Selling tea to Asia (and the world) from New Zealand isn't easy, and sometimes you have to take the back route. Lee Seabrook-Suckling travels to the Waikato to visit Zealong Tea Estate and find out its success story.
The road to Asia from New Zealand, it would seem, is through England, Germany, and France.
That’s according to Zealong Tea Estate’s CEO Gigi Crawford, who has resisted purchase offers from large Chinese firms in favour of keeping New Zealand’s only commercial tea estate owned and operated in New Zealand. Through transparent ownership, fair pay and strict organic farming protocols, Zealong’s efforts to become a prestige brand has attracted heritage customers like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason in London, TeeGschwendner in Germany, and awards from the likes of Agency for the Valorisation of Agricultural Products (AVAP) Contest Paris.
The result of such cachet has drawn the interest of high-end retailers in Japan and China. Prior to the pandemic, Zealong signed a deal with JR-West – one of the biggest railway companies in Japan and a brand known for an exceptional retail experience in its stations – to launch a Zealong concept store at Osaka Station City, the world’s fourth busiest train station.
“First I went to England, I got Prince Charles and Camilla to drink our tea,” says Crawford of her foray into the top-shelf tea market. “I went from chefs to the high commissioner to sell our brand, only going to the places with Michelin stars. I got into Japan because of that branding.”
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. The Zealong Tea Estate story began in 1996. Founder Vincent Chen discovered a camelia growing in his neighbour’s Waikato backyard, and knowing the camelia is a type of tea, thought, “maybe tea could grow here too”. Organic tea comprises just two percent of the global tea market, and Zealong has found its niche with the “clean, green” New Zealand ethos. When you buy tea from China, it’s not often traceable, Crawford says, “it is bought and sold through tender. You don’t know where the tea is actually from.” All large players in the tea trade also rely on herbicides and pesticides for plant health and frequent picking. Tea from Zealong, on the other hand, is grown spray-free across 48 hectares in the Waikato, making it certified organic, traceable, and produced without compromise.
Chen imported 1500 tea cuttings from Taiwan, where he is originally from, but after an arduous 10-month quarantine process due to New Zealand’s biosecurity rules, only 130 survived. “But Vincent knew those were the strongest ones,” Crawford says. “They were the plants to start this business with.”
Over the following years, those strong cuttings multiplied and now comprise 1.2 million Camellia sinensis (tea plants), which were able to be certified as organic after proving five years of growth without sprays. Crawford, from Singapore, joined Zealong 16 years ago after a career in Europe and Asia with high-end consumer goods. She moved to New Zealand in 1995 and worked in residential property development in and around Hamilton and Rotorua, then was seconded by her employer to Zealong Tea Estate in 2009 “to manage brand development and awareness, develop quality and food safety systems, put in place staffing to an appropriate structure and set up an international marketing network,” she says.
Today, Crawford runs the whole show as CEO and director. With a product where the “product is limited, price is high” - Crawford explains of Zealong’s offering (originally just oolong tea) - vital is senior management with vast knowledge and experience in the luxury sector. “The packaging is inspired by Versace, the paper for our bags is the same paper as Louis Vuitton [uses],” she says. “We have someone amazing working for us in China: we look for people who target the right market. He came from Louis Vuitton, Lamborghini, and Porsche. We need people who love East and West.”
Over the years, Zealong has used several PR agents but now decided the best marketing for the company is public affairs done in-house. “PR people tell us to tell the China story, the Taiwan connections,” Crawford says, “But this is a New Zealand story. We have focussed on the international market because it’s a New Zealand story.”
Zealong’s aim is to solve the future problems of the tea industry now. It is the world’s largest internationally certified tea estate, using the most ethical tea production methods (including fair labour practices and upskilling its Waikato communities). The tea conforms to New Zealand’s highest food safety standards – some of the most rigorous quality control in the world – and packaging is also certified organic and compostable.
And as a pure New Zealand product, it comes with significant economic value to the nation: while dairy is worth $8000 per hectare and wine is worth $43,000 per hectare, tea is worth $58,000 per hectare.
Next on the cards for Crawford and Zealong is Singapore, which relies on the good work they have done in Japan to propel forward. “Japan is important because they grow tea [themselves]. If they accept our tea, everyone else in Asia will too.”
- Asia Media Centre