Let’s Talk Food: Teas from Hawaii Island for Christmas gifts

  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON Abby’s Ohana Tea samplers.

  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON The first three leaves of a tea plant to be picked.

  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON The top three leaves of a tea plant.

  • Courtesy of AUDREY WILSON Tea plants growing in Volcano.

What a better way to support our local businesses than to buy the wonderful teas grown right here on the Big Island.

Volcano was found to be the perfect location for growing tea, along the slopes of Kilauea, at an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. The cooler temperatures as well as the abundance of rain needed to grow the Camellia sinensis, a species of evergreen shrubs, thrives, especially in our rain forest. Instead of using machines to cut the leaves, the growers here hand pick only the three young, light-green leaves that grow at the top of the branch, making for a wonderful tea with very little tannins that cause bitterness.

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The young, fresh leaves contain about 4% caffeine and compounds such as theobromine and theophylline. The caffeine acts as a natural pesticide and can paralyze and kill predator insects feeding on the plant. The younger leaves that are picked for tea have a higher concentration of TCS1 transcripts, allowing more caffeine to be synthesized. Theobromine might also play a crucial role in some beneficial effects attributed to caffeine. It is useful in asthma and other respiratory tract problems such as cough for which no definitive drug has been developed. Theophylline is a bronchodilator drug that clears airways in the lungs and relieves wheezing, coughing and breathlessness.

The nonprofit Hawaii Tea Society was founded in 2005 by Eva Lee and a group of interested tea growers and artists. At the time, the majority of interested people were not tea farmers but artists. Many farmers were fearful that growing tea was too labor intensive. Francis Zee, the father of bringing tea to Hawaii, trying to reach out to get people to start growing tea. The Hawaii Tea Society was formed and resulted in a lot of the artists becoming tea farmers. Zee was delighted to have the artists grow tea, as artists were astute and good at details, traits needed to grow tea. Because of to this start, we now have several small companies with teas that will happily ship anywhere.

Tea Hawaii &Company, owned by Chiu Leong and Lee, grows its tea plants at the 4,000-foot elevation. Its claim, “100% Hawaii-grown, single-estate, whole-leaf, organic teas. Harvested and processed all by hand. These domestic American teas are from farms located on the east side of Hawaii Island, with tea gardens ranging from 900- to 4,000-foot elevations.” The varieties include Volcano Green, Forrest White, Mauka Oolong and Makai Black. Tea Hawaii &Company products are sold at Waimea Farmers Market, Island Naturals in Hilo and Pahoa, Keaau Natural Foods, Abundant Life in Hilo, Punaluu Bakery, Volcano Arts Center at Naiulani and via the company’s website at Teahawaii.com. You can order teas to be shipped anywhere in the world.

Tea Hawaii hopes to start making matcha tea or powdered green tea with many culinary applications. It hopes to have some ready for sale in 2021.

Abby’s Ohana Tea was first conceived in 2012. Ronald Keith, wife Lisa, and daughter Abigail were at Disneyland discussing growing teas in Volcano with Lisa’s parents. They found the perfect plot of land in Volcano and worked the lands, removing invasive plants and keeping the ohia trees. They planted five different cultivars, all from cuttings given to them by Lee, who got all of her plants from Taiwan and has helped other tea growers start their businesses.

Abby’s Ohana Tea varieties include:

• Kilauea Green: “A relaxing tea with a mild vegetal taste and just the right amount of astringency. A tea with mineral notes is itself akin to the green Darjeeling tea of the upland slopes of the Himalayas, mirroring the uplands of Kilauea volcano where it is grown. It has notes of almond, umami and sesame seeds while distinctly Hawaiian plumeria and honey shine through.”

• Hawaiian Dragon: “This Chinese tea cultivar grown under the native ohia is a boutique tea naturally infused with the floral notes of jasmine and citrus.”

• Kilauea Beauty: “A black tea produced from the leaves of the Japanese cultivar Benidaori, (this) is the tea that you want if you enjoy drinking tea from sunup to sunset. This tea is smooth, lacks astringency and provides a kick of caffeine to help you through the day.”

• Mauna Loa Estate: “An oolong produced at Volcano Tea Garden by Mike Riley, (this) is one of the most highly prized teas grown in Hawaii. With its hints of caramel undertones and smooth mouth feel, this is a tea that you will enjoy drinking over and over again.”

Prices range from $15-$30, depending on how many ounces you purchase at abbysohanatea.com. There is also a sample pack available so you can try the various teas and then buy more of your favorites.

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So with the health benefits to your lungs and the fear of COVID-19, Hawaii Island-grown teas might be a good gift to send to a special person.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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