Tea played an important part in the early history of the United States. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 — when 342 chests of tea were destroyed to protest a tax on tea, among other things — was one of the events that helped instigate the Revolutionary War. Though coffee culture is more dominant in the U.S., tea is still widely consumed, but almost all the leaves that make their way into American teapots are imported.
China and India remain, by far, the largest tea-producing countries, but more and more small operations are starting in the U.S. — with some in unexpected places. Tea bushes may never become as common as grape vines in America, but tea growing actually has a long, if modest, history in this country, and small producers seem poised to enjoy more success than any previous American tea growers.
A short history of American tea
Tea can certainly grow in North America, as it does at this tea plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, but it's been difficult for small plantations to compete with mass-produced teas from overseas. (Photo: Gabrielle Hovey/Shutterstock)
The U.S. first attempted to import tea plants in the 1850s, according to the Boston Tea Party site. However, poor planning and fallout from the Civil War delayed the spread of tea bushes in the country. One farm in Summerville, South Carolina, enjoyed success and earned awards, but it eventually closed because it couldn't compete with mass-produced imported teas.
In the 1960s, the tea industry’s biggest name, Lipton, used bushes from the then-abandoned Summerville farm to create a new plantation on Wadmalaw Island, near Charleston. That plantation is still open today, though it's now owned by another major tea industry player, Bigalow, and is known as the Charleston Tea Plantation.
This remains the largest tea production facility in the U.S. Most other major tea producers are focused on herbal teas, not on growing Camellia sinensis, which is the scientific name for the tea plant.
An American flavor
Camellia sinensis grows best in the wet, warm highlands of India, China, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. Outside of a few choice locations, the U.S. doesn't have these conditions. However, in recent years, botanists have been working on breeding tea bushes that will not only thrive in cooler climate like in the Pacific Northwest, but that will produce a unique terroir to give American teas a distinctive taste. These are early efforts; there's a long way to go before the science, botany and unique landscapes bring these teas to same quality level as those that have grown for centuries in East and South Asia.
And this development isn't an overnight process. It takes tea plants three years to get to point when their leaves are ready for harvest.
The Southeast has been a target for tea propagation since those first plants were brought to America in the 1850s. In addition to the Charleston operation, farmers grow tea in the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Most of these sell their product locally or are so new that they haven't harvested a sellable crop yet.
California and the Pacific Northwest are other tea regions in the Lower 48. These growers are relatively new to the game, but they've been at the forefront of splicing genes to create plants that thrive in colder or drier climates.
Then there are tea growers in colder climates like Finger Lakes Tea Company in the New York Finger Lakes region. They grow tea and sell via websites and onsite shops. Some farmers offer seeds and seedlings, while at least one, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens in North Carolina, offers classes on tea growing and harvesting.
But why are there so many smaller operations in the U.S., and so few large ones? Labor is cheap in other tea-growing countries, thus overall prices are lower. Bigelow’s South Carolina farm uses mechanical harvesters to lower its operating costs, but this requires a large initial investment that smaller growers can't afford. This means that, by default, they end up in the smaller, but still lucrative, market for hand-picked, small-batch teas. Tea is an $11 billion industry in the U.S., so there's plenty of room for such niche producers, as NPR explains.
The Tea State
A majority of the American tea grown for commercial purposes comes from Hawaii. Tea came to the islands a long time ago, but other crops, such as pineapple and sugarcane, were far more profitable for farmers, according to Eater. Several dozen farms exist in the state today, and the most profitable of these have quality teas with distinct favors because of the volcanic soil. The tropical climate and higher elevations make it easier to grow Camellia sinensis here than almost anywhere on the mainland.
Even with better conditions, mass production is hampered in Hawaii by high labor costs and the need to diversify crops. Indeed, Hawaiian tea plantations are often use tea as a diversification tool rather than making tea their main crop. Like fledgling farms on the mainland, a majority of Hawaiian growers sell tea through their websites, via shops and farmers markets, and through local cafes. A handful of the larger tea gardens also sell through distributors.
So will American tea ever take off? Because of the economics, American-produced tea will, at least for the time being, be dominated by small artisan producers. And thanks to new, hardier plants, home growers anywhere in the country can dabble in tea growing for themselves. And that might just be the start of the next great tea company.