NEW ZEALAND’S DYNAMIC TEA CULTURE

New Zealand’s growing multiculturalism and colonial backgrounds are perhaps most represented in our tea culture. In conversation with Sen Kong, marketing manager of Zealong Tea Estate, we explore the wide world of tea, and how New Zealand compares on a global scale.

Sen Kong.

“Historically, in New Zealand, Māori native plants and herbs were used to treat illness, injuries and to support general health. Although not from the official tea plant (Camellia Sinensis), this plant was used in massage, incantations and special brews. The international tea industry in New Zealand began back in the late 18th century, New Zealand’s seal skins were traded by the British for Chinese black tea. It has continued to evolve and grow alongside the growth of New Zealand.”

Tea culture in New Zealand is extremely diverse. Furthermore, tea is a subjective flavour, and while some people are going to be die-hard English breakfast fans, some are going to lean towards a green tea, for instance. “Our tea culture has moved on from the English tradition of a Sri Lankan black tea with milk. New Zealanders are keen to try new flavours and styles. There is a big range of tea options available today—from a traditional Indian Chai to Japanese matcha to Moroccan mint. New Zealand grown tea is about as different as you can get in the tea world, and it is definitely a great brew.”

With the high demand for tea not looking like slowing, consumerism has however begun to shift towards ethics and provenance. “People don’t want to buy products that are destroying the environment or breaking up communities.” On top of that, Kong described the importance of understanding the journey of tea and becoming educated about its production lines. “There are a lot of tea companies out there selling a good story—but is it just a story? We are seeing a big shift in the way consumers are purchasing. Conscious consumption and provenance of a product are becoming important parts of the purchasing decision.”

Looking at the beverage itself, Kong described the way that tea can provide a solution for fortified health, and community. “I like to brew a whole pot to share many cups; this is a great opportunity to connect with my teammates and start the day fired up, ready for action. It’s amazing how taking the time to enjoy tea with others dramatically reduces stress and improves mental health. What supports this more is that the components in tea promote health and relaxation.”

Although tea is highly preferential, there are some basics that Kong described as essential in brewing the perfect cup. “There are a lot of aspects that go into brewing a great tea, which includes the temperature of brew, water and its mineral content, brewing time, and the ratio of tea to water. If we put it down to the simplest element, the tea itself is best when it’s of high quality. Fresh whole leaf is best, grown in nutrient-rich, residue-free soils with lots of clean water and sunshine, which make the perfect starting point. From there, it’s all about personal preference.”

Kong described tea trends as seasonal and said that tastes and flavour often depend on location. “Matcha and bubble teas are big right now. Beverages made with tea as an ingredient as opposed to the main event are becoming popular—cocktails and mocktails. We make a killer mojito with our Icebreaker blend. Kombucha, a cold fermented tea beverage, is also making an impression on our local markets as well as sugar-free iced teas internationally.”

The future of the tea industry is important to consider as general consumerism worldwide looks towards sustainability and responsible production. “The traditional tea-growing countries are dealing with the effects of climate change, an uncertain labour force, and starting to recognise that intensive agriculture is not a sustainable business model. These issues, coupled with consumer demand for transparent supply chains and a positive story/impact on the planet means the whole industry will need modification. A move away from intensive production and a move towards a more delicate impact on the planet.”

Sen has been at Zealong since graduation, obtaining his Masters in Management while working with the company. He has been there nearly 10 years and said that “things are always changing, always different, and always exciting.”

“Here at Zealong we are 100 percfent committed to not having an impact on the environment. We farm using organic methods and are audited annually. We test our soil, our water, and our tea regularly to ensure there are no impacts on our environment. The future looks good from here.”