Invitation to tea at Zealong Tea Estate

The tea ceremony was a demonstration of elegance—a sedate, ancient ritual, exquisite in its detail. Bill and I were going with the flow, seated on polished logs watching tea ‘sommelier’, Annalese Webber, as she warmed the delicate porcelain, steamed the leaves, and with dexterous manoeuvres eventually poured a long thin stream of hot water to brew the tea, which she then transferred to small aroma cups.


We nosed the tea’s earthy fumes, upended the liquid into drinking cups, and drank it in three sips. The taste was subtle and clean, like drinking good health, and as far from ‘gumboot’ tea as water is from champagne. 

On the verandah of the Tea House, the sun stroked our backs. Landscaped harmony spread out from the Tea House, and before us, rows of groomed tea bushes, Camellia sinensis, stretched away like a long Sunday afternoon. Yet, something was out of place. We were not in some exotic Asian location. Gordonton, where the 48-hectare tea plantation is sited just north of Hamilton, is wedged among the cow paddocks of the Waikato.


Zealong Tea Estate is very New Zealand. It is owned by fellow Kiwi Vincent Chen, and the property is embedded in the community as much as any of the local dairy farms. Zealong holds community functions, employs local people, and offers internships and training for university students. Highly trained foreigners, such as the tea masters, also bring perspective and innovation.

Turn in the gate and the bold main building is the first surprise. It houses sophisticated conference rooms, a shop, and a small library. There are artworks everywhere and mounted on one wall are press cuttings of notables who have given the thumbs up to the taste of Zealong tea. Among them are Camilla, Prince Charles, and John Key. When we arrived, the King of Tonga had just left.


Our tea ceremony marked the end of an estate tour during which our guide led us past some of the bronze statutory along the path that leads to the Tea House. It documents the milestones and characters that make up the history of Zealong (the name is a combination of Zealand and oolong). Annalese coloured in the details of the process as we walked. First, we were introduced to the imposing figure of Harold Neilsen, a neighbouring farmer.

The seed for growing tea was planted in Vincent’s mind when he spotted an ornamental camellia bush in Harold’s garden. If Harold’s flowering camellia grew well, why wouldn’t Camellia sinensis?


Vincent brought in 130 premium-quality seedlings from Asia and 20 years later, we were able to swivel our gaze across the 1.2 million finally trimmed plants that march in parallel lines across the estate today.

A long row of large bronze teapots, with a dragon head at one end and a tail at the other, symbolises a dragon (oolong is Mandarin for black dragon) and then, incongruously, we came to the larger-than-life statue of James Cook. The good captain has a strong link to the concept of New Zealand-grown tea.


In order to avoid scurvy among his crew, he was always on the lookout for botanicals that could provide a cure. An infusion from manuka leaves was apparently a passable substitute for tea. The plant is still dubbed ‘tea tree’.

More bronze life-size figures depict the planting and harvesting of tea as it was for thousands of years. Although methods have obviously changed, tea production is still a labour-intensive project. Leaves are harvested three times a year and are hand cut by razor-sharp ‘finger’ knives to prevent stalks being damaged or torn.

Not included in the tour, but too tempting to pass up, was Zealong’s exquisitely presented high tea, which we were served on the Tea House verandah. We savoured the colourful, tasty morsels between sips of oolong.


Zealong tea is organically certified and traceable from soil to sip. The simple, sophisticated packaging is reusable or recyclable and top honours in several Global Tea Championships has gained it recognition from tea connoisseurs around the world. Among the acknowledgements, I add my own.

Win a Discover Zealong Experience 


The wonderful folk at Zealong Tea Estate have provided us with a Discover Zealong Experience for two to give away.


This competition ends 21 September 2018.

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