Legislature backs Hawaiian-grown tea

HONOLULU, Haw.

Hawaiian legislators introduce legislation to boost the state’s small tea industry into a world-class producer of specialty tea.

Authors of SB 2957 anticipate the tea market to double within five years and intend to make Hawaii-grown tea a brand leader.

Production today is a few hundred pounds, but hand-crafted organic teas are top earners. Harrods of London paid $90,000 for 22 pounds of Hawaiian tea last year and retailers like Samovar Tea’s Jesse Jacobs say they can’t keep up with demand. The San Francisco tea house sells Hawaii tea for a more reasonable $20 per pot (about $300 per pound).

Several years ago researchers at the University of Hawaii began planting test gardens on several of the Hawaii islands. One location, near Volcano Village, proved exceptionally fertile. Few insects attack the plants there and the combination of rainfall and soil is idea.

In 2001 grower Eva Lee, tea master of Tea Hawaii and president of the Hawaii Tea Society, contacted Frances Zee, Research Leader at the USDA station near Hilo, and by the end of the year, she and husband Chiu Leong were growing their first plants. They have since supplied dozens of other growers and market their own line of teas.

A nursery that Lee established in Volcano to generate clonal teas already is providing thousands of cuttings for commercial growers elsewhere. Gardens on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii produce only a few hundred pounds of tea, but earn top price for their white and green teas.

Specialty tea is a multi-billion industry and Hawaii is one of the few places in the United States where tea can be grown commercially. Tea was first introduced to Hawaii in 1887 but was unsuccessful due to labor costs and the proliferation of sugar plantations. Sugar has since diminished as a cash crop and the land is once again available for tea.

The legislation establishes regulations for marketing and advertising the tea from Hawaii. Teas with less than 100 percent Hawaii-grown teas cannot be labeled Hawaii-grown. Provisions for blended teas with up to 75 percent leaf from outside the state will lower costs and extend the brand.

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