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Artisan teas by Tea Hawaii & Company

CI0A1145Eva Lee serves tea samples to shoppers at Waimea Town Market.Eva Lee and Chiu Leong founded Tea Hawaii & Company with an overarching vision of putting tea front and center as a Hawai‘i grown specialty crop. The couple has been growing and processing tea for over ten years and currently engages in all aspects of tea production: growing, processing, marketing, and education. Their products include several 100% Hawai‘i-grown single estate whole leaf teas including, “Forest White,” “Volcano Green,” “Mauka Oolong,” and “Makai Black.” The first two of these are grown and processed by Lee and Leong and the other two were carefully selected to be sold under the Tea Hawaii label (with the source estate clearly identified). The company also processes finished teas for other growers to sell under their own label. Based on their prominent role in promoting Hawai‘i grown tea, Lee and Leong provide product development services for other Hawai‘i tea farms, including consultation on a customized product line for the specific teas others grow. Additionally, Tea Hawaii propagates tea varieties and sells plants to other farmers and advises on tea horticulture.

In describing her business model, Lee often talks about the big picture, “Spearheading the consciousness of tea requires individual growers that have like minds about community and think beyond self-interest. The private sector needs to join together to develop the industry together. It’s a full-time gig to move everything forward.” Based on their drive to create a Hawai‘i tea industry, Lee and Leong can seem more like extension agents than entrepreneurs at times. The roots of their passion go deep as Lee recounts, “Tea has particular meaning for me, as my father came from the birthplace of tea in China. It was exciting to think of growing a crop with which my family is so connected. Tea culture is also richly intertwined with the arts. As an artist, Chiu has long worked with tea pottery, and we have long been captivated by all of the other experiences that surround tea in the arts: inspired painting, writing, and tea ceremony.” All of these connections led to an attraction to all aspects of tea, which clearly shows in the diversity of Tea Hawaii’s activities.

Lee and Leong’s tea business came to life in the early 2000s when they heard of research being conducted by Dr. Francis Zee of the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Hilo. Early trials conducted in collaboration with UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources were promising for production in high elevation areas such as Volcano Village where Lee and Leong live. As the researchers were looking for collaborators in the private sector, the couple saw an opportunity to get involved at an early stage of a potentially important specialty crop for Hawai‘i. Eventually they worked closely with Dr. Zee as well as Dwight Sato, Milton Yamasaki, and Dr. C.Y. Hu, University of Hawai‘i staff who were involved in the tea project.

In addition to horticultural practices, learning the art of processing finished teas has been central to developing Tea Hawaii’s product line. As past project manager for the nonprofit Hawaii Tea Society, Lee brought tea experts from China, Taiwan, and Japan to Hawai‘i to teach the art of processing tea. Lee recalls the many years of discovery, “It is fascinating to adapt centuries-old tea expertise from other regions to our conditions. We have gone through a steep learning curve, fusing together very different techniques from various regions to find what can work here. We now know the importance of adapting the processing to our growing and harvest conditions, which is a continual learning process.”

Lee and Leong learned industry-standard cupping techniques through the Tea Association USA Specialty Tea Institute certification program, skills that were enriched by visiting experts through the years. “Everyone in the industry needs to learn cupping skills,” encourages Lee. “It is essential that we all work together to achieve a high standard for Hawai‘i-grown tea. Lee conducts extensive product testing for each new process or new circumstance in her business, including cupping and other sensory evaluations from the time the leaf comes into the workshop. In addition to professional evaluation by tea experts that Tea Hawai‘i has consulted with for years, Lee and Leong receive valuable feedback from customers on a weekly basis where they sell their teas at the Waimea Town Market (farmers market). “In order to engage customers, we have to connect with them on a personal level. The farmers market gives us a great opportunity to interact with our customers, where we learn as much or more from them as they do from us.”

When asked how Tea Hawaii can compete with less expensive imported teas, Lee responds, “We don’t compete—we‘re not even on the same shelf or shop as imported commodity teas. We make extremely high quality 100% Hawai‘i grown teas, or they don’t go out on the shelf.”

This profile was excerpted with permission of the authors from:

Elevitch, C., and K. Love. 2013. Adding Value to Locally Grown Crops in Hawai‘i: A Guide for Small Farm Enterprise Innovation. Permanent Agriculture Resources, Holualoa, Hawai‘i. www.valueadded.info

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