After a night back at Verandahs, our home base in Auckland, we started our North Island adventures. Our car on the North Island was a Nissan Sunny. This car wasn't nearly as cute as Starlet, but the name was a good omen.
Unintentionally, this day turned out to be all about beverages. We went to Hamilton, where we tried to track down a craft brew distributor. They weren't open to the public, but they did send us to a wine shop that sold a small selection of craft brews. The person staffing the store was really excited that Paul seemed to know his stuff about NZ craft brew and talked up a storm. Judging by his tattoos, he is pretty committed to beer.
After our Hamilton stop, we continued on to Zealong Tea Estate. Zealong is New Zealand's only tea plantation. They grow, process and sell their premium oolong tea and have a tea house on site.
Our guide shared information with us about the history of oolong tea and the story of how Zealong came to be. If you want to know more about them, there is a ton of information on their website.
The tea house is surrounded by the tea fields, but we were only allowed to view them from a distance. Rightly so, I think they don't want visitors tromping around their field and messing things up. They are very serious about how their tea is handled and what it comes into contact with. The staff that process the tea leaves dress in uniforms that look like surgeon's clothing, complete with a scrub cap.
They have planted a few tea plants nearby the tea house so that we could see them up close. The guide demonstrated how the leaves are harvested. The best technique is to pick only the top three leaves. The entirety of the plantation's tea is handpicked, 3 little leaves at a time.
I got to hold on to it so that we could compare the fresh leaves with leaves at the other stages of the process.
A few of the tourists in our group were from a tea ceremony group in Auckland. The gentleman in the hat was their leader/expert. They had interesting questions regarding the steps of the tea ceremony.
Our group then got to learn about proper brewing and serving of the tea. Each of the 3 roasts were brewed and we were given tastes of each round. Some of the roasts or blends were brewed multiple times as the flavor can vary as you continue to use the leaves.
Each person's tea service included a little tray and two cups. The tea was poured into a tall, narrow cup which was used solely for experiencing the aroma of the tea. We then transferred the tea to the shorter, wider cup, which was for sipping out of. If you were brave, you transferred the tea by placing the wider cup on the top of the narrow cup and then flipping it over really fast. After watching our hostess flub that part, I took the safe route and poured it from one to the other.
I can't say that oolong is my favorite variety of tea, but the tasting really gave us a chance to note the various characteristics and to compare the roasts. Some of them tasted really buttery and grassy, while others tasted more roasted. They all had the slightly astringent quality that green tea is known for.
The amount of time and attention that goes into processing their tea is remarkable. For example, they take such great care with the leaves that they remain in their grouping of three all the way from picking to brewing. In the photo below, you can see the 3 stages: fresh, dried and brewed.
Our spread included yet more tea, in all three blends. It is safe to say that I overdid it on the tea. By the time we left I had inevitably consumed little cup after little cup after little cup and was TWEAKING. I am pretty sensitive to caffeine so even though green tea is low in caffeine that much of it added up to too much for me. Oops!
Luckily, my caffeinated self was only unleashed on Paul. By the time we drove the rest of the way to our hostel, I had settled down a bit. Fortunately, I was able to get to bed at a decent hour. I would need to be rested for what we had planned the next day!