There’s a Great Opportunity for American Tea Producers to Create Their Own, Unique Regional Flavor Profiles

Great Mississippi Tea Farm harvest. (Angela McDonald)

Tea (Camellia sinensis) has been grown in the United States for longer than most people realize.

Going back to the 1850s, people have successfully grown tea in various states across the country. Though, the experiments proved that the plant grows well, production never lasted long because of the higher labor costs in the United States and the consistent supply of good, cheap tea from abroad.

That situation is changing, however, as a growing number of farmers around the country are proving.

There is a tea plant growing in nearly every state across the country, yet most of them are probably single plants in a garden or indoors. At least seven states have at least one tea farm that is selling its tea. People interested in the growing field of American-grown specialty tea are finding support in the US League of Tea Growers (USLTG), a nonprofit trade association that provides knowledge, encourages collaboration and promotes its member’s products.

David’s Farm in Corvallis, Ore. Photo: Courtesy of David Hathaway of David’s Farm.

A wide variety of factors is creating an environment where the traditional supply of cheap tea from overseas may not be as stable as once thought. Climate change, soil erosion, increased shipping prices and lack of labor in producing countries are driving prices higher and production down. More and more tea is being produced in non-traditional countries and supplementing what used to come from only from India, China and Kenya. Though labor costs in the United States remain high, harvesting machinery has made so much progress that it is now possible to produce a high-quality specialty product using mechanization.

Bare root tea plants. Photo by: Angela McDonald.

Since tea is a slow growing perennial crop, it can take years to create new cultivars, determine the best fertilization methods, and establish best practices for producing it successfully. No individual grower has the time or resources to go it alone. That’s why is imperative that growers work together to create the industry.

Knowing this, the USLTG was created by Jason McDonald and Nigel Melican in 2013 as a way to bring growers together to create an industry for American Grown tea. Tea is not a new crop globally; however, it is fairly new to the United States, and people are still figuring out how to successfully grow and process it in their unique climates.

The USLTG connects growers, researchers and tea vendors so they can find the tools they need to succeed. The organization is currently expanding its membership and beginning a fundraising campaign to support exciting new programs for the industry. They are working to establish a germplasm repository for camellia sinensis through the USDA, researching tea through a food science perspective, mapping the tea plant varieties available in the USA, and experimenting with new cultivars suitable to specific growing regions.

There has long been a debate about specialty verses commodity tea production among domestic tea growers. Most tea farmers are currently working on creating specialty teas that will fetch a higher price, however a few are making commodity tea with mixed results. The facts remain that labor and land prices in the United States are higher than many other tea producing countries, and thus growers in the U.S. will be charging more for a product that is similar or inferior to an existing market. In this model, it will be very difficult for local growers to succeed. In the specialty market, there is an enormous potential for success. We anticipate that growers across the country can easily sell large quantities of specialty tea at a profit to both domestic and international customers, but only if it is a high-quality product. The novelty of domestic tea can get you one sale, but only high-quality tea will fetch high prices year after year.

USLTG meeting. Photo: Courtesy of USLTG Secretary Mark Adams.

The USLTG is also reminding people of the impacts of producing such a terroir-specific product. People contact me about this issue often, wanting to find a particular cultivar so they can produce their favorite tea from abroad. However, the teas that are produced in other countries will never be perfectly replicated here because every agricultural region has specific soils, weather, and other factors that contribute to the taste of its products. This is not a problem as it affords American growers their own opportunity to distinguish themselves.

I often advise growers to learn from the wine industry on the issue of terroir. When wines were first being produced in Oregon, they were seen as cheap knock-offs of European favorites. It wasn’t until they began promoting that they had their own unique expression of Pinot Noir that they began to get recognition as producing good wine. Since then, Oregon Pinot Noirs have gained international reputation as high-quality wines that can fetch a high price. There is a great opportunity for American tea producers to create their own unique regional flavor profiles that are unlike anything else the world has seen.

American-grown tea has a bright and tasty future ahead – as long as we can grow it together.

To learn more about the US League of Tea Growers, visit US League of Tea Growers.

Angela McDonald – an avid gardener and tea lover – took on the role of secretary for the US League of Tea Growers in April of 2018. In 2019, she was elected League president. She has owned Oregon Tea Traders in Eugene, Ore., since 2011, and currently teaches classes about growing and drinking tea across the country. She has traveled extensively across Asia and observed tea drinking techniques of various cultures. She holds a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Oregon. Aside from all things tea, she loves baking and spending time with her two children.