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Zealong Tea Estate: New Zealand’s only commercial tea plantation

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When we think of tea gardens we immediately think of the lushy green tea fields of India, China and Taiwan. But as it turns out, New Zealand proved to be a great place to grow tea for the Zealong tea estate. Specializing in organic high quality loose tea and Oolong, Zealong managed to carve out a nice corner of the tea market for themselves, even impressing their Chinese counterparts with the quality of their tea.  

Until coffee took over in the late 1980s, tea had been the drink of choice for many New Zealanders throughout its modern history. However, New Zealand did not have tea gardens until the second half of the 19th century. These gardens would function as social meeting places for both men and women, further popularizing the beverage. Several famous tea gardens sprouted into existence, like the Dunedin Vauxhall Garden and Wellington’s Wilkinson Tea Garden. However, tea wasn’t perceived as a viable cash crop until the 20th century, and even then, most efforts to get a proper tea industry off the ground proved near impossible.  

Which brings us to Zealong. Zealong was founded by Taiwanese immigrants Tze Wan Chen and his son Vincent Chen, who almost by chance discovered that the Camellia Sinensis plant would grow quite well in the Waikato region of New Zealand. In 1996, after concluding his research, Vincent brought over 1500 seedlings from the most prominent tea growing regions in Asia. After going through strict import regulations by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), only 130 seedlings remained. Although it took quite some years, Vincent Chen managed to grow these seedlings into more than a million plants spanning across 48 hectares of organic land.  

Since the production of tea in New Zealand had never been successful at that point the Zealong company was then faced with a new set of challenges, from how to produce the best quality tea possible, to getting a foot in the door of the international tea industry. When it comes to the production side, Zealong decided to employ the expertise of Taiwanese Oolong masters and other experienced pickers, alongside their local laborers, and the tea is intricately and carefully processed in their own factory. What is unique in growing tea in New Zealand is that the laws surrounding pesticides and fertilizers are quite different than in China and India, and so Zealong is the only tea company on the planet who utilizes strict food safety standards. As a result, the tea is organic, completely free of pesticides, earning itself the descriptor of “world’s purest tea”.  

And this level of quality is also what helped Zealong be successful in a market dominated by China and India. It could be argued that the recent rise in conscientious tea consumption, with its emphasis on high quality and potential health benefits, helped contribute to the success of Zealong’s organic tea. One of the features of Zealong is that the tea is completely traceable, every batch is meticulously documented, making it easy to trace exactly what happened to the tea “from the farm to the cup” as their website boasts. The quality of Zealong even has the Chinese and Taiwanese markets impressed.  

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