When we think of tea, our minds usually turn to exotic places, far from American soil. But that long-held geographical reference may be changing. From the volcanic soil of the Big Island of Hawaii and a sea island off the coast of South Carolina to the relatively rural Yolo County of northern California and the fields of northern Washington State, Camellia sinensis and assamica varieties may be thought of as an agricultural product grown closer to home.
To listen to the tea master/grower William Hall tell it, it’s been a long road from the Charleston Tea Plantation’s original incarnation as an agricultural tea station to its current-day status as a commercial tea estate in partnership with Bigelow, producing from 127 acres, in his words, “light, bright, and mellow” teas for a limited regional distribution, attuned to American tastes. Combining horticultural knowledge and a well-trained, fine-tuned palate, Hall has helmed the operation at Wadmalaw Island for more than 20 years.
A relative newcomer, Tea Hawaii’s Eva Lee, enjoys the hands-on involvement in cultivating and processing tea leaf on the Big Island of Hawaii in the shadow of the volcanoes of Kilauea, where the climate favors growing activity nearly year round – even at lower elevations – a situation that most of the world’s tea-growing countries can’t claim to enjoy. (Stay tuned for a future post on some culinary uses for fresh tea leaves, which arrived in my kitchen in perfect condition, thanks to Eva, from Tea Hawaii).
Spurred by a visit to the Hawaiian tea-growing region, Chinese tea expert and importer Roy Fong sees the potential for growing tea in California’s Yolo County, where he will add 10 acres of tea plants to his newly purchased 23-acre parcel of land not far from Sacramento. But patience is the name of the game, as the plants will take approximately three years before they produce harvestable leaves.
Richard Sakuma has looked to his Japanese heritage for inspiration, devoting 3.5 acres on his family’s berry farm to the cultivation of tea plants. In truly artisanal fashion, with the help of tea-processing equipment from Taiwan, he currently produces small quantities of white tea, green tea, and a lightly oxidized oolong for sale on the farm. Time will tell which direction Sakuma will take in tea horticulture.
Though the returns aren’t all in on the domestic tea-growing front, which is truly in its infancy in the U.S., there is change afoot. Rest assured that American horticultural ingenuity and a hunger to return to the land on the part of passionate, brave, and dedicated tea growers and tea lovers, along with the foodie public’s increased interest in consuming locally grown products will all fuel interesting developments along these lines. Remember that it was just 30 years ago – a blink of an eye when compared to the long history of tea – when the French thought that the only good sparkling wine came from Champagne, France, that is, until they found the microclimates and soils of Napa to be perfectly suited to growing grapes that yielded Champagne-style wines that would rival the best of French bubbly. Who says that the same may not be true for tea?