American Tea (F*CK Yeah!)

“Amerikuh” – land of the free, home of the Braves.

Er, I mean, brave. Yep, that’s the ticket. Although, given our predilection for sports worship, I suppose both would apply.

Our plot of land across the Atlantic pond is known for many things – revolution, industry, questionable fashion sense, food that can kill you, and monopolies. However, one thing has eluded us for so many years, and the country as a whole doesn’t seem to mind. Blame that on one incident three hundred years ago where we threw a perfectly good batch of [something] over a perfectly good harbor. (Then promptly switched to coffee.) Yeah, that’s right. Most Americans simply don’t give a s**t about tea.

Oh sure, the South siphons sweetened iced tea by the keg, but they do so without regard to quality. If it blackens quickly and can hold up to sugar, nobody cares. A-MURR-ica’s mainstay morning beverage was and is coffee. Tea took a distant backseat, forever labeled as a drink for retired women in red hats and little girls with teddy bears.

That didn’t stop some industrious types from giving tea growth a try, though. With a full-fledged Tea Renaissance underway in the States in recent years, it seems as good a time as any to highlight some efforts to make it a cash crop. Some are old hands, some are new. All are as American as apple pie (which -incidentally - is a British innovation from the 1300s, but no matter…)

Earliest attempts to cultivate Camellia sinensis in the U.S. date back to 1744. Seeds were imported from China and planted in Georgia and South Carolina. Both states were deemed ideal environments for cultivation, but their respective climates were erratic. The first successful crop was reported in 1772, but it wasn’t triumphant enough to justify forming an industry around it. The labor intensiveness required was astronomical. Supply versus demand at its finest.

The Charleston Tea Plantation

In 1888, Dr. Charles Shepard founded a tea garden in Summerville, South Carolina called the Pinehurst Tea Plantation. The venture sold American-grown tea until his death in 1915. The garden fell into disrepair soon after and the plants grew wild for nearly five decades. In 1963, the Lipton folks acquired the garden and transferred many of the plants to an old potato farm on Wadmalaw Island. Their reason for the venture was to offset dubious political situations in Third World countries where most orthodox teas were grown.

The guinea pig operation remained in Lipton hands until 1987 when it was acquired by a former tea taster and another gentleman. They sidestepped the labor costs by using a converted tobacco picker to harvest the two leaves and buds necessary for tea. They sold their wares via mail order and through the Sam’s Club chain. Both teas put out by the plantation were American Classic and Sam’s Choice. The former of which also went on to be a Walmart “signature blend” and the official tea of the White House (an honor it still holds).

In 2003, the plantation was sold to the Bigelows (the Constant Comment folks). The doors reopened in 2006. Originally, American Classic was blended with other black teas. Reason? Not enough tea was produced at the plantation to create a “single estate” batch. That no longer seems to be the case.

The Charleston Tea Plantation now puts out a wide range of solely South Carolina-grown wares, including green tea and a revamped American Classic offering. I’ve had the pleasure of trying this and their Governor Gray blend, a redux of the old Earl Grey formula (with a proper A-MURR-ican spelling).

My opinion on American Classic can be found HERE.

My thoughts on Governor’s Gray can be found HERE.

More information on the plantation can be found HERE.

Sakuma Bros.

Funny story. Three years ago - roughly around the time I learned of the Charleston Tea Plantation - I made a jaunt to Foxfire Teas with my mother. I’m not exactly sure what sparked the conversation, but I chatted with the co-founder about ideal tea growing land. I argued that only the Atlantic Southwest had the right conditions tailored for tea; I also lamented that tea couldn’t grow in Oregon.

The guy at the desk shook his head. “Yeah, it can.”

“How? We’re not subtropical,” I said.

“See that tree?” He pointed at an unassuming shrub by the shop’s front door. “That’s a tea plant.”

Mind. Blown.

I went home and gave it some further thought. Oregon - and, by extension, Washington - had a similar environment to Japan. Both territories even shared similar flora. Japan had grown its own tea for centuries. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that Oregon and Washington could as well.

And, lo and behold, it was a fourth generation Japanese American outfit that proved it was possible. Sakuma Bros., Inc. has been in the fruit and berry trade - in one fashion or another - since 1915. Within the last ten years or so they ventured into tea growing. Nearly 5 acres of land are devoted to tea. Three types are produced at their Skagit Valley farm - a green, a white, and an oolong. Of the three, I purchased - and loved - the white tea they put out.

My impressions of their Sun Dried White Tea can be found HERE.

For more information on Sakuma Tea, go HERE.

Hawaii-Grown

While not technically the U.S. mainland - and not an official state until 1959 - it still counts for the purposes of this write-up as A-MURR-ca, gash-durrnit!

Believe it or not, tea was actually grown and sold commercially from the Hawaiian islands as early as 1892. Reasons for it ceasing are a mystery, but it likely had something to do with American tea consumption (i.e. didn’t exist). That didn’t stop the Lipton Empire from looking into it, however, before defaulting on Latin American countries as their tea back-up.

Yeah, real stable economies there, Big L.

At the turn of the 21st century, though, a horticulturalist partnered with the University of Hawaii at Manoa to research tea cultivation on the islands. A strain of tea plant was found to flourish. Around the same time, independent farmers in Hawaii were growing their own tea from different varietals. Reason being, sugarcane in Hawaii took a nosedive with the advent of corn syrup (yay, fructose!), and tea was seen as a hopeful alternative.

Farmers banded together into their own collective called the Hawaiian Tea Society in 2004. By 2008, the land devoted to growing tea had tripled. A delegation of various growers, producers and retailers made a splash at the 2010 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas. I wish I’d gone.

Five months ago, through a tea swap with a Steepster friend, I was able to get a hold of some Hawaii-grown black tea put out by Samovar. The stuff retailed for $25 an ounce (!!!), and she’d imparted to me at least a quarter of that. It was highly unusual but almost worth the price of sipping.

My thoughts on that can be found HERE.

A List of Hawaii-Grown Tea Retailers (That I Know of)

Samovar – Carries the Hawaii-Grown Black I tried, as well as an oolong.

Narien Teas – Carries a Hawaii-grown green called Kilinoe.

Mauna Kea Tea – Grower and seller of single estate green tea and oolong.

Tea Hawaii – While not a direct seller of tea, these folks own their own garden and offer tours of it. They are also the producers of Samovar’s Hawaii-Grown Black (also called Mauka Black).

(Note: There are likely more that I’ve missed.)

Conclusion

Both tea appreciation and industry are still in their infancy in the U.S. Regardless, active and passionate efforts are being made to correct this. The results I’ve sipped so far have been spectacular, and - for the most part - affordable. I look at it this way: There’s a bit of an “anything-you-do-I-can-do-better” philosophy at play here - one I agree with.

Some would say that the best the U.S. has to offer still doesn’t compare to the tried-and-true tea practices of the Old World. To that I say, look how far we’ve come in only a hundred years? Looks to me like we’re doin’ purty good. Our D-student can beat up your A-student.

F**k yeah.

Sunday, May 1st, 2011 Steep Stories

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