Europe’s most beau­ti­ful tea labyrinth on the Azores – curi­os­it­ies about tea and the Chá Gor­reana tea plant­a­tion

A few weeks ago Peter – a kind read­er of the blog who is reg­u­larly con­trib­ut­ing with valu­able com­ments (for which I am extremely grate­ful) – intro­duced me online to Vitória, who works at the Chá Gor­reana tea plant­a­tion and who kindly offered to tell me more about her won­der­ful work­place where she has been spend­ing her week­ends for the last 6 years now. I have long been fas­cin­ated by this tea plant­a­tion, and have vis­ited it sev­er­al times – show­ing friends around, or some­times all by myself just to take pho­tos. I have also tried to do my home­work and find out as much as pos­sible about Chá Gor­reana, and I did read quite a few art­icles about it by fel­low blog­gers, but I still had a few unanswered ques­tions. So when the oppor­tun­ity to learn even more about Chá Gor­reana and to tell you all about it presen­ted itself, I imme­di­ately said yes.

If I should describe my meet­ing with Vitória using head­lines only, I would say she is char­ac­ter­ized by: kind­ness, pro­fes­sion­al­ism, enthu­si­asm, and a deep under­stand­ing and love of her work­place. Her joy­ful spir­it lif­ted me up, too, and our time togeth­er went by oh-so-very quickly.

In the fol­low­ings you can read about the curi­os­it­ies I have found out about Europe’s biggest tea plant­a­tion.

Sum­mary

The Chá Gor­reana farm is Europe’s largest and old­est tea plant­a­tion, which has been foun­ded in 1883 by the Gago de Camara fam­ily. The plant­a­tion is spread over 45 hec­tares and pro­duces approx­im­ately 40 tons of tea annu­ally. Apart from main­land Por­tugal, their tea is expor­ted to USA, Canada, Aus­tria, Ger­many, and Hun­gary, too. The fact­ory – which has been func­tion­ing non-stop for the last 135 years – is man­aged by the 6th gen­er­a­tion of the found­ing fam­ily: Madalena Mota and her sis­ter Sara Mota.

I thought it would be best to organ­ize this blog post into a neat list of ques­tions – start­ing with the fre­quently asked ones, and then mov­ing on to the spe­cif­ics. So without fur­ther ado…

1. What sort of plant is tea? How is it cul­tiv­ated?

Tea is an aro­mat­ic bever­age com­monly pre­pared by pour­ing hot or boil­ing water over cured leaves of the Camel­lia sin­en­sis.

The tea plant cul­tiv­a­tion has sev­er­al needs includ­ing lots of sun­shine, lots of rain (areas with at least 127 cm (50 inches) of rain­fall a year), high humid­ity, and most import­antly: elev­a­tion (either above 1000 meters (3280 feet) or below 400 meters (1312 feet) from sea level).

2. Which parts of the tea plant are used for mak­ing tea? What determ­ines the strong­ness of the tea?

The tea plants are being har­ves­ted between April and Octo­ber. The har­vest­ing starts when the major­ity of the branches have 3 leaves. As each of the leaves has a dif­fer­ent age, they also have dif­fer­ent chem­ic­al com­pos­i­tions. Each type of leaf will give the tea it pro­duces a dif­fer­ent taste and aroma. Dif­fer­ent leaf ages pro­duce dif­fer­ing tea qual­it­ies, since their chem­ic­al com­pos­i­tions are dif­fer­ent. Usu­ally, the tip (bud) and the first two to three leaves are har­ves­ted for pro­cessing.

The loc­a­tion of the tea plant­a­tion and oth­er envir­on­ment­al factors influ­ence the taste of the tea. After har­vest­ing the tea leaves are sor­ted and sep­ar­ated (graded) based on their size: dif­fer­ent leaf size ulti­mately res­ults in a dif­fer­ent taste and aroma. The smal­lest leaves are called Orange Pekoe (noth­ing to do with the fruit or the col­or orange), the middle leaves are called Pekoe, whilst the biggest leaves are called Broken Leaf.

  • Orange Pekoe Leaf (spelled: pecco) makes the most aro­mat­ic tea;
  • Pekoe Leaf is a medi­um sized leaf, which res­ults in a bever­age less aro­mat­ic, but more com­plete in fla­vor in com­par­is­on to Orange Pekoe;
  • Broken Leaf: the tea made from the 3rd, and also the biggest leaf has a nice aroma, and a not too strong taste with less tan­nins;

3. Why is tea planted in this labyrinth shaped rows? Was it always like this?

In the old days tea bushes were planted in a cir­cu­lar lay­out. This lay­out was more prac­tic­al for hand pick­ing tea leaves. The entire fam­ily helped out dur­ing the har­vest. The smal­lest chil­dren were pick­ing the Orange Pekoe (small) leaves, the big­ger chil­dren and the teen­agers were pick­ing the Pekoe (medi­um) leaves, while the grown ups and the eld­erly were pick­ing the Broken (large) leaves. In these days tea man­u­fac­tur­ers paid har­vest work­ers by the weight of the leaves they picked, so they tried to pick as much leaves as pos­sible.

These days the har­vest is sup­por­ted by machines, there­fore it is easi­er to pick the leaves when the tea bushes are planted in rows. They let the tea bushes grow, then they cut the little branches and use a tea-vacuum clean­er to trans­fer the cut­tings into huge bags.

4. How did Chá Gor­reana sur­vive the eco­nom­ic crises impact­ing the Azores?

The Azores went through mul­tiple eco­nom­ic crises since the estab­lish­ment of the Chá Gor­reana tea fact­ory (1883). When loc­als dis­covered the per­fect micro­cli­mate on the North­ern side of São Miguel, near Porto For­moso, tea man­u­fac­tures star­ted pop­ping up. The Azorean tea pro­duc­tion reached its peak in 1850, when approx­im­ately 250 tons (275 US tons) were pro­duced on the island on over 300 hec­tares (741 acres). The first world war and cus­tom policies that pro­tec­ted tea from Mozam­bi­que severely affected São Miguel’s tea industry. As a res­ult of this crisis the own­ers of the tea factor­ies could not fin­ance their upkeep and their work­ers any longer. This is why by 1966 only 5 of the ori­gin­al 14 tea man­u­fac­tures sur­vived.

The own­ers of the Chá Gor­reana farm – mean­ing the 4th gen­er­a­tion – per­severed due to the ingeni­ous idea of the great-grandfather. The fam­ily took advant­age of a stream run­ning through the prop­erty and installed a hydro­elec­tric sys­tem to power the man­u­fac­tur­ing equip­ment. By using its own hydro­power the Chá Gor­reana farm is sav­ing a con­sid­er­able amount of money on util­it­ies and does not need to buy addi­tion­al energy. This time-tested idea of a hydro­elec­tric sys­tem – which was thought to be ridicu­lous and down­right crazy by con­tem­por­ar­ies – has been a truly geni­ous one, proved by the fact that Chá Gor­reana farm is still alive and well.

5. How import­ant is keep­ing the old tra­di­tions for the own­ers of Chá Gor­reana?

The pro­cessing of tea leaves is done on Mar­shall machines, some of which being over 100 years old. This should clearly indic­ate how import­ant tra­di­tions are for the own­ers of Chá Gor­reana. Crush­ing, oxid­a­tion, rolling, and dry­ing are all per­formed using old machinery; the only excep­tion where new­er equip­ment is used is the pack­aging. Also the last sort­ing of black tea leaves before pack­aging – when the last small stems are removed – is done manu­ally. Remov­ing these little stems is neces­sary only to increase the visu­al appeal of the tea, since stems do not com­prom­ise the tea’s qual­ity. This step illus­trates how­ever, how the com­pany is striv­ing for the highest qual­ity end products. In addi­tion to all this, the tea made on the Azores is com­pletely BIO. Since there are no pests endan­ger­ing the Azorean tea, it can be grown without using any kind of pesti­cide. The tea fact­ory has been tra­di­tion­ally open to vis­it­ors, who are wel­come to wit­ness all stages of the tea pro­cessing.

6. Is tea in a teabag inferi­or in qual­ity com­pared to whole-leaf tea?

Fan­nings and dusts are con­sidered the low­est grades of tea, sep­ar­ated from broken-leaf teas which have lar­ger pieces of the leaves. Fan­nings are also typ­ic­ally used in most tea bags, although some com­pan­ies sell tea bags con­tain­ing whole-leaf tea. Whole-leaf tea is of the highest qual­ity, and res­ults in a very pleas­ant tast­ing and bene­fi­cial brew.

7. How much does the tour of the fact­ory cost? What can we see in the fact­ory? Is there a tea tast­ing, too?

Vis­it­ing the tea plant­a­tion and the fact­ory is com­pletely free, and every vis­it­or is also invited to a tea tast­ing (also com­pletely free, which is pretty rare these days) which makes Chá Gor­reana even more spe­cial and unique. Vis­it­ors can wit­ness the entire tea-making pro­cess and can exper­i­ence first hand how much really hard work goes into hav­ing a nice, steam­ing cup of tea in front of us. By wit­ness­ing I mean not just one or two sub-processes, vis­it­ors can really fol­low the tea from the point it arrives to the fact­ory, through crush­ing, oxid­a­tion, rolling, dry­ing, the final sort­ing, and of course the pack­aging. Thanks to Vitória I real­ized that the first steps of dry­ing are in fact done in the attic. I have nev­er attemp­ted to climb up to the attic until now – I did not know that I was allowed to peek in there, too. Also this has been the first time I have seen the oxid­a­tion room – where green tea turns into black.

8. What are the most com­mon tea types? What vari­et­ies are pro­duced at the Chá Gor­reana plant­a­tion?

The most well known types are: White, Yel­low, Green, Oolong (Red) and Black. All these vari­et­ies use the same plant as their sole ingredi­ent. The dif­fer­ences between these types are formed by dif­fer­ent fer­ment­a­tion pro­cesses. At the Chá Gor­reana fact­ory they are pro­du­cing Green and Black teas. After pick­ing, the leaves of Camel­lia sin­en­sis soon begin to oxid­ize. An oxid­a­tion pro­cess triggered by the plant’s enzymes causes the leaves to turn pro­gress­ively dark­er. This dark­en­ing is stopped at a pre­de­ter­mined stage by heat­ing. There­fore, in case of Green tea there is no oxid­a­tion (no fer­ment­a­tion), Oolong tea is par­tially oxid­ised (par­tial fer­ment­a­tion), while Black tea is com­pletely oxid­ised (fer­ment­a­tion).

This means it is only the edge of the teaf which turns brown in case of Oolong tea, while Black tea is sub­jec­ted to a 3‑hours-long oxid­a­tion, which turns the entire leaf brown.

After my vis­it to the Chá Gor­reana fact­ory I was about to go home when I noticed some­thing abso­lutely unique and won­der­ful – and luck­ily I had my cam­era with me, so you can see it, too. There were at least 100 goats (very pretty goats) from the farm next door, graz­ing between the tea bushes. Appar­ently they are not inter­ested in the tea leaves, but rather keen on eat­ing the weed under the tea bushes. It has been a truly amaz­ing sight – all these goats togeth­er in the middle of a tea plant­a­tion. Check out the gal­lery for pho­tos.

9. Which teas from Chá Gor­reana would Eden Azores recom­mend?

Thanks to Chá Gor­reana fact­ory, but mostly thanks to Vitória I had the chance to taste the new­est teas in the sor­ti­ment. From all the tea I tasted my favor­ites were the Hysson Green Tea, the Hysson Green Tea with Pep­per­mint, the Orange Pekoe Black Tea, and from the Canto teas the Hysson Jas­mine & Green Tea.

Travel to the Azores and let your­self be enchanted by the tea labyrinth of Chá Gor­reana. It is a fant­ast­ic exper­i­ence, a must see if you are on Sao Miguel island.

Hereby I would like to express my grat­it­ude towards my help­ers and the man­age­ment of Chá Gor­reana who con­trib­uted to this art­icle and that they did a final proofread­ing to make sure the read­ers of Eden Azores are receiv­ing the most authen­t­ic and val­id inform­a­tion. Of course thanks to Kati who made sure this post is also avail­able in Eng­lish.

My resources were: the web­site of Chá Gor­reana www​.gor​reana​.pt, the prin­ted bro­chure of Chá Gor­reana, and Wiki­pe­dia pages related to tea and tea pro­cessing.

You can read even more about Chá Gor­reana on their web­site www​.gor​reana​.pt
For the latest news fol­low us on the Azori Éden Face­book page, or if you are trav­el­ing to the Azores this year come join the Azori Éden closed group.  For more inspir­a­tion and beau­ti­ful pho­tos check out the Edenazores Ins­tagram, and for com­pre­hens­ive posts of course the www​.edenazores​.com blog.

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