Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Master brews clean green Waikato tea

4:00AM Monday Oct 05, 2009
By Andrea Fox
Ming-Hsun Yu has the same expertise for his product as a wine master has for his.
Unsmiling, intense, Master Yu swirls steaming water to pre-heat the delicate white green tea pot and miniature china beakers with the absorbed concentration a master of wine, would swirl shiraz to judge its colour.

Respectfully addressed as "Master" by the staff at Waikato's oolong green tea farm company Zealong, where he has come from Taiwan to further school in tasting and presentation, Ming-Hsun Yu is dressed in green theatre scrubs and presides over an ornate Chinese heavy stone tea platform that would be at home in an art gallery or museum.

The scrubs are because Master Yu has come to this traditionally designed teahouse at Zealong's plantation at Rototuna, north of Hamilton, from the nearby sterile environment of the tea processing plant.

The comparison with a master of wine is valid, says Kiwi Mark Levick, co-founder of leading New Zealand organic certification agency BioGro who is supervising the full conversion of this plantation to organic status.

Master Yu is Zealong's tea processing manager and for 18 years has been involved in producing the world's finest oolong teas for Chinese markets. Grown in Taiwan, south China, Vietnam and now on 50ha in the heart of the Waikato, premium oolong tea can sell for up to $11,000 per kg.

Master Yu is here to train staff as Zealong, founded in Hamilton 13 years ago by the Taiwanese immigrant family Chen, counts down to the November world launch of its premium tea, with its branding connotations of purity as a clean, green, New Zealand-grown safe food.

Estimated revenue from the first 2009 export crop to high-end Chinese markets is $16 million, with annual harvest revenue expected to be around $56 million in five years when plants at a second plantation at nearby Gordonton mature.

The Chen family have invested more than $10 million in the venture. They were inspired when new immigrant Tzu Chen, who was developing a housing subdivision in Rototuna in the 90s, saw how camellia trees flourished in the Waikato's rich pasturelands. Tea comes from a species of camellia.

In 1996 Tzu Chen and son Vincent propagated 130 premium quality seedlings from Taiwan, and purchased 3ha nearby as a nursery.

Zealong deputy general manager Gigi Crawford said the venture had created employment for 100 New Zealand contractors and consultants, and 32 tea pickers and plantation workers. The company paid $800,000 in wages last year, 85 per cent of which went into the Waikato economy, she said.

By 2014 the picturesque plantations, which will have three 20-day harvests a year, will need 130 workers.

Zealong plans to invest another $18 million in a tourist attraction at the Gordonton plantation next year.

It will include a tea-house for visitors, cafe, conference centre, tea processing factory and eventually, a hotel, set around a lake and gardens.

This project is awaiting local authority approvals. But for Zealong the most challenging aspect of the venture has been getting skilled workers for the highly labour-intensive picking and processing stages, Crawford said.

"We need the specialised skills of overseas, experienced tea pickers and workers to transfer the technical know-how to our local workers, particularly in the first five years. "It is also important the Asian markets know New Zealand-grown Zealong tea is made the traditional way."

The brand was due to be launched in June, but Zealong has only in recent days, supported by politicians and business agencies, won approval from immigration officials for 15 specialist Taiwanese pickers to enter the country for the November harvest. Next year, the company must apply again.

Crawford said using machinery to pick tea leaves would turn the first $1000/kg Zealong crops into a $10/kg product. "To maintain the quality of this tea and to respect the unique environment it is grown in we cannot do this. We talk to the plants all the time - to use a machine on them is just not right."

* Tea tips

Oolong tea consumption in Taiwan in 2008 - 1200g per person. China 600g per person.

Chinese market expected to double within 10 years.

Fine oolong plays important role in Chinese health, business and social structures.

80 per cent of Zealong to be exported - balance domestic through specialist tea shops.

Zealong tea farming produces no effluent, uses no chemical sprays.

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