From plant to cup - the art of fine tea

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<p>Yuji Ino on his third birthday, with a tea flower, surrounded by his brother, Koji, his father Taka, and his mother, Kimberly. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Koji Ino, 5, in front of his family’s tea farm. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Koji Ino, the older son of Kimberly and Taka Ino, shows the delicate new leaves that are harvested to be dried and processed into drinkable tea. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>A honey bee lands on a tea flower. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Yuji Ino with a tea shoot. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Taka Ino of Mauna Kea Tea Farm. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Brothers, Yuji and Koji Ino, examine soy plants that are planted in between the rows of young tea plants. The soy plants provide organic non-GMO soy beans to the family and attract the Japanese rose beetles, a pest that would otherwise feed on the tea plants. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>The Ino family on the path next to a tea plot on their farm. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Tea plants grow in plots contoured to the lay of the land on the Mauna Kea Tea Farm in Ahualoa. (PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Kimberly and Taka Ino have a passion for their product. Owners of Mauna Kea Tea, the Ino’s tea plantation in Ahualoa is farmed naturally and is completely pesticide free.

“Tea is a lifestyle. It just really connects people who sit down together,” Kimberly Ino said.

The Inos will be holding their fifth annual Open Farm Day and Cupping Workshop on Sunday, Oct. 13. The event is now full, but they are adding a second workshop on Nov. 24. Although they host tours year round by appointment, this annual farm tour is a wonderful way for people to explore the intricate process of growing and creating high-quality tea.

The cupping workshop will be from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and costs $15 per person. The farm tour is at 2 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The term cupping is used to describe the tasting of different teas to determine taste, quality or color, and attendees will be able to sample the seasonal teas produced by Mauna Kea Tea; Premium Green, Premium Oolong, Island Green Tea, Island Oolong Tea, and Sweet Roast Green Tea. The Inos will also be discussing harvesting techniques, types of tea and their production, quality evaluation and more.

From the first planting, it takes five years to produce tea. And the same tea plant can produce white tea, green tea, oolong tea and black tea — the difference is in the way the leaves are processed.

“Taka studied tea growing in Japan,” Kimberly Ino said. “Everything from the chemistry of tea to growing and processing.”

And he was able to learn about the different problems the Japanese growers faced. With that knowledge, the Inos spend a lot of time refining the environmental quality of the tea itself.

The tea plantation is picturesque, with curving rows of tea planted on natural slopes. By staggering the planting, additional fields gradually come into production. Two acres have been planted, and Kimberly Ino said they hope to increase their plantation to five acres.

“Harvest season is seven days a week,” she said. “We have two small children, and they help, too.”

But there are distinct seasons in harvesting, she explained. In the spring, the tea is picked by hand, just the top two leaves of the bud. This harvest creates tea with the most antioxidants, the most caffeine and the best leaf. For the summer harvest, a machine with blower (similar to a giant hedge trimmer) is used to take the top four leaves off the plant, and this creates “island grade” or casual consumption. In the fall, the tea is machine picked, and this is made into roasted green tea. The tea plants are pruned in the winter; cut back by machine until they are about two feet tall.

“Our sweet roast green tea is really good iced, and is sweeter than most,” Kimberly said. “A new tea drinker would probably prefer it.”

A three-step process preps the tea leaves for drinking; heating, rolling and drying. The leaves are heated in a panning machine that mimics the motion of hands tossing leaves in a wok. The rolling softens the leaves “like twisting Hawaiian ti leaves for a lei,” said Kimberly. And all of the drying is done in a shelf dryer.

“As these teas are made in Hawaii, we are not bound to a conventional style of production. This gives us the ability to make something wonderfully traditional, yet creative and new,” Taka said.

Using natural farming techniques on their plantation, the Inos have a no till, no pesticide, no fertilizer and no weeding farming practice. Their farm is certified organic, and the owners of Mauna Kea Tea are eager to share their love of growing and drinking fine tea. The Inos sell their specialty teas at the Saturday Hawaiian Homestead Farmer’s Market.

To make reservations for the cupping workshop, call Kimberly Ino at 775-1171 or email info@maunakeatea.com.