zealong: pure new zealand oolong tea – an interview with vincent chen

Traditionally, oolong tea has always been grown in China and, more recently, Taiwan. These regions have for centuries grown famous oolong varieties such as Tie Guanyin and Da Hong Pao, to name a few.  Now, there is competition joining the ranks of oolong growing countries, from somewhere better know for spectacular landscapes, Peter Jackson films, sheep and outdoor sports, and now, Zealong the world’s purest oolong tea.  This is great news, for us oolong lovers, and for those of us who love both innovation and history when it comes to tea.

The innovative fellow behind this tea is Vincent Chen, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about tea culture in New Zealand, what it means to be ISO22000 HACCP certified and why his tea guys wear the kind of  surgical gear you would normally find in an operating theatre!
Can you tell me a little about Zealong, how you got started and what inspired you to commercially grow a tea in a country that doesn’t have a history of growing this type of product.

My family arrived in NZ from Taiwan in 1996 to start a property business here. One day my father noticed a Camellia tree growing in the neighbour’s back yard. It was shiny, deep green and very healthy. He asked the neighbour – what are you doing to make the tree grow so perfectly? Our neighbour looked at him like he was crazy, because everyone knows camellias just grow like that here.

As you may know, tea is a type of camellia – my father thought, “if camellias grow well, maybe tea will grow too.” So we imported some cuttings to see if tea would grow.

vincent chen

I grew up in New Zealand and to me New Zealand tea culture has two sides, one being the typically British side of black tea with milk and sugar, which reflects the colonial history; and the other being the Asian influence.  How would you describe the tea culture in New Zealand in 2010.

As an ex-colony of Great Britain, New Zealand has a tea culture – but it’s very different to the one I knew back in Taiwan. In NZ, people drink black tea, brewed strong and bitter, usually with milk and/or sugar. On the other hand, there’s a ‘new’ side of tea culture here too. People are experimenting with other types of tea – Japanese green tea, blends like earl grey, and of course Chinese teas such as oolong.

I think part of this new interest comes from tea’s reputation as a healthy drink compared to, say, coffee of soft drink. However, we think this ‘new’ tea culture is a little behind, say Europe or USA.

New Zealand has a reputation for being clean, green and pure – what advantages have you encountered that growers in other countries might not have experienced or had the advantage of.

Yes, there are lots of advantages, and I’ll try ad cover some of them.

Of course I have faced difficulties establishing a tea industry here from scratch. But looking back, I believe it’s actually been an advantage to be able to start with a clean sheet of paper.

Our ISO22000 HACCP certification is a good example. NZ is a food exporting nation that trades on the purity and safety of its products. So it was natural for us to aspire to those same international food safety standards – even though they are
virtually unheard of in the world of tea.

The benefit for us – and our customers – is that in the process, we have created is the safest tea in the world.

zealong tea plantation, waikato region, new zealand

Looking back, New Zealand’s strict biosecurity rules helped us in the early days. When I first imported tea cuttings from Taiwan, our Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) grew them under quarantine. When I got them back 10 months later, over 90% had died, leaving me just 130 seedlines. People tell me “you must be disappointed MAF killed all those plants” but I have a different view. The actually helped me weed out the weaker plants. The 1.2 million plants I have today are all descended from the strong plants – ones that survived.

Our environment gives us a unique set of advantages. We don’t have the insects and fungus that affect tea plants in other ountries, enabling us to grow Zealong organically without chemical sprays and fertilizers.

The local air, sun, soil and water produce leaves that are thicker and greener, giving our tea a more durable flavour, and more re-infusions. And the aroma is said to be fresher, and more floral.

I believe we can rightfully claim Zealong is the world’s purest oolong tea.

The French made fun of us for attempting to make great wine, which we now indisputably do. Have you encountered any negatively along the way in regards to producing tea.

In the second half of 2010 we visited three international tea fairs, in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Japan. Initially we were nervous about what tea experts from ‘traditional’ tea countries would say about Zealong. To our relief, the feedback was almost 100% positive. Growers from all round the world have been very  encouraging, which makes me very proud.

photo by chan teas

The Waikato region has a reputation as being a great area for foodies, as well as having a long history of dairy production.  How have you found the local food / dairy / agriculture community in your area.

You’re right. The Waikato is proud of its food production, and local people are very supportive of what we’re doing. New Zealand has very strict rules on land use, and we initially had some problems getting the local councils to understand what we were trying to achieve. But now they’re 100% on-side – they even bring overseas visitors to show around our estate!

Zealong has one particularly impressive feature – it’s technically pure, not just in airy fairy tea marketing speak, but in the fact that it’s ISO 22000 HACCP certified. What does this involve and can you tell me a little about the process of attaining such a certification.

Overseas, tea is grown as an agricultural product, like hay or fertilizer. We decided to produce Zealong as a food product, which makes it unique. We chose to follow the world’s strictest food safety standard – ISO22000 – which we have certified through the Swiss company SGS. It took three hard years of work, and because we are the only tea company in the world to certify, there was no-one we could turn to for advice. But we made it.

One of ISO22000’s key features is traceability. Our on-farm systems allow us to trace every pack of Zealong tea back to the day it was picked, and the block it was picked from.

In the factory, we had to adapt a lot of the traditional processes to conform to ISO22000 standards. For example, our initial drying area is undercover to prevent contamination from other sources such as birds or airborne pollutants.

My factory staff wear the same uniforms as surgeons in an operating theatre.

As a result of IS22000 certification, I am sure we have the safest on-farm practices, the cleanest tea factory in the world. and the world’s purest oolong tea.

Which is what the rest of the world expects from a New Zealand food product.

photo by chan teas

On a personal level what does tea mean to you, and do you have a favourite tea memory you can share with me.

Tea is at the very heart of Taiwanese culture, and we all dream of owning a tea farm. New Zealand has given me the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream, and I am very grateful. My family and I are now proud Kiwis, and we look forward to sharing our love and tea here and around the world.

I think one of my best tea memories was about five years ago. We had been growing and propagating tea successfully for some years, but we were still learning the art of processing it into oolong. It was a lot of hard work, and we wondered if all our efforts were worth it. My father knew we needed confidence, so one day he brought over a pack of $1500 competition oolong from Taiwan. We blind tested it against our tea and EUREKA! We couldn’t tell the difference. That day I knew we had something very special.

photo by chan teas

Thanks to the guys at Chan Teas for allowing me to use their beautiful macro photographs of Zealong (I look forward to showing more Zealong photos from these guys in the future!); to Tony at The Chicago Tea Garden for first bringing this amazing tea to my attention and for making it available to those of us in North America, and to Jeff Howell at Zealong for coordinating this interview with Vincent for me.  I sincerely appreciate all your help.


4 Responses to “zealong: pure new zealand oolong tea – an interview with vincent chen”
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