Tea Forest in Hawaii Establishes a New Standard of Quality

Big Island Tea forest, photo by Cam Muir

Big Island Tea produces tea using sustainable farming practices that respect and support Hawaii’s diverse ecosystem, resulting in an exceptionally high quality tea.

Eliah Halpenny moved to Hawaii in 2001 from Canada to join her husband, Cam Muir, who had accepted a post-doctorate genetics research position at the University of Hawaii. Being Canadian, Halpenny was not allowed to work, so she began to look for a farm and a crop she could grow organically. She started to read about permaculture and she and Muir who is now a biology professor, decided to plant a forest for growing tea, rather than forming a plantation. Previously, the property was used as ranch land for grazing cattle, then as a covered greenhouse operation. They transformed the greenhouse operation into what they call a biodiverse “tea forest.”

“From the ground up we have put together a forest that cultivates diversity,” said Halpenny. “A forest will grow with very little intervention from people. To grow tea in a rainforest is the origin of tea like in Yunnan, China.”

Eliah Halpenny, photo by Cam Muir

Halpenny and Muir now have been growing and processing tea for 16 years. They have 6,000 tea plants on 51/2 acres of land that sits on the east side of Hawaii, between the northeast slope of Mauna Loa and the town of Mountain View. Five thousand of the 6,000 plants are Darjeeling seed stock from Kalimpong. They also grow Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese varieties. All varieties of the tea leaves are selectively blended together while being plucked.

The Big Island Tea forest includes native flora such as Koa trees, Kukui trees, lemon trees, orange trees, blueberry bushes, hibiscus, hapu’u ferns and banana trees to name a few. The banana trees play an integral role in tea cultivation. A banana tree can grow to be 20 feet tall in a year and casts beneficial shade upon the tea plants. Halpenny further incorporates the trees into tea cultivation by cutting them down and placing the stalks and the leaves beside the tea plants. Then the leaves and stalks break down into the soil.

“Worms come in because they like the sweetness of the banana. They are like an army of workers; they keep the plants healthy,” said Halpenny.

Photo by Cam Muir

Additionally, birds are drawn to their forest and eat large insects. Geckos, ladybugs and praying mantises eat smaller organisms from the leaves of the tea plants. Hence, the tea forest is a balanced ecosystem, rather than a clonal plantation.

The weather patterns on east Hawaii Island are similar to those of the Pacific Northwest in that it rains during the cooler winter months. The rain runs off of the land or seeps into the porous volcanic soil and is then absorbed by the forest vegetation. The area does not experience monsoons combined with heat like the plantations in India.

The couple works with a small group of other growers who employ the agroecology principle, which is the study of applying ecological processes to agricultural production schemes. “I think it’s exciting as a high-value crop in Hawaii, what is exciting about it is its potential. Our part of the island, east Hawaii, is economically depressed. There are very few jobs; it’s not where the tourists go. To be able to introduce a high-value crop can help. You can grow an incredible crop at the same time as taking care of the land,” Halpenny said.

Tea grown in the U.S. costs more to produce than tea grown on a plantation in Southeast Asia. Tea grown in a tea forest is also a higher quality than plantation-grown tea, said Halpenny.

Photo by Cam Muir

In March 2011, wholesaler Jameel Lalani of Lalani & Co. told Halpenny, “You are setting a new bar in world quality tea,” and he sold the tea to Harrods in London, which acquired exclusive rights. Harrods then sold Big Island Tea for from about $11,000 per kilogram. Harrods retained exclusive rights until 2015. Halpenny and Muir wanted to expand their retail reach, so now Big Island Tea is av­­ailable at Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York City for $65 per pot. It can also be purchased in British Columbia at Silk Road Tea and in Hawaii at the Bloomingdale’s at the Ala Moana Center. Halpenny and Muir currently sell their tea wholesale for $1,350 per kilogram and retailers mark up the price by 200 percent to 300 percent. The usual retail markup is 100 percent.

The couple also gives tours of their farm and visitors often buy their tea. Halpenny describes the tea’s flavor as complex. “When I swallow, there is a residual sweetness. When I’m processing it, I smell roses.” She said it resembles dark cherry, has a bit of a citrus note and tastes very earthy. Halpenny gushed, “I like seeing people raise their eyebrows when they taste it.”


At World Tea Expo:

Eliah Halpenny and Cam Muir of Big Island Tea will talk about growing tea in a newly recreated bio- diverse native forest on the slope of Maura Loa volcano in Hawaii without the application of herbicides, pesticides and the monoculture use of clonal plant material.
Session: Hawaii a New Frontier for Tea Farmers
When: Wednesday, June 14; 10:15 am – 11:15 am
Where: N239