainous region of Nantou Province in Taiwan (famous for its highland tea crops), Chen selected some cuttings and sped back to the airport - chilly bin in hand.
Arriving home, his 500 cuttings were propagated into 1500 seedlings and left under MAF supervision. When Chen returned to pick up the seedlings 10 months later, only 130 remained.
"Every step of the way he's been hitting a wall. Any normal human being would give up, but Vincent just keeps going," says Jeff Howell, spokesperson for Zealong.
Far from being frustrated, the grateful Chen claimed this was natural selection at its finest.
Now the 35-hectare plantation in Gordonton, north Waikato, has around 1.2 million tea plants - all derived from the original, 130.
Learning to plant and propagate tea came next, and then came the challenge of brokering new markets. Being the first commercial tea plantation in New Zealand, Zealong had to work hard to prove its merit -"especially when you go into Asia," says Howell, "they are like the French with wine".
The company eventually won over the market with its "pure" claim to fame. It is one of the few organic tea plantations (certified to BioGro standards), and grows without sprays, fertilisers or pesticides. New Zealand is lucky to be biologically blessed, says Howell, lacking the pests and fungi that prey on tea in other countries.
Pesticides and fertilisers are stock-standard in major tea producing areas like China and India where their indiscriminate use leaves toxic traces in tea leaves. Most countries now have rules governing the maximum residue levels (MRL) of pesticides allowed in imported tea. However Zealong's tea is completely free of pesticides and toxic residues - and they have the test results to prove it.
Zealong tea is also the only tea on the planet produced to food safety standards (ISO 22000 HACCP), something that Chen, in his agricultural naivety, presumed to be the norm. Visiting international tea fairs, Zealong realised they were the only tea makers treating tea like food.
They adopt strict rules around safety and hygiene and also slap a traceability barcode on their products, allowing consumers to follow the tea right back to the particular block it came from and the day it was picked on.
Howell calls oolong the "rock star" of teas. It is the most demanding type to make, taking some 36 hours from picking to processing, compared with 24 hours with black tea. Zealong has recently released a sweet, citrusy black tea but it is most renowned for its oolong. It boasts three blends: the "green"-tasting Pure, the buttery, floral Aromatic, roasted at high temperatures and the Dark variety which gets its rich, charcoal flavour from repeated roastings.
Traditionally, oolong is used in formal Chinese situations; to seal a lucrative business deal or celebrate marriages. Some varieties of oolong, for example Da Hong Pao from centuries-old tea bushes in the Wuyi mountain area of China, reputedly sell for US$30,000 ($36,400) a kilogram.
The know-how required to curl the tea into the twisted, tight balls of oolong is in short supply in New Zealand. "It's like trying to find a winemaker in New Zealand in the 1960s," quips Howell.
Every year during harvest, Zealong imports expert knowledge in the form of Master Wu, a tea master from Taiwan.
Tea-making is a peasant tradition, handed down through generations. Itinerant tea masters travel from plantation to plantation and their ability to craft teas, using solely experience and human judgment, means they are in high demand.
From humble beginnings, the "world's purest tea" has found its way to the shelves of the world's glitziest tea houses. Exclusive Parisian teahouse Mariage Freres, sells re-branded Zealong tea, and elite Japanese department store Isetan stocks it. Zealong has also set up shop in Taipei's fashionable Sogo, with its highbrow neighbours like Chanel and Tiffany.
Despite this, Chen remains grounded; focused on the dream he and his father shared. "Vincent's business is to make the world's best tea. He doesn't care about anything else", says Howell.
HOW IS TEA MADE?
Once picked, tea leaves start to decay, or oxidise. It is this level of oxidation that creates differing tastes and appearances among varying tea types.
Green tea has the highest level of "greenness" in the leaves (lowest oxidation levels), but the highest caffeine levels - especially Japanese green tea.
Oolong is partially oxidised (Zealong's oolong is oxidised to 20 per cent).
Black tea is fully oxidised (brown) when processed. Black tea contains the least amount of caffeine.
Herbal "teas" are not actually made from tea, but use plants like peppermint or chamomile daisies for caffeine-free infusions correctly termed "tisanes".
THE PERFECT CUP OF OOLONG
Oolong is best enjoyed over several sessions. Each brew releases more flavour from the curled-up leaves, and you don't have to keep adding more tea.
* Start with a clean teapot or cup (free from black tea tannins) and pre-heat with a swish of boiling water.
* Add water, which should be at least 90 degrees, (equivalent to a freshly boiled jug). Let tea steep for about a minute and a half on the first infusion and longer for each consecutive brew.
Or add a teaspoon of oolong in the morning, and top up every hour with boiling water. The flavour will continue long through the afternoon.
To get your hands on some Zealong tea, head to the website (www.zealong.com) or drop by and visit the plantation in Gordonton and watch the harvest progress.
TOP BENEFITS OF TEA
Tea is widely touted for its health benefits, owing much of its reputation to a little known, impossible to pronounce compound called Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
This potent antioxidant, known for its antitumour properties, reduces risks of cancer and heart disease, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and stimulates the immune system. Antioxidants also help fight the ageing processes- so knocking back a few cups a day could keep you looking youthful.
Oolong has fewer EGCGs than green tea but has historically been used for weight loss. Studies link the consumption of 8g of oolong tea daily to weight loss in 70 per cent of severely obese individuals.
Due to its semi-oxidised nature, it also helps the body excrete fats and cholesterol. Other oolong goodies inhibit stomach cancer cells and it could even have a protective effect against colon cancer.
Black tea contains the lowest level of ECGCs, but has other advantages. Research highlights its ability to prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer. It also helps with high blood pressure and is just as good as green tea at fighting diabetes.
Just making space for a pot or two of tea a day has health spin-offs. Taking 15 minutes to sit and slowly enjoy a cuppa is a great way to reduce stress-related hormones like adrenaline.By Sophie Barclay