Is there anything better than a good cuppa? From the humble cup of rosie to the elegant authority of a pot of perfectly steeped oolong, there’s something about tea. But when you visit a place like Zealong Estate in Waikato, New Zealand, tea takes on a whole new flavour.
Tea isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New Zealand. But in the heart of the North Island’s Waikato Region, Zealong Tea Estate has been making the finest tea for almost 25 years.
The tale behind the tea is fascinating. Growing an impressive crop of 1.2 million tea plants from just 130 carefully selected cuttings, this 40-hectare tea plantation is 100% certified traceable organic and the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand.
And in true New Zealand neighbourly spirit, surrounding farmlands make sure any spraying or non-organic treatments they use on their land doesn’t impact Zealong’s crops.
This was our first trip to a tea plantation, and I’ve got the feeling it’s spoilt us. From the retail shop at the entrance and the beautiful lines of crops behind to the quaint tea house and the statued pathways winding through the property, Zealong Tea Estate is stunning.
Here’s a quick video walkthrough of what Zealong Estate looks like.
Zealong Tea Estate – definitely our cup of tea
To paraphrase Neil Finn and NZ rock band Crowded House a little, everywhere we go, we always take the weather with us.
Case in point: our visit to Zealong Estate on the precipice of winter. Expecting freezing winds, drenching rain and a sky thick with clouds, we venture on, readying our brollies and raincoats, to the estate’s trimmed lawns and sweeping drive.
Parking close to the The Vista – Zealong’s sleek modern retail shop and function centre – we hurry to the glass doors to hide from the impending rain shower.
Inside the beautiful showroom filled with the delicate aromas of tea, we’re met by Zealong’s Jordan Cooper, who explains he’ll be taking us round on our Discover High Tea Experience.
Zealong’s Discover High Tea Experience
Zealong offers a number of different tours and experiences. Christina and I are excited to be on the Discover High Tea Experience, which gives you the chance to taste the teas they grown and process here. Not only that but you also learn about the history of the estate and finally indulge with high tea at the end of it!
From the front of the shop, Jordan leads us through to the tasting lounge and conference centre upstairs. Inside, the rooms are filled with memorabilia of the estate’s history.
Outside, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the rainclouds are rolling away, scudding across the sky to reveal the Sun above, the plantation below and the landscape of the great Waikato beyond.
First off, we watch a video that explains the process of making tea – the same process Zealong uses for every crop it harvests. From the skilled pickers who use razorblades to take only the top three leaves from each stem to the intriguing stages of drying, rolling and roasting the whole leaves to detailed specifications.
After this, we have a new-found respect for what tea really is. It’s now time to taste some.
Tasting the teas
On a wide round black-clothed table, Jordan has set up a tasting session of the majority of Zealong’s teas. Each one is in a delicate elegant teapot or infuser and the dry form of each tea is under a little cloche next to it.
We work our way through each of the 12 teas with Jordan near at hand to explain any points of interest or flavour notes. There are all five of the Botanicals Range, which are blended teas with organic ingredients to give each one a unique flavour and purpose.
Flavours from this range are the likes of the Ice Breaker – Christina’s favourite – with peppermint and kawakawa – a native herb. It’s a green tea mixed with cool peppermint, sweet spearmint and pepperiness from the kawakawa.
My favourite is the Fire and Ice – and not just because I’m a GoT fan. It’s a black tea with ginger pieces, intact manuka leaves and mint. The result is warming, refreshing and wholesome.
There are four more conventional Heritage Range teas too; a breakfast tea, a grey, a camomile and a chai.
Most impressive though are Zealong’s Origins Teas. The three we get to try – the green tea, the aromatic oolong, and the black tea – are single-origin whole-leaf teas. They produce the purest, most profound flavours of the teas and are surprisingly complex.
Tour of the grounds
After our tasting, Jordan takes us on a stroll around the grounds. Once again, the weather’s our friend and, although the wind is cool, the rain holds off and the sun stays out. There’s an option to take the tour in one of the estate’s golf buggies, but we push our luck with the winter weather a bit further.
The paths winding through the grounds are lined with statues and sculptures meaningful to the industry and Zealong’s history.
We learn more about the beginnings of Zealong and how founder Vincent Chen discovered native camellias growing in his parents’ neighbour’s garden. Camellia is a type of tea and Chen, who had been importing tea from his homeland of Taiwan, knew that if camellia could grow here, so could things like oolong.
His parents’ neighbour, Harold Nielsen, and he found the perfect spot to start the plantation, and with Nielsen’s horticultural expertise, Chen’s NZ tea empire began.
The patient raindrops at last begin their descent just in time for the end of the tour and beginning of our high tea. The tour has brought us to the Zealong Teahouse, tucked into the landscape of the tea estate overlooking the plantation and the Vista building.
Inside, it’s cosy and full of the smells of steeping tea and delicious food. Jordan’s back again to take our tea orders. He pours hot water from the little black kettle over our teas into specially crafted cups.
He then lights the stove in the little cupboard beside our table to keep the kettle warm and heads off to see about our lunch. While we wait, we watch the torrents of rain flood down the windows of the teahouse and turn the views to greyscale.
Two towers of food arrive shortly, and the feasting begins, starting with the ‘heavier’ savoury selections at the bottom, like a little lamb pasty, a triple-layer finger sandwich, a lobster and prawn roll and a kumara rosti.
Finally, at the top of the tree is the sweet stuff. Macarons, Zealong black tea sponge, a mango parfait and the most amazingly rich chocolate boat filled with cream and fruit.
It always surprises me how full I feel after eating such small things. I suppose they all add up to quite a big meal!
We pour out over our tea strainers a couple more times and wait for things to digest. The best thing about high-quality tea is that you can re-brew leaves up to five times. You just have to increase the infusion time by about 30 seconds each time after the 3rd cup.
We leave the teahouse just in time to see the clouds once again part and the rain clear. The walk back to our car takes just long enough for the weather to lose patience with us once more.
Drops begin to fall again as we close our doors at the end of another amazing experience in the Waikato.