So about two weeks ago, I got a package in the mail from one of my fellow US tea growers, Jim Chestnut. Jim and I from time to time talk to one another, and have a great mutual respect as far as domestic US tea growers/producers. Some information we share publicly and then there are times we share information privately, but we both agree not matter what, we want every person engaged in cultivating and producing tea in the United States to be successful. We want this time period of USA tea to be the one that lasts and sustains for many future generation ahead.
Jim had remembered in 2018, I had a complete propagation failure of some excellent genetic material. Out of generosity, he decided he wanted to share with my some seeds of his plants as well as some product that he makes on the Big Island. I am very thankful that he did, and I promised him I would give him some feedback, a critique, and a future return package of tea that I make as well.
I don’t know if the US postal service was afraid something was alive in there, like a exotic snake or some other animal, but I pretty sure they inspected that package with baseball bats, because it was no were the shape or size, they normally come. Yet, I give Jim a lot of credit for packaging that thing properly, cause who would of know what shape any of the contents would of been in. Needless, to say, I tore that box open like a kid opening a video gaming system on Christmas morning. There was roughly 1 to 2 lbs of whole seed pods, with about 20 something grams each of green and black tea. And yes, not within 10 minutes of me having that box, I was going to brew my first batch of Hawaiian grown tea.
So the name of Mr Chestnut’s slice of paradise is called Second Alarm Farm. In addition to tea, he and his wife grow coffee and other plants on their property in Krutistown. It is located on the big island of Hawaii, down from Volcano. They have a Facebook page you can like and follow here. They have a guest house that you can rent out for an unique one of kind stay, but you would have to discuss that in detail with them. Even the most seasoned tea producer could appreciate going to such a unique place and being able to make some Hawaiian Camellia tea using hand craft orthodox methods. I would communicate this with them well in advance if you plan to.
While they have plenty of bushes to harvest from, they do supply the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort in Kona, Hawaii with their tea and coffee. As a matter of a fact, their farm and the resort are the two only places on earth you can taste their tea. They don’t do mail order or individual sales, they tried and quit doing it.
Second Alarm Farm tea consists 90% of clonal plantings. They were fortunate to get cuttings of Japanese cultivars “Yutaka” and “Yabukita” introduced to Hawaii by the USDA. The majority of his plantings are in shade. They practice a planting plan of integration to the native ecosystem, which is very sustainable versus a clear cut and plant back system. They are carefully laying out their rows and mixing them in with the older growth trees that already exist on the property.
At some point in the future, I do plan on visiting and hanging out there, yet we are not doing long range traveling just yet with Princess V, nor are we leaving her for extended periods that exceed more than 48 hours at her grandparents. (She comes home sassy and spoiled). Volcano National Park is just up the road from them, plus a slew of other forest reserves, orchid growers and nurseries, and I am sure some quality fishing is only a few miles off the beach. Until then, I was fortunate enough to get a sample of the Second Alarm Farm Green and Black tea and like another American cultivated and produced tea I have tasted, I was very impressed!
I know I have said this before, but I will say it again and in every post about teas I taste. When I taste other people’s teas, I do it with an unbias mind, because I want to give them feedback that helps them. I rather be honest and upfront, than more concerned with appeasing people for business or other reasons. Each tea is unique, it could the climate, the way it is cultured, the way it is processed, or it could be the genetics and how they react to those variables, regardless each cup is a complex beverage that can be interrupted many different ways by many different people. Still as a member of the tea society of the world, we generally can follow and acknowledge certain parameters that makes up the tea, because ultimately like any other good or service produced consumers decide with their purchasing power.
What you will never see me do, is say a tea is worth a certain price. Market demand for that tea and available supply should dictate that. What I will comment on is if I believe that the price is reasonable and comparable to other teas of similar price and quality. I typically refer to it being, overvalued, appropriate valued, or undervalued and other further comments about the “range” of price.
When I taste a tea and want to denote a quality, I use a method that was taught to me from Dr Hao (Fuijan Univeristy of Forestry and Agriculture) of 3 grams per cup of 150mL at a water temperature of 90 C to 100 C, unless I am given specific instructions otherwise. I have gone to this method, not only for teas I sample from other people, but also teas that I produce. Again unless it is Darjeeling or has specific instructions, then I use this brewing process. Another thing I have learned, is that a quality tea gives you a consistent flavor with multiple steeps. First steep is 3 minutes, followed by the 2nd and 3rd steep at 5 minutes. If for some reason, I don’t see a fall off in flavor strength between the 2nd and 3rd steep, I may keep steeping it until 5 steeps or more.
To me, the first important parameter in evaluating a tea, is the number of steeps before there is fall off of consistent amount in flavor strength. A high quality tea has very little fall off between the 2nd and 3rd to the point they still taste the same flavor strength wise. My next important parameter is actual taste, then followed by aroma of brewed tea, then followed by smell of dried leaves, inspecting the brewed leaves, and finally, my last general parameter is color. I do not put a huge emphasis on color, because I have seen some beautiful colored teas that have no flavor. I have also experience some great tasting teas that have little to no color distinction, hence this is why color is the least important attribute in my opinion. Now, yes, I understand that there are certain types of tea that color is considered an important parameter, there are certain traditions that require it, yet from a general consumer point of view, the level of steeps, taste, and aroma are the important points.
I am not saying a yellowish looking matcha is going to sell well in Japan, but if a yellowish looking matcha has a strong seaweed and fishy taste, fresh vegetable aroma, with a low astringent taste, and you can steep it for 2 to 3 cups worth on flavor, it will sell well outside of the traditional market.
Within an hour of receiving my package from Mr Chestnut. I have already brewed a cup of his black tea. I was simply amazed at it. I steep it several times, and then my wife asked me,”Are you planning to go to sleep tonight, cause it is 7:00 pm and you are still drinking tea.” I drank and steep it up to 7 times, while after the 3rd steep, there was fall off in flavor, it was so small that I kept steeping and drinking it, until the flavor started to taste “watered down,” and it was 8 pm. I decided the following day, I would do the three steep test and record in detail the results.
The next day about mid-morning, I carefully brewed the three steeps. It was hard not to keep sampling the first steep after I brewed it. The flavor of honey was the first thing that I tasted. There was no floral smell or flavor, but it was a good medium body with a “phantom” astringent taste. I say phantom because once you noticed it, it was gone, it was there but not really there, this was something new to me. The body flavor after the honey was a earthy note, yet it was very different than any other earthy notes I have had before. It will be interesting in the future whenever I taste of Hawaiian camellia teas if that earthy note exists or is similar. For know, I have remembered this earthy note as “tropical volcanic.”
If I was going to compare it to Darjeeling teas as a point of reference, this tea is in the upper medium to lower high grade. The is the second black camellia tea outside of my own, produced in the United States, that from an apples to apples comparison rivals Darjeeling. What reinforces this from a market point of view, is the price that Second Alarm Farm is selling it for locally. I had to ask Jim after I brewed it, because the taste, aroma, and the number of steeps, it is a prizefighter. The good news for Darjeeling, is that their plans is not to compete in a global market, yet the bad news is that if a Darjeeling or any other high grade black tea producer wanted to move it, they are likely only going to be successful if the unprofitably undercut on price, which would only lead to failure business wise. Even then, since the Recession of 2008, domestic demand for domestic and local goods are super strong in the United States and from a generational consumer point of view, Gen X and Millennials strongly support this, yet they are also open to direct purchasing abroad for unique cultural items that directly benefits the small business owners and producers. So while the United States continues to have a growing tea industry, small and family tea producers around the world will always have American consumers seeking their products as well.
The next morning, I decided I was going to try the green tea that Second Alarm Farm produces. The differences this time was I used a lower water temperature to make the green, around 180 F/82~83 C and all steeping were at 3 minutes a piece.
I think is was another good example of how color can be some what misleading, because the liquor yield a beautiful golden color that looked very Oolongish. While the color was Oolongish, the taste and aroma was definitely of a green tea. The taste was a mild seaweed that ended in a mellow pea soup flavor. There was no fishy or astringent taste at all. No grassy smell or flavor at any point. The steeping were consistent with a little drop off from 2nd to 3rd. I did not or have not tried any steeping after the 3rd. I had to ask Jim, in what style did he make the green tea by stopping the enzyme, Chinese (pan fired/Drier) or Japanese (steam)? He told me his methods are Japanese, yet I was kinda puzzled. He uses Japanese cultivars grown in shade, he is processing in a Japanese style, yet it is golden and has no fishy taste, kinda of pushing a boundary limit of Chinese green and greenish Oolong. Then again, we are talking about an American producer, and like many other things American, it is a fusion of different cultures.
When most American’s are asked if they like green tea, 80% of the time they say “Matcha.” I am talking about the general population, not tea minded people. Now, I cannot pinpoint exactly why the majority like it over other green teas, be it marketing, market availability in the United States, manga, things that are Japanese (sushi, Nintendo, history of samurai) or how this became the imagine of Green tea in the United States, but I can say that tea minded people do enjoy Jim’s style (as well as the many other different styles from abroad). Most American’s generally do also know that grassy flavor are not really desirable in green tea, they do expect this in other fresh “juiced” beverages that people make or buy from juice bars. Where Jim has a great advantage over most “Matcha” sold in the United States, is that his is fresh, not something from 3 years ago that has been pasted around by several brokers because it never sold in Japan. I am saving his green to share with people I know who appreciate a great green tea, kinda special treat since it cannot be purchased.
After tasting, his green and black, we conversed a short bit, and I gave him my white tea processing methodology. Hopefully in the future he might add that to his product line up (and send me a sample to try), but most importantly, not share that information with other people. I trust him and like I said, we have a great mutual respect for one another and have the common goal to help all those in the United States to be successful in cultivating and growing tea. It is important to build relationships and work with others, I enjoy my conversations with Jim because we have similar backgrounds botanically speaking and he is one of the few people in the United States, that we can get “scientific” with each other and not emotional. Be it today or tomorrow, I will always support his endeavors and we are not doing this to see who is “king of the mountain of tea.” We are doing this to help each other, that is what matters the most.
If you ever want to take a trip to a paradise in the Pacific and try making or growing some great tea. I would suggest reaching out to Second Alarm Farm, even if you are a 4th generation tea producer. I am sure they are willing to accommodate you. If you find yourself at the Four Season resort in Kona, I strongly suggest ordering a few cups of their excellent teas to enjoy. Before I end this post, there are two more things I have to say, first if you are wondering about the tea seed he sent, I am going to use them in another post in the future, and secondly Thank You to Mr Chestnut for introducing me to amazing Hawaiian grown tea. If I was you, I would enter it into the AVPA tea contest in France next year at a minimum.
To everyone else, I hope you learned something today and it has made you, “Grow Forward!”
Until next time friends,
P.S. Oh before I forget, some Jimmy Buffet inspired music, enjoy!
(UPDATE: After talking to Mr Chestnut, it was revealed to me that he mixed up the green tea sample with his Oolong and mislabeled it, hence the Oolong flavor. At a point in the future, we review his actual green and white tea.)