Ten years ago, if you'd asked Timothy Gipson what he knew about tea, he’d have probably shrugged and told you he liked it iced.
That was before his husband, Jason McDonald, dragged him along on a tour of the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, the only large-scale tea-growing operation in the United States. As they gazed at the rows upon rows of Camellia sinensis, their guide told them that this plant—the leaves of which are harvested for the production of nearly every variety of tea in the world—grows best in areas with high heat, high humidity, and acidic soil. When Timothy heard that, he recalls thinking, “Well, that’s home.”
“Home” is a few hundred acres outside of the small town of Brookhaven in southwest Mississippi. Jason’s family has lived on the land for over 200 years, raising livestock and harvesting timber. After a hurricane destroyed most of their trees one season, he began looking for a new crop to replace them, which is what led him to the Charleston tour nine years ago.
Today, though, Timothy and Jason are the ones giving the tour. I find them at home on their own tea farm, The Great Mississippi Tea Company, past many cattle and even more Baptist churches, in a three-room building they call the Tea Shack.
This is where all the tea leaves for the black, green, and oolong tea they produce are processed, after being plucked from the camellia bushes growing about a football field’s throw away. Getting from the Tea Shack to the camellia fields requires you to walk practically right through the front yard of Jason's parents' large brick house, where the couple now lives with their many dogs—a casual, intimate layout that hints at the fact that the tea business was built to suit the property, not the other way around.
In only a few years, though, on a still-developing farm operation that's a notch or two above a hobby, they’ve already built something that's exceedingly rare in the US: a successful tea business that’s won two silver medals at the Global Tea Championship, gained recognition as consultants to other tea growers, and, very recently, begun producing what is probably the only domestic version of hard-to-find yellow tea.
I’ve arranged to meet with them here on the farm because I want to know why, according to the American Specialty Tea Alliance, the US mainland has only around 23 specialty growers. I want to know if there's a future for tea production here, and what that future might look like. I want to know their secrets.
How Specialty Tea Is Produced
There’s a ton of debate around what constitutes "specialty tea," but the brews that fall into this category tend to be loose-leaf, fair-trade, and/or grown on small tea estates.
Though the most popular tea types—black, green, oolong, and white—all come from the Camellia sinensis plant, which leaves are picked and at what time of day may differ for each. Green tea requires the top two leaves and bud of one stem. For black and oolong, you might pick anywhere from two to four leaves down, where the leaves are older and drier, capable of withstanding more robust processing and imparting a different flavor from the younger leaves. Pickers must be quick but careful, and willing to stand in direct sunlight for hours at a time. It’s exhausting work, and during picking season, it’s constant, from sun-up to sundown.
Processing the tea is equally time-consuming and necessitates a distinct approach for each type. Black tea leaves undergo a harsh process of withering, rolling—a step that spins the leaves into long strings to release their aromatic oils—and oxidizing, which roughly breaks them down to release their rich flavor. Green tea leaves are treated much more gently, and steamed in order to halt oxidation and preserve their color and freshness. (This partially explains why it’s preferable to pick them in the morning; leaves begin to lose moisture as soon as they’re plucked, and the morning dew left on green tea leaves helps to slow this loss.) Oolong leaves are subjected to multiple rounds of both oxidizing and steaming to achieve a golden, floral taste—a delicate balance between the other two. All are then dried, packaged, and usually sold locally or in niche markets and tea rooms. At The Great Mississippi Tea Company, this entire process is carried out by Jason, Timothy, and their friend Amelia.
When I meet them, Jason is leaning against the refrigerator, joking and gesticulating wildly. Broad-shouldered and welcoming, he's the face of the company—giving tea consultations, marketing their products, and traveling to far-off places like Ilam, Nepal, to learn from experts.
Timothy—who, as a child growing up on the Mississippi coast, wasn't allowed to drink sweet tea because it made him hyperactive—just likes to be with his plants. He’s a doer, not a talker, but still quietly funny: Every now and then, when Jason is talking and Timothy is operating the roller, he deadpans to an invisible camera.
Because specialty tea is hard to grow and hard to process, it's also hard to sell in comparison with commodity teas, which are grown on a large scale for a wholesale market. The lack of specialty growers in the continental US seems to be due to three main obstacles, whether real or perceived:
- The shelf prices of specialty tea are too high compared with the mass-produced teas found in most supermarkets.
- It's widely believed that really great tea can be grown only in certain regions, with specialty equipment and/or decades of expertise.
- High labor costs in the US—the real Achilles’ heel—can cripple profit and further raise those shelf prices, especially given the labor demands of specialty-tea processing.
How, then, have Timothy and Jason overcome these hurdles?
Obstacle #1: High Shelf Prices
The price tag on a package of tea from The Great Mississippi Tea Company, compared with a box of teabags from a big-name brand like Lipton or Bigelow, is obviously much higher. But when you've done a bit of math and figured out the cost per cup of the Mississippi tea, it suddenly seems a lot more reasonable.
The fact that specialty tea is often sold in loose-leaf form by weight, while commodity tea comes in bags, results in a phenomenon called unit distortion, which makes it difficult for consumers to accurately compare prices and leads them to conclude, erroneously, that specialty tea is always more expensive.
Jason and Timothy's Black Magnolia Tea currently sells on tea and coffee purveyor The Cultured Cup for $9 an ounce, while I recently found Lipton English Breakfast Black Tea at Walmart for $3.17 for 20 bags, or a mere 15 cents a cup. But a buyer can make 12 cups from one ounce of Black Magnolia tea and steep the leaves twice (a perfectly acceptable practice for loose-leaf teas, as their higher quality and greater surface area result in more robust flavor), meaning the Black Magnolia is only 37 cents a cup—more than twice as much as the supermarket tea, sure, but still only 37 cents a cup.
It's true that the Charleston Tea Plantation's whole-leaf tea is cheaper—its breakfast tea presently runs around $4.01 per ounce on Amazon—but the company's unique position makes it an unhelpful model for small-scale growers. The Charleston Tea Plantation is owned by Bigelow, the producer of over 50 varieties of commodity tea, which allows it to operate on a large scale and produce volumes high enough to justify price markdowns.
Regardless, Jason isn't worried about competing with Lipton and Bigelow, who prioritize consistency and low prices. He’s found more success by catering to young tea drinkers, who are willing to pay more for sustainability. What Jason calls millennial buyers' "conscientious consumerism" is a driving force behind the specialty-tea market.
It helps that Jason and Timothy have not only never used pesticides, but have also documented every step of their process on Facebook since the farm's beginning. The movements of commodity-tea growers are harder to follow from farm to cup, and the industry has drawn criticism for its exploitative labor practices and indiscriminate use of pesticides on soil exhausted by constant, large-scale use.
I certainly feel immersed in the small scale of their operation as I help Jason and Timothy spread the rolled leaves—now resembling limp zucchini noodles—onto baking sheets and slide them into a repurposed bread proofer to oxidize. They juggle processing all three types of tea at once, which means we taste-test green tea while waiting for the black tea leaves to turn their signature color.
Timothy uses a huge plastic cup from a local establishment called Poppa's Fish Shack as a makeshift teapot, pouring us samples of the farm's Mississippi Queen Green Tea. It tastes how the color green should: fresh and crisp, like spring peas.
Obstacle #2: Unfavorable Growing Regions
Part of the joy of sipping tea lies in the ability to taste the nuances of its roots, its terroir, which is why many people believe great tea can be grown only in tropical equatorial climates—notably, large swaths of China, Sri Lanka, India, and Kenya. Camellia plants thrive in these climates because the growing season is longer, more gentle, and more consistent, allowing the crops to mature slowly. It’s like low-and-slow cooking for tea.
On top of this, these countries have just been doing it way longer. The Camellia sinensis plant is native to China and India, and tea has been produced there for thousands of years. Many of the farmers operating in those countries now are steeped in generations of family knowledge and technique. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and ingenuity for US growers to catch up, but that doesn't make the project a nonstarter.
To underline this, Jason points to the bread proofer holding the rolled leaves, which stays above 85% humidity. “These plants we use come from an entirely different region that's evolved its tea processes based on those specific conditions," he says. Mississippi, unlike the tropical regions where tea has traditionally been grown, isn't known for its predictable climate. "We go from 80°F to 40°F in a few days," Jason points out. But because oxidation and yeast activation require the same temperature and level of moisture, the bread proofer can convincingly fake the right environment. "It's more about learning how things evolved out of their regions and manipulating yours to suit."
When they take the leaves out of the bread proofer, they’re spongy, black, and wilted—not the most appetizing sight. But after the drying process is complete and the leaves are allowed to sit for two weeks, the resulting Black Magnolia Tea will be full-bodied, dark, and honey-scented, almost like molasses.
The Charleston Tea Plantation, though it now operates on a very different scale, is another example of the lengths American tea growers must go to to overcome the limits of land and climate. The seeds for tea bushes were first brought over to America in the mid-1700s, but it took around 150 years of experimenting for a chemist named Charles Shepard to produce a quality brew, which he did at the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in the town of Summerville, South Carolina, about 25 miles from (and sitting at slightly higher elevation than) Charleston.
Many decades later, in 1963, the Lipton Company relocated Shepard’s original plants to one of its 13 research stations on Wadmalaw Island, off the coast of South Carolina. To contend with the difficult working conditions of the southern states—including heat, humidity, and vermin—Lipton's operations manager, Mack Fleming, invented a mechanical harvester that could do the work of 500 pickers. Lipton also tested over 220 varieties of plants, taking cuttings from the ones that performed best in the challenging climate.
Fleming and Bill Hall, an expert tea tester, eventually bought the land, in 1987. After its first 17 years in commercial operation, it was sold to the Bigelow family and grew into the Charleston Tea Plantation of today, where the strongest of those 220 varieties continue to thrive.
Obstacle #3: High Labor Costs
When Jason leaves to pick up lunch, Timothy and I trudge over to the tea fields, where more than 5,000 shrubs were planted in the early spring. Now they'll spend six months harvesting the leaves and processing them.
It's around 11:30 a.m. now, a bit later than Timothy's preferred window for picking green tea. Timothy snaps off the top two leaves and bud of one stem. I pluck timidly, slowly moving down the planted aisles, sweating in the inescapable sun and failing to keep up, but it's tough work even for Timothy. "I told Jason that they just can't get that machine here fast enough," he says, wiping his brow.
The machine Timothy is referring to might go a long way toward addressing the third obstacle—high labor costs—and making a success out of the specialty-tea market here. Pickers in Sri Lanka earn about $3.86 a day; in West Bengal, India, the rate is about $2.44 a day. In the US, by comparison, farmhands typically make around $11 to $12 an hour. Because tea production is a fledgling industry here, farmers can barely afford to pay one or two pickers a respectable wage, even if they stay small-scale and compete only in specialty markets. Plus, farmers all over the US have been experiencing a widespread labor shortage, so even if growers had the money, there might not be enough field hands to do the picking.
Timothy and Jason are sworn to secrecy about the specifics of the machine they're waiting on, but it’s a new type of mechanical harvester. The large-scale cutters used by the Charleston Tea Plantation and other big operations mow down the camellia stems indiscriminately—which is fine for the ground tea found in teabags, but not for the loose-leaf teas of specialty growers. This smaller, easier-to-handle machine should almost perfectly simulate fine hand-picking. It could pick a row in 30 minutes, as opposed to the three hours it now takes Timothy and Amelia working together.
For avid tea fans, tasting a new cup goes beyond simply liking or disliking the flavor. It’s also about puzzling out the personality of its growing region and how the tea bushes were planted, nurtured, and transformed. To this end, American growers have something unique to offer, and it looks like this may be just the beginning for them. Most of those aforementioned 23 cropped up just in the last 10 or so years. It’s possible that the timing is now right, given today’s sustainability-driven market and technological advancements, for domestically grown specialty teas to thrive and even compete with those from long-established regions.
Maybe one day the US will even be known for its teas. There are crazier ideas out there. For instance, Jason recently got a call from a group of women in Scotland who want to grow tea on the grounds of their castle (castles apparently being a dime a dozen over there). They want him and Timothy, a couple of Mississippi boys, to teach them how to do it. Jason has, of course, accepted the challenge.