Reading the Tea Leaves
When Alex and Andrea de Roode bought a former protea farm four years ago, they had their work cut out for them. At the time, the nearly two-acre property on the slopes of Haleakalā was choked with tall weeds and dense clusters of wattle trees. Several weeks later, the couple had cleared enough space to plant Camellia sinensis, commonly referred to as a “tea shrub” or “tea tree.” But Andrea calls it the “superhero plant” for its biological and chemical versatility.
Indigenous to China, Camellia sinensis is a hardy evergreen whose glossy chartreuse leaves and upper leaf buds can produce an entire menu of teas: white, yellow, green, oolong, and black.
If left unchecked, the tree can reach heights of twenty-five feet. At the de Roodes’ Maui Tea Farm, the plants are waist-high and in neat rows. The farm is a relatively new venture, but Alex and Andrea are no novices. Both are lifelong tea drinkers, and while living on the mainland, they became steeped in the thriving tea scenes of Canada and Portland, Oregon. There, Alex says, they realized a tea renaissance was underway.
The couple decided to bring tea culture to Maui. In 2010, they launched PONO Infusions, a company that sources wholesale teas and tisanes (beverages made with herbs and flowers) and custom-blended infusions. They began growing and harvesting tea plants in a small backyard nursery, but had their sights set on starting a farm in Kula, which had the right climate and soil conditions. Today, Camellia sinensis fills a half-acre of the de Roodes’ nearly two-acre farm; they plan to have a full acre planted by the end of 2019. In addition to Camellia sinensis, the couple grows caffeine-free tisane herbs, Hawaiian medicinal plants (including māmaki and ko‘oko‘olau), and a variety of vegetables and fruit trees.
After every harvest, Alex and Andrea roll up their sleeves and process the tea: withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying the leaves. The level of oxidation determines whether the tea will be white, yellow, green, oolong, or black. It’s a delicate, time-consuming process, and one that often has to be squeezed into a weekend. Both Alex and Andrea have full-time jobs: She is a registered dietitian; he’s a county planner and teaches sustainability courses at the University of Hawai‘i–Maui College.
“We’ve given up a lot of our free time to make this happen,” Andrea says. “But it’s 100 percent worth it.”