Learning About the Art of Tea at Fábrica de Chá Gorrana, São Miguel

We arrive at the Chá Gorreana factory, which is located in Maia to the north of São Miguel island. Chá Gorreana’s teas are recognised internationally as a rare collection of fine teas and this is Europe’s oldest tea producing factory. Ermelinda Gago Da Camara opened the factory in 1883 and it has been family owned and operated every since.

Tea was first discovered in China around 5,000 years ago and, as European explorers began to explore the orient, information about tea began to filter back to Europe. When sea routes to the Far East were established in the early 1600s tea began to gain a presence in Europe. The mandarin word for tea is ‘cha’ and so many countries such as Japan, Tibet, Russia and Turkey continue to use the common root of ‘cha’. It was the Dutch traders who first brought tea to Europe in the early 1600s who changed the name from ‘cha’ to ‘tea’. They imported the tea on junk ships from the port of Amoy in the Fujian province. In the Amoy dialect tea was called ‘te’ (pronounced ‘tay’) and hence the Dutch began to call it ‘thee’. As they were the first importers they spread this name and now most European countries including France, Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Hungary use this root.

Oranges were once the main source of revenue in the Azores and several million oranges were exported every year. In 1860 a blight began to destroy the crops. By the 1870s all of the orange groves in São Miguel had been affected and the orange production came to an abrupt end. The main producers of oranges on the island had to find other sources of income and crops of tea, tobacco, sweet potatoes and pineapple began to appear. Two Chinese masters were hired to visit the Azores and to teach the tea culture to those interested in the industry. In 1874 the Fábrica de Chá Gorreana gained its first seeds and the first teas were produced in 1883. During World War II many factories were closed and later the growth and government support of African teas led to the closure of all remaining factories except Fábrica de Chá Gorreana. The factory now produces 60 tons of tea per year.

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Outside the factory is the tea plantation, where we can see rows and rows of tea plants. Our guide explains that, in olden days, the tea was planted in small, round bushes, to allow the leaves to be easily collected by hand. With the introduction of machines such as tractors that could collect the leaves the tea can now be planted in long rows instead. This plantation is eco-friendly and no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are used.

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It is the top three leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant that are used to make the tea and each leaf produces a different taste. The uppermost leaf is the ‘orange pekoe’, which produces the black tea that is the most aromatic of the three black teas produced here. The second leaf is the ‘pekoe’, which produces the strongest black tea. The bottom leaf is the broken leaf, which produces the lightest of Gorreana’s black teas.

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Inside the factory we see the machines that make the tea. Both black tea and green tea are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant however the way the leaves are processed produces different results. At Chá Gorreana, the tea is made using the traditional processing methods. To make the black tea the leaves are harvested, withered, crushed, torn, curled or rolled and allowed to oxidise before being dried. This process allows the leaves to darken and to develop a stronger flavour and aroma. To produce green tea the leaves are harvested, withered and then heated through steaming or firing, which halts the oxidisation, allowing the leaves to retain their green colour and delicate, fresh flavour.

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Our guide explains that both green tea and black tea contain antioxidants and that green tea contains properties that may help to prevent cancer. Certain chemicals, called polyphenols, are found in green tea and appear to inhibit two proteins that promote tumour cell growth and migration. We are told that in order to maintain these antioxidants green tea should not be made with boiling water and that it should be left to cool slightly before pouring onto the leaves. After our tour of the factory we taste the teas and are surprised by how different they each taste.

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