For all the tea in China: Kauai begins planting its first tea plants

In a Starbucks and Coca-Cola drinking country, it may be hard to believe that it is tea, not coffee or soda, that is the most commonly sipped beverage in the world after water.

It is a misnomer that any plant, berry or flower that is boiled can commonly be called a tea, because there is in fact only one plant, Camelia sinensus or Thea sinensus, that is the source for white, black and green teas — or to tea connoisseurs, true tea. Other herbal infusions may be delicious and healthy, but they are not technically tea.

Camelia Sinensus can grow in cold climates such as the highlands of Tibet, China and Japan, but it is in the tropics that the plant flourishes, and a few growers on Kaua‘i have taken on planting Camelia Sinensus to create a viable agricultural and economic product.

While there are several stories that describe the discovery of using the leaves of this bright green bush for a health and peace promoting drink, a legend concerning the Indian monk, Bodhidharma, and the emperor of China in 520 A.D. is one of the most fantastic.

Bodhidharma came to China as a missionary, bringing Zen Buddhism to the Chinese people. Determined to show the emperor and people the innumerable benefits of meditation, Bodhidharma pledged to meditate for nine years, without pause or sleep.

Several years into the practice, the Indian monk felt the heaviness of slumber weigh down upon his eyelids and with the discipline of a great spiritual warrior, he took a nearby razor and in two quick slices, he cut his eyelids off and threw them on the ground beside him.

Where his eyelids fell, a plant grew whose leaves could be plucked and boiled to ward off sleepiness.

Bodhidharma is most often painted in ink, portrayed without eyelids — linking tea drinking with meditation and, later, with the practical benefits of caffeine.

The three main components of the tea leaf are caffeine, polyphenols (popularly but incorrectly known as tannins) and aromatic oils.

Caffeine contained in tea is considerably less than coffee, mainly because it takes fewer leaves to brew a cup of tea than the amount of coffee for the same cup. Also, because there are two other stimulating alkaloids (Theobromine and Theophylline) in tea that balance out and extend the metabolism of caffeine in the body. Because of this, it allows us to stay awake and alert without becoming hyper.

This makes tea the ideal beverage to accompany exercise, both mental and physical. The health benefits of white, green and black teas come from the polyphenols (antioxidants) inherent in the leaves — lacking in the brewed coffee bean.

Caffeine content in tea is also related to the length of infusion time. In simple numbers, brewed black tea may contain 20-80 milligrams of caffeine, while the same amount of drip coffee contains anywhere from 60-180 milligrams (with percolator being less).

Because the main health benefits in tea come from the polyphenols of the Camelia Sinensus plant, other ‘herbal infusions’ don’t contain the amount of antioxidants celebrated in white and green and black teas.

So what is the difference between white, green and black? They all begin from the same source: The pruned and thick bush that hugs hillsides from India to Sri Lanka, China to Japan, and soon, Taiwan to Kealia on Kaua‘i.

There are two determinations in the creation of white, black or green: the place on the bush where leaves are plucked, and the processing of those leaves after picking.

The biggest difference between green and black is the processing step of fermentation — green is not fermented. Instead, green tea leaves picked from the middle to high portion of the plant are then cleaned, withered (natural dehydration), steamed or fired (heat processed), rolled and shaped, then dried.

Black tea requires the extra step of fermentation, which occurs after withering. Following fermentation the tea leaves are dried and cut, broken or left whole.

The enormous amounts of tea dust left on the processing floor were once swept up and put into small bags by a traveling business man named Sir Thomas Lipton in the 19th century. One man’s refuse is another’s treasure.

Traditionally, the smaller the tea, the lower the quality, higher the caffeine and stronger the taste. The last thing added to green or black tea is the other herbal flavorings and additives — such as jasmine flowers, fruit, or bergamot oil for the popular Earl Grey blend.

White tea is the diamond of the plant — it is the bud. White tea is picked and then only lightly steamed and dried. It is the most virgin of the teas in terms of processing and has both the highest amounts of antioxidants and caffeine.

Picked by hand, the furry white bud of the Camelia Sinensus can cost up to $50 per 100 grams. Most white tea now sold in stores is blended with other tea leaves or fruit and flower flavorings.

For the discerning tea drinker, pure Yin Zhen white tea bud (unlike the less expensive and more common white Bai mu dan) needs no other additives — its flavor is very light, grape or honey-like, the color is a pale yellow and the leaves may be steeped up to four times.

Oolong tea comes from the larger leaves plucked at the bottom of the bush. It is a semi-fermented tea (between green and black) and is lower in caffeine than the black, green or white. It has long been hailed as a relaxing and health promoting tea and is often rolled or folded only to gently expand in hot water, releasing a nutty, woodsy flavor.

Paul Kyno and Andy Friend of the Kealia agricultural subdivision are currently growing Camelia Sinensus. There are now 2,000 keiki tea plants rooting in their nursery while Friend works on getting the soil recovered from depletion caused by the pineapple plantations.

Kyno, of Sleeping Giant Reality, is excited about the prospect of creating Kaua‘i’s first tea company.

“The property we bought at Kealia is going to be the first legal agricultural subdivision on the island — we have real teeth behind this plan,” Kyno said. “I guarantee it won’t be a collection of gentlemen’s ranches, there will be strict rules and we will make it clear that this is a working farm.”

With a regulating committee to closely monitor the tea plants and productivity, Kyno is confident that The Kaua‘i Tea Company will be realized.

Similar to wine and chocolate, the land and region where the tea plant is grown has huge determination over taste in the final product. The Kaua‘i Tea Company will undoubtedly produce a tea that reflects the island, and once produced, will be an incredibly unique addition to the planet’s favorite drink.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257, or kkeita@kauaipubco.com.

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