I never thought I'd have the experience of enjoying high tea while looking out over a tea plantation here in New Zealand, let alone just outside of Hamilton. But last week I did just that.

I was visiting the Zealong tea estate, New Zealand's only commercial tea plantation. Zealong has been growing and processing premium organic tea since 1996; two-thirds of its tea is now exported to Europe and Asia.

Last week the company's black and oolong teas were awarded gold medals at the Global Tea Championship awards. It's a huge achievement for a product from a country not known for tea production.

Although Kiwis are great tea drinkers - we once drank more tea than any other country - many of us don't know much about how tea is produced. Yet as with many natural foods, tea production is centuries old and absolutely fascinating.


Green, black and oolong tea all come from the same plant: camelia sinensis. The differences in flavour and intensity are created by different types of processing. Green tea's leaves are lightly steamed before being dried, whereas black tea is fermented - exposed to air so its flavours and colours intensify.

Oolong tea is somewhere in between. Different brands of tea have distinctive flavours due to the skills of tea masters who oversee the process and blend. Zealong's teas are delicate, fresh and fragrant; quite different from what most of us are used to in our everyday teas.

I drink multiple cups of tea every day; my tea cupboard is constantly at risk of overflowing. Luckily for me, tea is associated positively with some health benefits. And although we often assume green tea is the healthiest, black and oolong also have beneficial properties.

Studies have found black tea intake is associated with decreased incidence of heart attack; green tea is associated with lower total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides, and higher HDL ("good" cholesterol) levels.

It's been suggested that green tea may prevent cancer. This is attributed to its antioxidant content; as with many plants, tea contains polyphenol compounds that have been associated with fighting cancer.

The evidence is inconclusive on this, however. It's the same with links between weight loss and tea; we're unlikely to get thin simply by drinking green tea (although switch from drinking sugary drinks and tea and you'd certainly see a difference).

There is some interesting evidence around tea and dental health; regular tea drinkers lose fewer teeth. This could be down to fluoride, both in the water and in tea itself.

The caffeine in tea is worth keeping in mind; it has about half the caffeine of coffee. Green tea, contrary to popular belief, does contain caffeine, although it is less again.

The caffeine in tea seems to be the only potential downside to its consumption; there's potential to overload on caffeine from tea just as from coffee.

But overall, a regular cuppa is a great way to pause, hydrate and refresh.