UNC Tea Terroir Mapping Project

Words getting out in the academic world about the efforts of US tea growers and there are some really great projects being formed to help promote US grown tea.  One such program, put together by Dr. Susan Walcott of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has approached us requesting assistance from our members and we wanted to make sure we got the information out to each of you!
At the moment, they are creating a Tea Terroir Map of the US.  This is done by gathering spatial data that will be overlayed with physical conditions.  At first, the map will only offer an initial sampling but down the road, could be a web-based display with layers at different scales.  This information will be useful in determining where and why tea is growing best and might help mitigate certain problems that can be fixed prior to tea planting (less than ideal rainfall could be treated with proper irrigation and rainfall collection points, how microclimates affect tea growth, etc.).
Dr. Walcott is requesting basic, voluntary information at this point from growers that are purposely cultivating (rather than random yard interest): If you have your tea garden’s lat-long, zip code, or town name – any of that can be “geo-coded” and placed in the location layer. The idea is to see how this corresponds to the other terroir features.
Dr. Walcott can be contacted with tea garden locations, or questions about the Tea Terroir Mapping Project, at smwalcot@gmail.com.
Thanks in advance to growers that participate!  Our hope is that this mapping project can help future growers and move US grown tea a few steps forward!
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Mississippi Tea Project

MSU Logo 2As many of you are aware, Mississippi State University has been working closely with Jason McDonald (FiLoLi Farms) and the USLTG to put together research and academic programs that will support the expansion of US grown tea.  One such project is now starting, and if you are a tea grower, we need your assistance! Please see the note below from Dr. Bi and Judson LeCompte of Mississippi State University:

Thank you for your interest in supporting the Mississippi Tea Project at Mississippi State University. The Mississippi Tea Project is a multi-faceted study that will try to promote tea production in the United States. We are in the process of collecting Camellia sinensis plant material for evaluation and selection of tea cultivars. We are currently accepting C. sinensis seeds, cuttings, and whole plants.  For the success of this project it is imperative that we get large amounts of propagation material for evaluation so seeds and 2 node cuttings will be collected.  Branches can be shipped and we can make final cuttings. If it is known what cultivar the donations is, please list it with the cutting. If the cuttings are from different plants, please also note this in shipping.

Plant material can be shipped to:

Mailing address:

Attention: Judson LeCompte/Guihong Bi

Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
Box 9555
Mississippi State, MS 39762

Physical Address:

Attention: Judson LeCompte/Guihong Bi

Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
Room 117, Dorman Hall
32 Creelman Street
Mississippi State, MS 39762

Judson’s Email: jsl279@msstate.edu

Telephone: (334) 524-8659 (cell)

Dr Bi’s Email:gbi@pss.msstate.edu

Telephone: (662) 325-2403 (office); (601)519-6663 (cell); Fax: (662) 325-8742

Before shipping please email or call so that we can coordinate for the arrival of the plant material. When shipping cuttings, we suggest branches be lightly misted and placed in a plastic bag (trash bag) just before shipping. As long as shipping occurs in the cooler time of the year standard rate shipping should be acceptable. Shipping during warmer months may require overnight shipping and ice packs. Boxes should be labeled as fragile and no permit is required for domestic shipping to Mississippi.

If you have whole plants that you would like to donate please contact us so that we can try and make arrangements to pick them up.

We have obtained the permit for international imports. A phytosanitary certificate would need to be obtained from the original country.

Please do not hesitate to call or email if you have any questions or concerns.

Challenges to Growing Tea in the USA

Thank you to the Andalusia Star News  for this picture of Bob Sims (Andalusia Tea) and Nigel Melican prepping the fields for tea in Alabama!

Thank you to the Andalusia Star News for this picture of Bob Sims (Andalusia Tea) and Nigel Melican prepping the fields for tea in Alabama!

by Nigel Melican – Teacraft, Ltd.

Nobody said that growing tea in the USA was going to be easy – so I think it’s time to look at some of the challenges that face the intrepid US tea grower.  Most of the traditional tea growing systems around the world rely on hand labor to solve their problems – but US growers must find innovative low labor ways around these.

And remember, every problem is an opportunity in disguise, so in no particular order we have to find answers to:

Weeds in Young Tea – when tea is mature the cover should be thick enough to smother weeds – but young tea is particularly susceptible to the competition. The cost of hand weeding is out and most growers will avoid herbicides, so we need a smart solution to the first three years.

Effective planting by machine – faced with planting 5,000 young bushes into every acre we shall need a dedicated machine system to plant them safely and swiftly into the ground.  Machine planters do exist but are designed to plant shallow for tiny root balls or deep for bare root plants.  No planter has been found that will handle tea plants propagated in the traditional way.  An opportunity for a bright engineer here!

Nursery handling for machine planting – propagation and growing-on techniques will have to be modified to match the capability of the planting machine – the traditional 1 gallon pot is not going to cut it for tea planting. The horticultural industry has solved bigger problems.

Minimizing nursery time – every month in the nursery is a month’s yield lost in the field.  Traditionally tea plants take 12-18 months in the nursery to grow strong enough for transferring into field conditions.  Techniques to produce vigorous young tea plants in significantly reduced nursery time are essential to the bottom line.  Again, this can be done if pressure is put on horticulturalists to devise effective systems.

Breeding for season extension – similarly, starting to flush harvestable leaf a week or two earlier or to keep producing into the fall will add profitability.  US summers are short compared to many tea countries where leaf flushes all year round.  It’s a tough target – but one that has been cracked in other crops.

Nutrient management – soil nutrition is expensive whether the fertilizer inputs are produced organically or from non-renewable fossil sources.  We have to aim to optimize yield and quality while minimizing nutrient inputs.  This requires knowledge of crop responses, precise monitoring of nutrient balance, and effective management of the system.  With this ability in place, we can both reduce nutrient wastage and improve the environment.

Managing formative pruning – traditionally the first three years of a tea bush’s life are devoted to skilled hand pruning that forms a strong branched structure that bears the plucking table.  It may involve redesigning the bush for mechanical husbandry.  Can we shape bushes entirely by machine?  Can we do it more quickly?  Can we improve on the hand pruned table format?  A breakthrough here will pay dividends – failure will be a millstone around tea growers’ necks.

Mechanical harvesting – while corn and cotton have been mechanically harvested for decades it is a new technique for tea, but essential to the larger scale US grower.  We need to build on the best techniques and develop them.  This means sourcing and importing Japanese tea harvesters – which at present are precluded from import into the USA by Federal EPA regulations – another bridge to cross!

USLTG will be working on behalf of all US tea growers to encourage universities, public bodies, forward thinking private companies, and Individual growers to come up with working solutions to these challenges – and doubtless many others that will arise as the industry develops. We MUST start thinking of these things now before it is too late. Remember that what we do now is the standard for decades to come. We appreciate any support or feedback on any of these initiatives. 

The Flavor of US Grown Tea

Thank you to Walker Tea Review for this beautiful view of US Grown Tea.

Thank you to Walker Tea Review for this beautiful view of US Grown Tea.

By Jason Walker, Walker Tea Review

The buzz about the potential of US grown tea seems to increase in a rate proportional to the number of new tea bushes put into American soil. Although it may be too early to look for US grown tea on grocery store shelves, it is the right time to consider what those teas should taste like when they do hit the mainstream.

If you ask a grower, he may say that the final taste profile of a tea is 60% due to elements like terroir and growing conditions.

If you ask a tea processor, she may say that the final taste profile of a tea is 60% due to the manufacturing process.

Determining who is right at this point may not be as important as a more fundamental question for US grown tea – what should US grown tea taste like?

Or, what teas should American teas seek to imitate?

In some cases, imitation is the stronger, more straightforward path to success.

Despite criticisms in the judging and scoring processes, The Judgment of Paris reveals how skillful imitation can give a much-needed boost of recognition to a group of growers/processors whose product is considered inferior by the Establishment. In The Judgment of Paris, a group of French judges gave higher scores to California wines over French wines during a blind tasting.

Even though the French judges tried to rescind their scores, and French wine publications refused to acknowledge or publish the results, the impact changed the wine world. The California wine industry received validation and was no longer defaulted to an inferior status.

California wine makers’ skill in producing wine in recognized categories, or styles was validated. They could then build on that skill and validation to continue making competitive “Old World” style wines, or use their recognized abilities to create “New World” styles.

If American tea producers could similarly best teas from more established, and “superior” tea regions, wouldn’t American teas receive a similar boost in prestige? Would American tea producers similarly prove their growing and processing skills?

Instead of anticipating a characteristic “American tea profile” (even if a single profile could be established), American tea growers/processors may be better at imitating the classic, “Old World” teas.

But which classic teas to imitate?

1. Imitate teas that engage the full tea tasting experience. The taste of tea, like most tasting experiences, is more than just flavor/aroma. It includes texture. It has finish, or aftertaste. And it is not only about intensity of each of these elements, but also the duration of these. Staying-power is more often ignored than the other elements. It is said that it was the duration of character found in preciously small sips of tea that sustained monks during meditation.

A full tea tasting experience is a harmonious blend of each of these elements. A pure, un-blended, artisanal tea would be severely deficient if it were limited to a brief, initial pop of flavor as the tea hits the tongue.

2. Imitate classic teas that American tea drinkers already appreciate, or are growing to appreciate. Admittedly this will be a challenge. A large portion of the North American tea drinking population wants to wear the healthy halo they see in tea. The temptation here will be to produce green and white teas with simpler flavor characteristics that will appeal to those who may only tolerate the taste. It is more profitable to create teas with lower production complexity. But sooner or later, the tea drinking public will yearn for better quality. And when they do, producers who took the simple path may not have the processing mastery to create more refined product. Sell tea to pay your bills, but be prepared for the day your customer will ask for a more exquisite tea.

There are already a set of specialty teas with well-received profiles and strengths. Granted, each kind of tea can come in different grades of quality. They still have common components that make them stand out. Look to these when setting your standards

Teas with more broadly appealing, yet relatively complex profiles:

Greens:

  • Senchas with sweet vegetal notes and creamy brothiness can generate broad appeal as they can be cold or traditionally brewed.
  • Chinese-style longjing or maofeng teas can express unique toasty/nutty character with gentle brothiness.

Oolongs:

  • Roasty, high-fired teas like some dong ding and roasted tie guan yin deliver rich character, strong and enduring aromas, with sweet aftertastes.
  • High-mountain Taiwan teas combine sweet floral characteristics, soft, silken textures, and lasting finishes. These teas are another example of ones that open even more character as they are drunk cool.

Black Tea:

  • Malty, silken Yunnan-style dian hong already have a following, and may be a better choice for those who still want some milk in their cup.
  • The brisk but floral character of Darjeeling teas may also be worth imitating.

During the 2013 World Tea Expo, I was talking with a US tea grower as he shared one of his teas with his Taiwan tea mentor. The mentor took a sip and said “Tastes like a dian hong.” Through experimentation and imitation, this tea grower has already developed the skills to create a tea that resonates with tea masters and tea drinkers of the world.

Tea Planting Tips

Teany, the Amazing Nevada Tea Plant

Teany, the Amazing Nevada Tea Plant

Last week, #TeaAcrossAmerica was launched.  Within the next couple of months, tea gardens or bushes will be growing in every state in the United States, including the District of Columbia, thanks to their efforts.  As a proud representative of Nevada, the first question that came to mind was “How do I not kill it?”  Thanks to Nigel Melican (Teacraft) for providing tea growing noobs like myself with some basic “How-To’s”!  Happy growing and don’t forget to post pictures, video and blog posts.  Exchanging growing tips, challenges and insights will only help to serve US grown tea in the future!

Naomi