Teafarm Brews up a New Crop for Canada
Cultivating Tea on Vancouver Island
Far from the tropical and subtropical mountain slopes of China and India where much of the world’s tea is grown, and running contrary to Agriculture Canada’s declaration that “Canada does not have the appropriate climate for growing tea,” the 11-acre Teafarm, in Cowichan, is home to 600 thriving tea plants, adapting nicely to the region’s Pacific maritime climate.
Started by Victor Vesely and Margit Nellemann, Teafarm is one of a handful of tea growers in North America, and the only dedicated tea farm in Canada. North American tea growers tend to put down roots in warmer regions such as South Carolina, Alabama, Texas and Hawaii, where prevailing wisdom says tea is most likely to thrive. Teafarm is one of three farms, along with Sakuma Brothers in Burlington, Washington and Minto Island Growers near Salem, Oregon, to test tea cultivation in the Pacific maritime climate.
A Climate for Tea?For Teafarm, where the plants have survived well so far in spite of last year’s hot dry summer and numerous winter frosts, the maritime climate promises to be a good match, offering sunshine, sufficient rainfall, only occasional snow, and temperature extremes moderated by proximity to the Straight of Georgia and the Pacific Ocean.
Unpredictable weather patterns, while challenging for the plants are “very good from a flavour perspective,” says Nellemann, “as stressing the plants is thought to produce better tasting tea.” As with fine wines, the region, climate, soil and elevation add different taste profiles to tea. Nellemann and Vesely are looking to discover what kinds of depth and richness the Cowichan terroir adds to their teas as their first 200 plants—now mature with five years of growth— come ready for harvest in April.
Canada’s First Tea Harvest
To harvest, Teafarm will hand pluck the bud and the top two leaves from the tea plants. These hold the finest flavour, and depending on how they’re processed, can produce black, green, white or oolong tea. Vesely and Nellemann plan to start off with green tea this year, and will be experimenting over the next few seasons to determine which teas are best for the Cowichan flavour profile.
Teafarm’s EvolutionTeafarm grew out of Nellemann and Vesely’s interest in art, food, tea and farming. The renovated barn was originally Nellemann’s ceramic studio, where her creations included unique and whimsical teapots. With the history of ceramics so closely tied to the culture of tea, Nellemann’s art naturally led toward further exploration into this stimulating beverage. Seven years ago, in 2008, the couple started blending teas. In 2010 they planted their first terraces with 200 tea seedlings, and in 2014 they added 400 more plants.
While waiting for their plants to mature, Vesely and Nellemann have created over 100 loose tea blends with select imported tea leaves and spices, and herbs grown on their farm. Their teas are blended, not flavoured (“There’s a huge distinction,” Nelleman is quick to point out) and contain only natural ingredients—for example, vanilla bean, rather than synthetic vanilla essence.
“We honour and want to celebrate other tea cultures,” Nellemann says. Their offerings include Moroccan tea, Chinese zodiac blends, Argentine maté, and special dessert pairings such as Earl Grey chocolate cake or shortbread cookies infused with tea leaves.
“Our customers say we’re making them slow down,” she says.
A Tea Culture
Nellemann hopes Teafarm’s efforts will springboard a quality tea culture as vibrant as today’s coffee culture. While most restaurants offer a range of premium coffees, she notes, many still serve tea from a bag (often made from GMO corn, nylon or bleached paper). She looks for a time when quality teas, chosen for their identifiable terroirs, become stock and trade on a chef’s menu—not only as beverages, but as an ingredients in entrees and desserts. To this end, with its first harvest, Teafarm also offers fresh tea leaves for culinary uses.
As tea farms, like wineries, spring up across the region, the distinct terroirs of each tea growing district will likely develop sought-after notes for tea drinkers to celebrate. There’s much to look forward to. So, brew up a pot, sit back and enjoy!