Annalese Webber shares her favourite things about the Waikato
It's a graceful process, the traditional tea ceremony; each step preserved, passed down through the centuries in a time-honoured way.
The delicate porcelain accoutrements are placed on a slatted wooden tray: the pot, tall sniffing cups, a bowl for each guest to drink from, another holding a sample of the leaves so their scent can be appreciated before drinking the brewed tea.
Boiling water is poured into and over the teapot, the sniffing cups and teacups to warm them and enhance the tea's flavour. Tea leaves are placed in the pot, hot water poured over them, then drained off immediately to ritually clean the leaves and open them. They are then steeped in fresh water for a minute, a little decanted into each person's sniffing cup, the rest into the cups to taste and savour.
Annalese Webber has steeped herself in the ritual, her hands moving confidently, elegantly throughout the traditional process.
A taste for tea didn't come naturally, however. "My mum drinks gumboot tea with milk. She loved it and was always trying to get me to taste it. I hated it; I always joked about her tea addiction.
"Now, I really love the tea culture. My favourite tea depends on the time of day, what mood I'm in and what I'm eating with it. I go through phases of drinking one tea, then move on to another."
For the past three years the tea ceremony has been part of her job at Gordonton's 48-hectare Zealong Tea Estate, the only successful grower and producer in New Zealand.
Annalese whet her teeth waitressing in the Tea House to help "give me some pocket money" while studying for her degree in Media and Creative Technologies at Waikato University. Zealong has a policy of taking on students to work in many of their departments, including hospitality, graphic design, packaging and marketing.
And, like Annalese, the students often score permanent jobs there after graduation.
She's fulfilled, soaking up knowledge and experience of the company's different aspects. She's currently Zealong's administrator, personal assistant to general manager Gigi Crawford. She's also involved in marketing and social media, tour-guiding and training tour guides, taking tea tastings and helping out in other departments.
"There are lots of opportunities within the business. I was part of the Zealong Tea team which went to Las Vegas this year for the World Tea Expo. It was my first time in the States and my first trade show. I dropped in at the deep end, making tea and greeting people in the industry and tea aficionados. I learned a lot."
Zealong was eligible for The Winners Tasting Circle after its Green, Oolong, and Black teabags were placed top in their categories at the Colorado Global Tea Championship in February. And the black won the coveted People's Choice Tea Award for Best Bagged Hot Tea.
"I was so proud our tea was so highly regarded by experts from around the world."
Annalese's fluent German is also a handy asset. She studied it at school and university, and polished it while in Germany on a two-year break from her studies, thanks to a job offer too good to miss.
"I had the opportunity to work as an English language assistant in a couple of high schools there. It was a great experience. Experiencing different cultures is really refreshing."
Germany is Zealong's No 1 market, since signing an export agreement with TeeGschwendner last year, with the first consignment sent in March this year. Like most of the tea-growing countries throughout the world, Zealong sells to China, but if China has a policy change its market could disappear, says Crawford.
"Only an elite fraction of the annual world tea export harvest – 0.5 per cent – is considered by the German company's tea masters, with each tea undergoing rigorous testing before and after purchase for pesticides and heavy metal residues.
"We use sustainable methods in a clean, green environment. You have to have international branding."
Annalese shoots back a reflex answer to the question, what keeps her in the Waikato?
"The job. The people I work with here are a tight, close-knit team. There's passion within the team for growing tea in New Zealand, and It's wonderful to be part of something so different and unique. I'm lucky doing so many different things – I enjoy the variety."
She also has deep roots in the region. "My family lives here. I was born in Hamilton but I've lived in Cambridge since I was 6."
She spends her days off roller skating at Hamilton Roller Skating Club. She's just come back from the New Zealand Artistic Roller Skating Championships where her team was first in its precision (group figure skating) section.
And in the meantime, she's gearing up for Zealong's newest venture. This month it's test driving a new concept: pairing whisky with tea, with its first evening adding in a high tea.
The secret to pairing whisky and tea, Annalese says, is to play off the smoky notes of the whisky.
"If response is good, if people snap up the tickets we will keep them up."
BEST OF THE WAIKATO
Favourite coffee shop? How do you take your coffee?
I'm a tea drinker through and through and, of course, the best spot for tea would have to be Zealong Tea Estate, where it is grown on site. If I do break habit and go for a coffee, it will be with beans ordered from Mojo Coffee, who also stock our tea – sorry Waikato!
Favourite brunch spot? What would you order?
You've just reminded me, I'm due for a visit to Punnet for brunch. I'd order scrambled tofu with toast, mushrooms, avocado, tomatoes and spinach.
Te Koutu Domain in Cambridge. I grew up around the corner from there so, for me, this park is full of memories of feeding the ducks, going for walks with visiting family, having picnics with friends, and even doing my school cross-country. The lake and park is quite secluded, surrounded by trees and walking tracks – you wouldn't think it was so close to the town centre.
Best watering hole? What's your poison?
Anywhere that has live music. House on Hood is great for that, whether it's a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. You'll usually find me with a cider in hand.
Best date spot?
Hamilton Roller Skating Club is open to the public on Thursday nights. It's a great date spot if you want a few laughs, an excuse to hold hands, or to show off your newfound skills to your date (and it doesn't break the bank).
The view from my office window. I'm so lucky to work in a rural setting, with a view over the only tea estate in the country. We're often out on the deck at the end of the day snapping photos of the magnificent sunsets we get in winter.
Where would you take a tourist?
I'm a tour guide here, so I'm always taking tourists on guided tours of our tea estate and through the fascinating history of tea.
A fond food memory from the region?
Learning to decorate cupcakes with my sister, who runs Hamilton-based Kiddie Cakes and More, then stop-motion animating them for a short film I made at university.
Favourite weekend/holiday getaway in the Waikato?
I love driving over to Raglan in summer. It's just such a lovely small town with a great surf beach, estuary, and picnic areas.
What are you drinking?
I'm always drinking Waikato-grown tea, but recently I've had the pleasure of drinking an exciting new beer from Good George Brewing in Hamilton.
What Waikato product/produce can you not do without this season?
You can't say no to comfort food in winter, and Pyrony in Hamilton makes a really good plant-based classic mince and cheese pie.
Favourite day trip with the kids?
I don't have kids but if I did, a day out would probably involve roller skating, going to Exscite at Waikato Museum or feeding ducks by the lake.
What do you think is Waikato's best-kept secret?
The abundance of wonderful food being grown and produced here, from award-winning Zealong tea, to beer, icecream, pies, blueberries, and much more.