By Si Chen – VOLCANO, Hawai’i
Tea growers in eight American states put their best steep forward last week at the first TOTUS (Tea of the United States) Award competition and educational conference.
The competition drew 79 entries from 30 tea gardens. A panel of six judges awarded Hawai’i growers the top prizes for commercial production but also recognized four high quality teas grown in Mississippi.
Onomea Tea was the most lauded tea garden winning six of 12 categories in the commercial category. Six tea experts representing various aspects of the tea industry evaluated the carefully prepared samples for dry leaf appearance and brewed tea aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and liquor.
Judges reviewed the origin’s characteristics independent of traditional styles of Chinese, Japanese and Indian teas. Instructions were to score the tea by its own merit with commercial and non-commercial categories separating the size of operation, not quality. Entries include white, green, oolong and black teas.
“We hope that the competition will encourage those who have pioneered U.S. tea farming to gain national recognition for their uniquely crafted teas and further educate consumers supporting domestic tea agriculture,” said Eva Lee, a local tea grower, past Hawai’i Tea Society president and TOTUS executive director. Lee devoted two years to the project which was funded in part by sponsors and the Hawaii County Office of Research and Development. The event was hosted at the Volcano Art Center in partnership with the Hawaii Tea Society, and in collaboration with the Big Island Resource Conservation and Development Council, Hawaii Farmers Union United, and The Kohala Center.
A ‘Community Tea-In’ at the Arts Center, featured inspirational talks ranging from the social or geological history of tea culture and the spirituality of tea’s influence on U.S. artists, to the effect of climate changes on tea. There was even a focused tasting pairing tea and scotch.
“This competition is quite an achievement, which marks the milestone for US tea,” said Dr. Ching-Yuan Hu, Prof of Human Nutrition and Food from the University of Hawaii – Manoa. “In Hawaii we have some of the most optimal eco-conditions for tea growing, and we want the world to know that we are sincere and hard-working in finding ways to improve tea production techniques,” he said.
At a round table following the judging participants questioned whether establishing an annual competition will lead to standardization of growing practices like those in Assam and Darjeeling which might narrowly define the character of Hawaiian and other teas grown on U.S. soil.
American terroir is expansive. The farms vary from tiny to large; tea processing varies widely a combination that introduces many variables.
Jane Pettigrew, who chaired the judging panel, noted that, “Tea growing is a very young, very new industry in the United States. Farmers are growing different varietals and cultivars at different altitudes, in varying climates, in shade and under direct sun. A lot of growers are still experimenting, as you don’t make good teas overnight”, she observed. “You have to tweak, redo, monitor and record, and possibly bring in tea processing experts to help you. It is going to be quite a focused program of research and experimentation,” she said.
The mood at the event was friendly, collegial. Attendees were eager to make connections, discuss techniques and encourage visits to their own gardens. “China and Taiwan have regular competitions that can lead to a sharing of information,” said Pettigrew.
Winners in the commercial categories include:
- White: Volcano Winery; grower Alex Wood; processor Volcano Winery
- Green: Onomea Tea Co; grower/processor Mike Longo & Rob Nunally
- Oolong: Volcano Tea Garden; grower/processor Mike Riley
- Black: Tea Hawaii; grower/processor Chiu Leong
Non-commercial garden winners include:
- White: Finley; grower/processor Bai-Alla Finley (Hawaii Island)
- Green: The Great Mississippi Tea Company; grower Jason McDonald; processor Beverly Wainwright
- Oolong: The Great Mississippi Tea Company; grower Jason McDonald; processor David Bromwich
- Black: The Great Mississippi Tea Company; grower Jason McDonald; processor Beverly Wainwright