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.
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.
You can read even more about Chá Gorreana on their website www.gorreana.pt
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