Tea growing regions are naturally beautiful. The tea plant demands the combination of ideal soil, elevation and climate that evokes a picture of serenity — vast and undulating, cool and green. But imagine an even more exceptional setting — a place where the young leaf buds emerge from rows upon rows of tea shrubs on gently rolling terrain, where one’s eyes are drawn toward a vista of blue skies and the darker blue of the sea merging in the horizon, where one’s ears pick up the sound of waves lapping the cliffs below. Too good to be real? But such a place does exist and it is to be found in São Miguel island in the Azores archipelago, smack in middle of the North Atlantic ocean.
São Miguel is home to the only tea plantations in Europe. More interesting still, the tea here is 100% organic, grown and harvested without use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Apparently, the usual insects that feed on and pests that infest tea plants in tropical regions are not found in Azores, allowing the chemical-free cultivation of these plants. Could it get more perfect than that? Apparently it could, and we were about to find out how.
A visit to one of these tea producers, the Gorreana tea factory, was in our itinerary when my husband and I went to explore the eastern side of São Miguel one fine April day. We knew we were close when the landscape started to change, and the road started to bisect fields of well-tended uniformly dark green shrubs as well as lighter green shrubs. Not long after, we glimpsed a low white structure that proudly identified itself in oversized bright red lettering, Chá Gorreana, and the year it was founded, 1883. We had arrived.
Where visitors could park, we chanced upon an interesting sight — large, filled black sacks that were being hoisted from a truck on to an open upper window of the building. These were newly picked tea leaves just in from the fields.
Full of anticipation, we entered the building. It seemed that the factory was practically empty of people. We found ourselves wandering to where we could hear the low humming of machines. We entered an area which had a display of small tools to one side and a long table with hot drink dispensers on both ends with a choice of 3 types of tea, and a tray of cups, obviously for any one who wanted a cup or two of hot tea. A lovely welcome gesture.
With the tea, we were nicely warmed up and revved for a proper look-see. Moving to the inner area, we felt as if we had stepped into another time. We saw what appeared to be an old stove, and a couple of old kettles. A set of machines that looked old-fashioned and clunky, painted in deep red reminded us of machines during the Industrial Revolution. The feel and atmosphere of the place became even more interesting because we could see the machines in operation, enabling us to observe almost the entire process involved in the transformation of the tea leaves. The place was a veritable working industrial museum.
We found out later that in this factory, the processes are still done manually and in stages where machines are used, some of these are still from the mid-19th century, during the early days of the tea industry in Azores. They are functioning relics of a previous age, vintage machinery, if you will, and not mere display for the curious visitor. We would also learn that the energy used to run the system comes from water sources found within the property. Another point for sustainable production there.
The tea leaves themselves tell a fascinating story. Tea leaves are harvested from the shrub of the camellia sinensis which attains the size suitable for harvesting after 6 years. The shrub generates new buds for an amazing length of time — up to 90 years, which for commercial purposes, is a perpetual source of production. In Azores, tea leaves are harvested annually, beginning in March and ending in October. The Gorreana tea is a traditional tea. This means that only the terminal, the first, second, and the third leaves are harvested from the plant and made into teas, and the transformation involved only employed traditional processes (as against commodity tea which use unsustainable cultivation and standardised techniques typical of large agribusinesses).
After harvest, the leaves are immediately brought to the drying plant, and kept there for 10 hours in order to wilt (and not break or tear). The now wilted leaves are then transferred to the production area. Here, these are separated into those which were to become black tea, and those which were to become green tea.
To produce black tea, the leaves are dropped directly into big rollers which remove the sap, at the same time releasing the chemical components of the leaf that will later contribute to its colour and flavour. The leaves are then placed in large trays and are left to oxidize for 3 hours. After this, the leaves are moved to the drying room.
After drying, the leaves are taken to the selection room where they are manually separated according to weight and size. The teas emerging from this process are the Orange pekoe which has the highest grade (whole leaf), the pekoe, and the broken leaf.
Green tea, however, undergoes a different process. The leaves, upon reaching the production area, are heated with steam before being transferred to the rollers. After rolling, the leaves are directly brought to the drying area, bypassing the oxidation process.
After drying, they are returned to the rollers. This drying and rolling phase is repeated three times. After the third time, the leaves go through selection and then packaging.
Unfortunately, the heyday of Gorreana tea, and the teas of Azores as a whole, is long gone. The factory we see now is the only one of two left (the other one is the Porto Formoso tea factory), down from 14 such facilities in the late 19th century. The production area left is tiny, just over 30 hectares. Despite its uniqueness and premium quality, it has proven to be no match for industrial scale tea production. We can only hope that the growing tourist arrivals in São Miguel will also be a boon to these producers and help preserve traditional and more sustainable methods of tea production, as well as a unique Azorean heritage.
After wandering a bit more around the facilities, we ended up at the tea shop and happily picked up a supply of the wonder leaves. Outside, we again paused and admired the breathtaking views.
Where in Portugal: Maia, São Miguel island, Azores. From Ponta Delgada, about 33 kilometers northeast, half an hour’s drive by EN1-1A. Visitors are free to go around the facilities on their own, sample the teas, as well as take small walks along the marked trails in the tea fields.