Catherine Whyte takes a trip around2014-02-28
Catherine Whyte takes a trip around the globe to discover some of the world's more unusual tea growing nations.
When you look through the tea menu at any Tea Guild member venue, you will find the best teas from the world's major tea-producing nations such as India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan and Kenya.
Occasionally however, you might just spot a tea from somewhere you did not expect. For example, did you know that there are tea plantations in Australia, America, Georgia and even Europe?
I suspect not. There is a good reason for this. In many of these countries, high labour and production costs, sometimes coupled with unstable climate conditions have made the commercial production of tea largely unviable.What remains is a niche product, with strong novelty value.
America is known for its cotton plantations, but not for tea.As mentioned above, the climate in the southern states proved to be too much of a challenge for large-scale investment in tea. Only one estate remains, and that's the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina. It isn't a plantation in the strict sense of the word (it never employed slave labour) but is a working 127 acre estate on a large, secluded island. The plantation was originally owned by none other than Mr Thomas Lipton who sold the farm in 1987 to its present owners. There's a strong local market for Charleston's tea - its American Classic Tea (a middle-of-the-road black tea) is the best known - and the tours around the estate are popular with tourists, who then invariably purchase a caddy of home grown tea as souvenirs.
You see a similar situation in Australia, where a small number of estates - such as the Daintree Estate in Northern Queensland and the Madura Tea Estate in New South Wales operate on the country's verdant east coast. Again, the market for these earthly, rich black teas is largely local. Flavoured teas such as chai and vanilla are popular too. Like American tea, it is difficult to source these leaves in the UK, although you can find them sold in Antipodean-run coffee shops if you look hard enough.
Think of Russian tea and the samovar springs immediately to mind. Georgia was the main source for the leaves that ended up in this iconic vessel and since the nation was jettisoned from its larger brother, Georgia has begun to reclaim its tea-growing heritage. But it hasn't been an easy ride. Historically, Georgian tea was considered to be very bland and was blended with superior leaves to bring down costs. Only a handful of tiny estates remain, and the methods used are time-honoured and traditional. As such Georgian teas - with the robustness of an Assam or a Keemun but with the lightness of a Darjeeling mixed in - are regaining popularity, largely through international sales with boutique sellers.
You will find just one tea estate in continental Europe and that's the Cha Gorreana Estate in The Azores. What it lacks in company, it certainly makes up for in provenance. With roots stretching back to 1883, this family-run estate produces numerous types of organic tea; orange pekoe, black and broken leaf (light brews similar to second-flush Darjeeling), as well as the popular Hysson Green Tea. While the camellia sinensis plant grows naturally in the main island of Sao Miguel, commercial tea production only blossomed once seeds from Brazil had been brought over and grown under the watchful stewardship of two tea experts from Macau in the late 19th century. Cha Gorreana was one of 14 estates and production reached its peak in the 1930s with 700 tonnes. That figure now stands at 30 tonnes.Nevertheless, Cha Gorreana makes the most of its unique status and visitors are drawn to its lush gardens in their droves.
An article on unusual tea growing locations wouldn't be complete without a mention of the UK's own estate in Tregothnan, Cornwall, whose own black tea - similar to Darjeeling - can be found on many a Tea Guild member's menu. It was thought that tea couldn't be grown in the UK, but the acid soil and damp conditions have proven doubters wrong. At around ten tonnes, the volume produced by Tregothnan is tiny in comparison to the colossi of the tea world. But novelty pays, and buyers dish out a hefty premium for a cup of English home grown tea - especially in the modern market where provenance sells.
So there you have it; some of tea's more unusual homes. And that's without mentioning countries like Mauritius, Taiwan, Nepal, Iran, Turkey, Uganda, Rwanda, Argentina and Bolivia!
With around 40 tea-producing countries in the world one thing's for sure, tea truly is a global affair.
With thanks to Tea Consultant Malcolm Ferris Lay
Top: Charleston Tea Plantation, USA
Middle: Daintree Tea Estate, North Queensland
Bottom: Cha Gorreana - continental Europe's only tea estate