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Putting Canada on the map sip by sip

Vancouver Island couple proud to offer tea boasting unique flavours produced on Canada’s first commercial tea farm

WESTHOLME, B.C. — Many said it couldn’t be done, but a couple on Vancouver Island have grown their passion for tea culture into Teafarm, Canada’s first commercial tea growing operation.

This summer, Victor Vesely and Margit Nellemann are celebrating the first estate-grown Canadian tea.

It was released at a special celebration in July, the culmination of six years of cultivation, experimentation and sheer passion.

They planted the first 100 tea seedling, camellia sinensis, in 2010 and now have 800 plants on two acres. It takes three or four years before plants are in full production.

“Honouring the way of tea, the slowness and tradition, we waited an extra year until the plants were really ready,” says Vesely.

“We wanted to let the plants mature so the tea really expresses the essence of the land and climate here. We’re really creating a Canadian terroir of tea.”

A few hundred plants is not going to make Teafarm a player in the world market, but Vesely and Nelleman are content to produce something with a distinctly local flavour.

The farm is located in Westholme, one of the first agricultural settlements on Vancouver Island.

“It’s the farmland that first drew us here to cultivate and create,” he said.

In 2003, they moved from Vancouver to start Artfarm. The old dairy barn became a studio for Margit’s clay works and they grew vegetables, herbs and hay.

The passion for tea first took centre stage in 2008, when they transformed two giant teepees into tea houses for the Art and Tea event.

Artfarm became Teafarm and the old barn became a teashop and tasting room.

Teafarm has brought the world of tea to the Cowichan Valley, celebrating tea culture and importing and selling premium organic and biodynamic loose teas from around the world.

“We have made artful blends of teas with locally grown ingredients, and continued to cultivate our tea plants and refine our understanding of tea making,” said Vesely.

Once the plants get established, the outlook is good. Tea plants can live forever in the right environment, with the oldest tea plantation in the world planted in Yunnan, China, in 696 AD.

The ancient tea trees, now 800 to 1,200 years old, are still producing tea today with no inputs and little maintenance.

Despite its hardiness, tea is the third most labour intensive agricultural industry in the world after vanilla and saffron. The harvest is done entirely by hand, with only the first two leaves and bud of the plant picked.

The crop comes in seasonal flushes and each flush has several harvests as the bud sets regenerate after plucking. The first flush is in early spring, and plants will then go semi-dormant and not flush again until mid-summer and then again in late summer and early fall.

White, green, oolong, pu-erh, yellow and black teas are all harvested from the same plant, but are processed differently to attain different levels of oxidation. Canada’s first tea will be a delicate green tea made from the leaves of the spring’s first flush.

In the Chinese tea naming tradition, Vesely and Nelleman have called their first offering Tree Frog Green Spring Harvest, inspired by the sounds of spring on the farm.

“A green tea is going to be the nicest tasting with the leaves that we have picked this spring,” Vesely says, noting that the character of the leaves changes seasonally, making it suited to different styles throughout the year.

The summer flush will involve more hot, dry weather and probably lend itself to more of an oolong style.

For the winter, they are looking at a white tea and are experimenting with a maple-smoked tea.

The first release of Tree Frog Spring Green had a waiting list of buyers, and their summer release, Swallow Tale Oolong, is in high demand.

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