Eric Akis: Surprise! Tea grows on Vancouver Island

Westholme farm near Duncan is starting to attract customers; multi-faceted business includes tearoom, ceramics and tours

Eric Akis

While writing this column, I was sipping a splendid cup of tea steeped from leaves that did not come from a far-off place. That tea was grown, harvested and processed a mere 75 kilometres from my home by Westholme Tea Company.

When I first learned about their tea, I must admit I was confused. I know Vancouver Island is a mecca for tea lovers, with multiple businesses selling and serving it to tea-crazed locals and tourists alike. But in my mind, tea has always come from places such as China, India and Japan. I never imagined that one day it would be commercially grown just around the corner from me.

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Recently I joined 14 other folks who signed up for a Sunday-morning tour of Westholme Tea Company’s 11-acre organic tea farm in Westholme, just north of Duncan.

My first impression of this scenic property was how quiet and serene it was. The only sounds I recall hearing were birds merrily chirping. Things became even more calming when I walked into this rural operation’s main building and was handed a soothing cup of just-brewed tea.

Not long after, Victor Vesely, who operates the business with his partner, Margit Nellemann, had tour participants gather outside for an explanation of how the business got started in 2008.

“In the beginning, this place was called Art Farm, and we started things off by having art and tea events,” Vesely said.

The events were held in two large tents set up on the property. Outside, tea and food was served, including beverages and dishes made from produce grown on the farm. Nellemann’s hand-sculpted ceramics, which included beautiful teapots and cups, were also showcased.

Vesely said at the point they were not really sure what they were doing, beyond trying to achieve their initial goal of creating a business that focused on the natural setting these former Vancouverites had moved to, the edibles they were growing and the stunning ceramics Nellemann was creating.

Vesely said their business model evolved when they realized their sloped property had a microclimate that might make it suitable to grow a crop that could be brewed.

“In 2010, we planted 200 tea plants, Camellia sinensis seedlings,” Vesely said.

Vesely said that not long after, the trials and tribulations of trying to grow tea on Vancouver Island began.

Lesson 1 was learning that deer, like humans, enjoy tea, but not brewed in a pot: they prefer theirs straight off the bush. Lesson 2 was learning that an evergreen tea plant covered in winter snow would survive and even later thrive.

“The deer devastated the plants. [I thought], no tea plants, no tea farm; it was quite traumatic,” Vesely said. “Some unusually cold, snowy winters after we planted the tea also freaked me out.”

But when he consulted established tea growers from around the world, they let him know that, like grapevines, those kinds of stresses on the plant were actually a good thing, as it can improve and concentrate the flavour of the tea leaves.

Vesely also learned that tea is successfully grown in places with a somewhat similar climate, such as northern Japan, southern Russia and Cornwall, England. Tea plants also need to grow several years, become established and grow deep roots before they can be harvested, so the plants the deer dined on had plenty of time to recover.

“Now knowing [and accepting] these things, calmed my nerves,” Vesely said.

Westholme Tea Company made their first commercial harvest of tea leaves, all picked by hand, in 2016. They then processed the leaves into different types of tea, such as white, green, oolong and smoked.

When they offered it for sale, Vesely and Nellemann soon discovered tea fanciers and collectors from Canada and around the world were keen to buy it.

“You can really taste the terroir the tea is grow in, it is quite distinct,” Nellemann said. “It sold out very quickly. So did the 2017 harvest.”

To meet demand, Vesely said they now have 800 tea plants planted, and plan to plant 1,200 more.

If you would like to see those plants, Westholme Tea Company is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beyond being a tea farm, this multi-faceted business also has a gallery selling Nellemann’s ceramics and a tearoom with indoor and outdoor seating that serves a wide variety of teas and some wonderful sweets, such as Earl Grey chocolate cake. There’s also a tea shop on site where you buy the teas they produce, and also a wide range of other organic teas grown on small farms in other parts world.

If you would like to take a tour of the farm, you can sign up for one at Westholme Tea Company’s website, westholmetea.com. On that website, you can also buy their teas and ceramics, get directions to the farm and see a menu of some of the teas and sweets they suggest you pair together.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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