Every tea lover wants to go to China or India to experience it in its most natural state. To the average connoisseur, this is a distant dream. But to those living in the Finger Lakes it’s soon to become a reality. Lily and Mark Lin of Seneca Falls, originally from Qingtian County, Zhejiang, China and owners of Happy Family Restaurant in Seneca Falls along with business manager Kim Terry plan to grow and cultivate their own tea right in our backyard.
About 30 acres of land has been acquired directly across from the outlet mall in Waterloo on Route 318 for what will become Finger Lakes Tea. Seeds are currently in the ground and a small plot includes plants that are already a year old. What’s most exciting about this endeavor is that there are only three known successful tea farms in the United States. One is Bigelow’s Charleston Tea Plantation in Charleston, S.C.; one in Burlington, Washington; and the other in Fairhope, Alabama.
Tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis, which is in the order Ericales and includes persimmons, blueberries, and azaleas. It is a bush that typically grows in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 through 11, though there are some cold-hardy varieties that can tolerate the weather in upstate New York, which is covered by zones 5 and 6. C. sinensis has delicate white flowers and can reach 9 to15 feet, though the majority of tea bushes are kept well below six feet when harvested for their leaves. Tea can withstand moderately cold temperatures and can produce two-inch leaves for as long as 100 years.
The plants that are allowed to grow past 25 years are considered “wild tea.” I was lucky enough to acquire some of the Lins’ wild tea harvested by Lily Lin’s mother on a recent trip to China.
The Finger Lakes Tea Company plans to become USDA-certified and is currently using organic products and natural fertilizers such as cow manure and horse manure in their soil. Since the tea plant is an evergreen it likes acidic soil. “We’re very fortunate because the soil we have is glacial top soil [derived from glacial deposits] and it’s a boggy material so it’s naturally acidic,” said business manager Kim Terry. “It’s right at the pH that’s very favorable for tea growth. I’m looking forward to our tea being very unique in taste, if we get lucky and keep good notes, we should make a good quality tea.”
The tea garden will be opening in September of this year, though the local tea plants will not be ready for harvest till 2014, Finger Lakes Tea Company will be selling some of Lily’s nephews tea from Fujian, China. I received a few samples to try at home, one of which we tasted using the gongfu or kungfu method of brewing.
Gongfu is very popular in China and is considered as almost a play where tea takes center stage. The person preparing requires patience and practice to complete a proper session. I was able to experience a gongfu session with Lily. We tasted three different teas, two mao feng and one of her nephew’s red teas.
Red tea is to the Chinese, Japanese and Korean as black tea is to the West, though it is claimed to be less fermented (or oxidized) than black tea. It gets its name due to the red liquor in the cup. Mao feng is a green tea that is also referred to as Huang Shan Mao Feng, which translates as Yellow Mountain Fur Peak. This tea is grown in Anhui Province of Southeast China. Mao feng also refers to a bud and two leaves with small hairs that cover the leaf. Mao feng tea leaves have a broad, curved flat shape.
Lily began the gongfu session by adding heated water to a gaiwan, a small, lidded bowl that sits on a saucer invented during the Ming Dynasty. After heating it with hot water along with tiny serving cups, she carefully filled the gaiwan with the tea leaves. The serving cups are placed at 90-degree angles to one another using long forceps to keep them clean. Water is gently poured over the rim of the gaiwan to slowly introduce the tea to the water and wake it up.
This first cup is considered the devil’s cup, it is the wash, it is one you wouldn’t give to a guest, but may be given to an enemy. The second brew is considered the first true steep. Most high-quality teas are able to get three to four brews and sometimes up to five, depending on the tea. To Lily and her family, tea is a social experience, a time for friends and family to gather and enjoy a cup. Rather than asking, “What kind of soda would you like”, “What type of tea is asked instead?”
To the average drinker, tea is reduced to Lipton, and the occasional Teavana experience. With the recent buyout of Teavana by Starbucks, tea is soon to become an even more popular drink, but what lies beyond Teavana and grocery store tea boxes, is an authentic experience.
Green tea is no longer green, and black tea is no longer black. It becomes “What region is this from”, “When was this tea picked?” “Does the company have a personal relationship with their farmers?” Once a drinker begins to understand and appreciate loose-leaf tea, boxes from the grocery store quickly become obsolete. Most tea bags contain dust or crushed leaves, which are considered the lowest quality. When it is allowed to remain whole leaf, flavor is enhanced and enjoyed as intended. Whole leaf, because it carries a much richer flavor profile allows for multiple steepings. About one tablespoon of leaves typically yields about three 6-ounce cups. Since most whole-leaf tea is of higher quality, each steep of the leaf will produce slightly different flavors.
If you’ve lived in the Finger Lakes region for even a short amount of time, you’ve most likely found yourself gravitating towards buying from local farmers, possibly eating with the seasons, and not to mention taking a liking to wine and developing your palate. Tea is very similar to wine, except there is the added component of heat and acidity is replaced with astringency. Tea, though it has a long shelf life (about a year), is always enjoyed at its peak of production. Exposure to air will cause the leaves to go stale, though they will never spoil, the flavor will become significantly muted. When you find a company that will sell it from overseas sources in small batches, it’s possible to enjoy a cup that was harvested only 2-3 weeks prior (though this is not the average company). But what if you were able to enjoy a cup that was harvested only days prior, not to mention from your own region?
Finger Lakes Tea Company plans to produce a mao feng green tea along with white tea for their first few years of business. They then plan to expand to oolong and black tea. “We want to show people how to drink with the seasons, what season you’ll be drinking, what kind of tea be good for you, say like an oolong tea is good for fall, and green tea mostly for the summer,” said Lily Lin. Tea production begins by picking fresh green leaves, Finger Lakes Tea will be using a machine set to pick the top leafs. The top leaves of the plant are considered the highest quality.
The tea is then sorted and cleaned, from there is where the differentiation between types of tea begins. After being picked green tea is typically withered by the sun in bamboo baskets and then either steamed or pan-fried. The leaves are then rolled and shaped and dried on a heater or in drying bins.
White tea is the simplest to process: it is simply steamed then dried. Oolong is withered, rolled, shaken or bruised, allowed to oxidize 10 to 80 percent, then fired to dry the leaf. Since the percent of oxidation varies widely with oolong, so do the flavors.
Black tea is produced in the same manner as oolong except it is allowed to oxidize 100 percent.
Oxidation or fermentation (a term used in the tea industry) is achieved by allowing the leaves to sit in a climate-controlled room, the leaves will then progressively turn darker as chlorophyll is broken down and tannins are released in the process. Tannins, also known as flavinoids, are what can give tea a sometimes-astringent, bitter taste.
The red tea from Lily Lin’s nephew was delicious. It is one she plans to sell at her tea shop. The first steep had a strong orange scent with the sweetness of a summer clover honey. There was also a taste of pumpkin and a hint of cinnamon. The second steep had flavors of fresh tomato and basil. The third steep was a perfect balance between the first and second, still carrying the sweetness of a summer honey, but the orange flavor came back out along with the tomato. This tea,the culmination of an autumn and summer harvest in your cup, would make for a great iced tea. One could only hope they include this on their menu.
Finger Lakes Tea plans to harvest three times a year, the spring harvest being the most prized harvest. Spring is tea season: the leaves are vibrant, energetic and bursting with color. Each harvest carries its own flavors.
I was able to take a trip with Lily and Mark Lin and Terry to the future site of Finger Lakes Tea and envision the completed garden. A large building will be built to include the tea room as well as a separate area for processing the tea. Outside there will be a pond with outdoor seating surrounded by fruit trees. In the background will be tea plants neatly planted in rows.
Dim sum, potstickers, a summer salad composed of Chinese vegetables, and a unique chicken wing recipe will be served. Their chicken wings will be steamed, I was able to try a sample, they have a very different texture on the outside, similar to that of a baked chicken wing. They have a sweet and slightly spicy taste to them with soy and star anise, very unique. I’m more looking forward to the dim sum and enjoying a cup of tea in what is a dream come true: a cup in the presence of the tea plants themselves.
What separates this company from others, other than the fact that it will be the fourth tea farm in the United States, is that Finger Lakes Tea Company plans to donate a portion of their profit to the American Breast Cancer society. Not only that, they hope to become a tourism stop for tea lovers.