Hawaiian Oolong tea grower Mike Riley smiling in tea field

Canton Tea Club Week 6: Hawaiian Mauka Oolong

Following on from the Hawaiian green last week, we bring you another tea from Hawaii: an oolong made by tea-grower and fine wood-worker Mike Riley. Mike is Hawaii’s leading force in growing and developing oolong teas in Hawaii, and he spoke to Kate about Hawaii’s tea history and how tea and furniture compliment each other.

Kate: Eva told us last week that tea has been in commercial production in Hawaii for the past six years. Can you tell us a bit more about the history of tea in Hawaii?

Mike: Sugar plantations over a hundred years ago were bringing workers to Hawaii from China, Japan and the Philippines. Some of these workers brought tea seeds from their homeland and planted small backyard patches for their own use, but it was just for personal use – no-one started selling the tea. Lipton came to Hawaii years ago and experimented with growing tea in Hawaii but the cost of shipping and labour put an end to their efforts here. The first people to market and sell Hawaii grown tea began growing in the mid 1990s and their tea has only been available to the public through a few retailers for the past six years.

Kate: What aspects of Hawaii’s climate do you think aid the production of tea?

Mike: Hawaii’s climate makes it a perfect location to cultivate tea. On the windward side of the island we have abundant rainfall, deep rich volcanic soil and mild winters.

Kate: Why did you start growing tea?

Mike: My wife works for the USDA at the agricultural experiment station on the Big Island, her boss Dr. Francis Zee began researching the possibility of growing tea in Hawaii in the mid 1990s – that’s when I became involved.

Kate: Tell me about where you cultivate your tea.

Mike: Volcano Tea Garden is located at a 3600 foot elevation on the windward slope of Kilauea Volcano, we specialise in processing oolong but also produce white, green and black teas.

Kate: How do you process your tea?

Mike: We have been fortunate in Hawaii to have had some of the leading experts and scientists in the world of tea visit us, each one of them has shared freely their knowledge of cultivation, propagation and processing. Mr. Yamashita, a living treasure from Japan taught us how to process his green tea. Mr. Fan, a third generation oolong farmer from Taiwan has guided us for many years in processing high quality oolong. I process tea using the methods they have taught me.

Kate: What is your favourite aspect of producing tea?

Mike: There is no set formula for processing high quality oolong tea, for it to be done properly many things must be taken into account. It’s like a chess match where every move affects the outcome. I enjoy the challenge!

Kate: How does producing tea fit in with the other activities in your life (i.e. your furniture making)?

Mike: The common thread of tea production and furniture making is art. To excel it’s important to understand the basic requirements of your medium and know when to let your heart take control.

Kate: Finally, why do you think Hawaii-grown tea is special?

Mike: There is only one Hawaii. Everywhere in the world people think of Hawaii as a paradise with pristine beaches, pure air and water and spectacular sunsets… now add tea!

 

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