Elizabeth Miller leads more than 25 fellow tea growers into her small nursery, pointing out young plants in various stages of development. She explains the successes and setbacks she has experienced growing tea in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The audience is captivated because, like Miller, they are either growing or hope to grow tea in non-traditional terroir. Working together these tea pioneers are establishing best practices for cultivating tea in the United States.
The visit to Miller’s Minto Island Tea Company is a featured event during a recent annual meeting of the US League of Tea Growers (USLTG), an 85-member organization established in 2013. Some members are hobbyists, others operate commercial tea production facilities. They all have one thing in common: a passion to grow specialty tea in their own locales.
“Tea is not a new crop. They’ve been growing tea for thousands of years,” said league president Angela McDonald. “But it’s a new crop in the United States. Any time you’re growing something in a new region you have to figure out how it adapts.”
So, members traveled to Oregon from across the country to share ideas and discover which techniques may work back home.
“When the league first started, a lot of people were excited, but they did not want to share secrets,” McDonald said. “That approach ends up holding everybody back and the entire industry doesn’t develop. But they realized they are not competitors and they are learning from each other and collaborating. Eventually, we all can get to the same place.”
In the end, McDonald says, the goal is to establish viable products for the marketplace.
“It’s important to have research done, collaborate and create an industry. The league exists to assist in creating that industry, so everyone has a place to sell their tea.”
Part of that effort means staying informed on all aspects of tea cultivation and production. To that end, the group is considering organizing its 2020 annual meeting to coincide with the Global Tea Initiative’s colloquium on tea and wine scheduled on Jan. 16-17 at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science on the campus of the University of California, Davis. Members also are encouraged to follow and provide public comment on programs such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Special Crop Block Grant Program. University researchers also speak at league meetings.
“Some people right now are producing tea as a novelty, but it doesn’t taste good,” McDonald said. “Once that novelty wears off, you can’t sell bad tea. You must produce good tea. We need standards.”
The league of tea growers is in position to help establish those standards, create good teas and develop regional flavor profiles.
“It’s like the wine industry. If you’re trying to replicate, you’re not going to get very far,” McDonald said. “If you start creating your own wines that taste good and fit your terroir, you’re going to be successful.
“We have been focusing on specialty tea,” McDonald said. “If we try to create commodity tea, it will be hard to compete. It will be nothing special. If we create a specialty product people all over the world will be interested.”
To learn more about the League of US Tea Growers, visit: https://usteagrowers.com/
Sources: US League of Tea Growers