Sweet tea is a staple of Southern life, but many tea leaves travel thousands of miles before they’re brewed and served to neighbors on the front porch. Much of the tea sold in the U.S. comes from India, Kenya, and China, and leaves from many different tea plantations are often blended together before they hit grocery store shelves.
Table Rock Tea Company is bringing tea closer to home by growing and processing it in Pickens, South Carolina. Growing tea at the base of Table Rock Mountain, just miles from where it will be consumed, reduces its carbon footprint, and founder Steve Lorch says it also improves the flavor.
“Tea is very much about microclimate,” Lorch says. “It derives its flavor from its climate so it’s just like wine. The tea that we grow here in the mountains is very different than they grow in Charleston.”
There are other places in the American South that grow tea, like farms in Charleston, South Carolina. “If we pick two leaves and a bud from our farm, and two leaves and a bud from their farm, and processed them exactly the same, you could tell a distinct difference between ours and theirs. It’s just the way that the tea grows, so we think mountain grown, shade grown, hand-picked tea is inherently better,” he says. “That’s traditionally what the best quality tea is, and so this is this region is perfect for it.”
Lorch notes that U.S.-grown tea comes at a steeper price than tea grown in other parts of the world. But even with the higher prices, Lorch says there isn’t enough local tea to supply all of the retail stores that want to stock it.
“The demand for U.S. grown tea is way outpacing the supply because there just aren’t many of us. But we probably turned down one retailer every two weeks that wants to carry our stuff right now and we just do direct sale because we always sell out of our home-grown tea,” he says.
Steve Lorch has a background in business to help guide these decisions. He describes himself and his wife and business partner Jennifer Lorch as “serial entrepreneurs.” They had a national soap company, and founded Hydromissions International, an organization that leads clean water projects around the world. That’s how they first learned about tea farming.
“We were doing a water well project in Kenya, which is responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s tea exports. We were doing a water well in the tea fields and that got us introduced to tea. So when we came home, we were living in a little subdivision. I said it would be neat to get a tea plant. I bought one online and stuck it in the ground and didn’t think much of it until we got our farm. We wanted to plant a big hedgerow and we have a rule on our farm that we don’t plant anything that’s just ornamental, so it has to have a dual purpose. We said, well, what would make a nice hedge? Tea is growing here, why not? By the time we got up to four or five hundred plants, we started thinking about how much tea does it produce in a year? Why don’t we just start a tea company?”
It takes about 10 years to get established as a tea farm because the plants themselves take about six years to mature. Table Rock Tea specializes in green and oolong tea, and is working toward producing black tea, which requires more volume to process.
Lorch says their goals go beyond their own business. They also want to help build a community of tea growers in Upstate South Carolina.
“People within an hour radius of our farm are growing tea. They’re buying plants from us because we are nursery, so we sell them the plants they grow the tea, they harvest the tea, and any leaves that they want to sell back to us, we’ll buy them back. So that works out well for us because they own their land they own their plants. We don’t have to keep buying land and different things like that. But our goal in the next 30 years is to really see the upstate region around Table Rock be known as tea country,” he says. “Somebody had to do it in Napa Valley for wine, and we’re going to do it for tea.”
Find information about Table Rock Tea Company and other farms that are experimenting with unusual crops in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide, www.appalachiangrown.org