The international panel of judges – Jane Pettigrew, Kevin Gascoyne, Bruce Richardson and, Selena Ahmed – pose with event organizer Eva Lee (center) in front of the TOTUS Awards display at Volcano Village, Hawaii.

The first Teas of the United States (TOTUS) competition was held on the Big Island of Hawaii November 4-7.  I was delighted to be a part of the international panel of judges that included fellow Benjamin Press authors Jane Pettigrew (London) and Kevin Gascoyne (Montreal). Selena Ahmed (Montana State University), David De Candia (The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), and Stephen Rouelle (chef/owner of Under the Bodhi Tree) filled out the team of experienced jurors.

80 American grown teas were entered for the blind tasting which took place on November 4. The judges evaluated white, green, oolong, and black teas from several states.

Teas were divided by family and the dry leaves were evaluated by the judging panel before being steeped and tasted for flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel.

The awards ceremony took place on November 7 at the Volcano Village Arts Center. An audience of over 120 tea growers and tea enthusiasts enjoyed a full day of lectures presented by the panel of judges.

The six jurors also spent two days visiting teas gardens and research stations on the Big Island where we met with several growers. We also took part in a panel discussion hosted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa where the future of Hawaii grown tea was considered.

Eva Lee shares the history of her shade-grown tea garden tucked away in the tropical rain forest on the slopes of Kilauea Volcano. Eva was the coordinator for this year’s TOTUS event.

Tea plants were introduced into Hawaii in 1887 and first commercially cultivated in 1892. The potential crop was neglected as sugar cane and pineapple plantations enveloped the agricultural community. It was not until the 1960s that tea was again considered, and the eventual demise of sugar cane and pineapple in the 1980s brought renewed interest in tea as farmers looked for alternative agricultural crops. Over 20 small growers now produce artisanal small-batch teas that have found a dedicated audience in Germany and across the United States.

Shelley Richardson and Jane Pettigrew endure a bit of light rain as they tour John Cross’s tea garden, located on a former sugar plantation just north of Hilo, Hawaii.

Loose-leaf teas from the Hawaii gardens carry a premium price tag ranging from $130 to over $400 per pound wholesale and up to $4000 per pound on the retail market! An average garden might produce 2400 pounds of finished tea per year. But because of high production costs and the lack of qualified labor and equipment, profits are not as lucrative as they might appear.

Still, the growers I met were very positive about the future of Hawaii tea. Their enthusiasm must be contagious because I spotted two mainland tea professionals who were in Hawaii last week actively pursuing land contracts in order to launch their own gardens.

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