Tea is only one of the things that makes São Miguel Island in the Azores unique!
The Azores Islands are known for their breathtaking natural beauty, unique volcanic properties, delicious food and endless potential for adventure. Though tea has been grown here for almost 200 years, the Azores have quietly reigned as Europe's secret tea capital. In the middle of the Atlantic, roughly 900 miles from the coast of mainland Portugal, you'll find Europe's only two commercial tea plantations sprawling along the hillsides of São Miguel Island's north coast.
A Bit of History
In the mid-1800’s, orange production and exportation in the Azores had come to a grinding halt due to a blight that wiped out almost all of the islands' orange plantations. Oranges were the Azores' biggest export, and this blight threatened to send the islands' into an economic crisis. Ever resilient and resourceful, Azoreans got to work on figuring out which crops they could cultivate to give the economy the boost it needed -- as a result, crops like tea, tobacco, sweet potato and pineapple were introduced.
The climate of São Miguel Island quickly proved to be perfect for tea growth and its cultivation slowly spread across the island with one major flaw hindering its initial success: Azoreans didn't know anything about cultivating or producting tea! Such was their blissful ignorance, tea was initially used as an ornamental plant before someone noticed its full potential. Experts from China-- where tea is originally from-- were hired to come to the Azores, with tea seeds in tow, and teach local producers how to grow and treat the plant.
With the help of the experts, tea production became a prominent industry on the island, reaching its peak in the 1950s. However, the aftermath of World War II coupled with new Customs Protection laws that were put in place for Mozambique tea proved to be insurmountable roadblocks for the tea exportation and production on the Azores. By 1966, only 5 of the original 14 processing tea factories remained in operation. Currently, there are only two: the Porto Formoso Tea Factory, which closed in the 1980s and reopened in 2001, and the Gorreana Tea Factory, which has steadfastly remained open since 1883.
Gorreana Tea Factory in São Miguel Island, Azores
A family run business since 1883, Gorreana is a world class tea brand that produces a variety of 100% organic green and black teas, and tea infusions. The facilities are located on a sloping mountain ridge on the north side of the island, with a view to the Atlantic ocean away from pollution and city noise. Fun fact: common pests of tea plants don’t survive the humid climate or São Miguel, so Gorreana doesn’t need to bother with the use of chemicals insecticides on their plantation!
Gorreana is Europe’s oldest tea factory and has never closed its doors since its grand opening-- the result is a 130 year legacy of growth and commercialization of Azorean tea to the world. The factory and brand are said to have withstood periods of economic downturn by keeping the costs of energy low by installing a hydroelectric system to power the manufacturing equipment.
Gorreana is visited by thousands of people annually --one quick search on Instagram and you'll be inundated with thousands of photos of plantation views and tea cups-- that walk among the beautiful and unique plantations, visit the factory and the museum where original 1840 Marshall machinery can be observed, ending with a complimentary cup of tea with an amazing panoramic view over the island's north shore. These days, Gorreana's plantations occupy an area of 32 acres, and produces about 33 tons of tea per year that’s mainly exported to mainland Portugal, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Austria, France, Italy, Brazil, Angola and Japan.
Porto Formoso Tea Factory in São Miguel Island, Azores
Just down the road from Gorreana, you'll find the Porto Formoso Tea Factory. This charming property is still a private home, with beautiful grounds that are open to the public during factory hours, where you can also stroll the tea fields, visit the factory and museum, and enjoy a cup of complimentary tea in the on-site tea room or covered varanda with panoramic views of the property and coast.
The factory first opened in the 1920’s and later closed in the 1980’s when it was sold to new owners. In 1998, the current owners decided to invest in renovations to the property and got the factory back up and running again. Porto Formoso re-opened in 2001 and is today, alongside with Gorreana, one of the island's major tourist attractions. Porto Formoso produces 100% organic black tea in the Broken Leaf, Orange Pekoe, Pekoe and Azores Home Blend varieties.
Every year on the first Saturday of May, Porto Formoso Tea Factory comemmorates the start of tea picking season by recreating a traditional tea harvest. More than a hundred participants dress in traditional clothing and head out to the fields with straw baskets to pick tea the way it was done in the 19th century. At the end of the day, everyone comes together to cheers with a cup of Porto Formoso tea at sunset. Tourists are welcome to participate in this initiative to help preserve old traditions and keep the memory alive of the days when tea had a huge social and economical importance to the archipelago.