Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

“Tea gardens.”  The words evoke lush plantations far removed from the United States. But tea gardens within our borders? Can we grow high-quality tea?

low res_tea in white flowers

They Said We Couldn’t Produce Great Wine ~ Until We Did

Well, until California wineries shocked the world in 1976 by winningin both the red and white categories—a blind tasting by French judges, many thought that only France could produce the best wines. So wrong!

Ideal climates and soils—it turns out—are found in many locales globally. It just took some experimentation and perseverance to produce the winning wines.

So Why Not Tea?

Tea is a pretty durable plant, loving acidic soils, being drought tolerant, and growing well in both sun and shade. In fact, tea was grown in the U.S. as early as the 1700s and was produced commercially in South Carolina from 1888 to 1915 by Charles Shepard. Decades later, Dr. Shepard’s tea plants were again cultivated, eventually becoming the Charleston Tea Plantation, which Bigelow now operates as a working 127-acre tea garden.

Other states have been experimenting with tea gardens as well. In 2013, the World of Tea listed fifteen states that produce tea, although many of these operations remain small or experimental at this point.

Still, there is enough interest and investment to generate formal acknowledgment of the U.S. tea industry—last month saw the inauguration of the Tea of the United States (TOTUS) Award competition.

Thirty tea gardens submitted entries, in both commercial and non-commercial categories. Grower/producers in Hawai’i earned the top spot for black, oolong, green, and white teas produced commercially as well as for white tea in the non-commercial category. In this latter category, a Mississippi company ranked best for black, oolong, and green teas.

The event brought together many who are serious about producing quality teas in the U.S., and who realize that it takes time, research, and a whole lot of work to produce top-quality teas.

No Reason At All!

Are U.S. companies there yet? Well, they definitely are on their way.

As Jane Pettigrew (chair, TOTUS judges) explained: “Tea growing is a very young, very new industry in the United States. Farmers are growing different varietals and cultivars at different altitudes, in varying climates, in shade and under direct sun. A lot of growers are still experimenting, as you don’t make good teas overnight. . . . You have to tweak, redo, monitor and record. . . . [It is] a focused program of research and experimentation” (World Tea News, 11/17/15).

So Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

It certainly looks that way! As the industry grows and matures, the teas optimally will continue to improve in quality and availability. So congrats to the winners of this year’s TOTUS awards—and know that many tea-lovers are watching your progress with great interest!

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