Demand Outstrips Supply in U.S.-Grown Artisanal Tea

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As Americans’ taste for tea has grown, so has the interest in homegrown teas. According to the U.S. League of Tea Growers, there are now 60 farms in 15 states, most of which have sprung up in the last 15 years or so.

Historically, the United States did not feature highly on tea maps of the world. Until quite recently, the only tea plantation in the United States was the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. The company was started in 1987 when local tea taster Bill Hall purchased the land, which had been used as an experimental farm and research project growing Camellia sinensis bushes.

Hall’s American Classic tea was the first 100% American grown tea; it quickly became popular in the local area and has more recently expanded distribution in the South and beyond. Since partnering with the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, several new teas have been added to the Charleston Tea Plantation brand including green and fruit teas, available at tea shops in 17 states, and ready-to-drink flavored iced tea available at Whole Foods and southeastern supermarkets Ingles and Harris Teeter.

“While U.S. tea-makers are not as skilled as those in more established tea regions, their teas still have a distinct character found nowhere else in the world, thanks to the unique climates and environments on these U.S. farms,” U.S. League of Tea Growers spokesperson Rie Tulali recently told NPR’s The Salt blogger Jodi Helmer.

Many up-and-coming tea growers are testing the viability of Camellia sinensis in their regions. It tends to grow well in the South—New Orleans is the same latitude as tea-growing regions in southern China—but that hasn’t stopped growers from experimenting with the crop in other states such as Michigan and Oregon, according to the article.

“It’s the energy and enthusiasm from consumers that’s propelling us forward. People are really excited to have tea that is U.S. grown,” says Elizabeth Miller, co-owner of Minto Island Tea Company in Salem, Oregon, which last year added 12 acres of Camellia sinensis bushes to its original experimental half-acre. Its small batch, loose-leaf black, green, and oolong teas sell out so quickly at local farmers markets that Miller and partner/husband Chris Jenkins feel confident that the expansion is a worthwhile investment.

Grower Steve Lorch of Table Rock Tea Company in Pickens, S.C. started his tea plantation with 400 Camellia sinensis plants in 2009 and last year added 7,000 additional bushes. Lorch is so confident about the market for domestic tea that he plans to plant 17,500 additional tea plants per year for the next several years, which translates to about 5,000 pounds of tea.

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“There is a strong niche market for U.S. grown tea” but it is a lot more expensive to produce than, say, Sri Lankan tea where labor costs are low, explains Lorch. “You won’t see 100 bags of domestic tea selling for $2.50. It’s a high-end, artisanal product.”

A box of 20 Table Rock Tea Company tea bags retails for $6.95.

The sheer rarity of U.S.-grown tea has to date justified its high price, according to Tulali. She acknowledges, however, that novelty won’t be enough to sell the tea forever.

To that end, Minto Island Tea Company, which currently relies on hand picking and processing, is exploring options for mechanizing harvesting and processing to help lower prices.

“We’re curious to see how deep the market is for domestic tea,” says Miller. “So far, people are loving the teas we’re producing and willing to pay premium prices because it’s a special product.”

Source: The Salt