Building an American Tea Terroir

Feature

RichardSakuma

Roy Fong is more accustomed to being the coach than the player. When he travels to China, his birthplace, to buy tea each spring, he calls the shots and expects slam-dunks—neatly rolled, sweetly intoxicating jasmine pearls and traditionally produced oolongs roasted to uncommon perfection. After all, he did help pioneer the market for specialty Chinese tea in the United States. His first teahouse, Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was a phenomenon, and today tea aficionados make pilgrimages to his Bay Area teashops in hopes of an authentic taste of a quickly fading old China, along with a chance to learn from one of America’s greatest living tea masters.

That authentic taste might come in the form of a Pu-erh that Fong had the foresight to buy in China over the past thirty years and age himself in the Bay Area’s consistent, cool, dry climate for an altogether different quality than those traditionally aged in China’s variably hot and humid weather. The lucky ones may sip a cup of Fong’s cherished spring Longjing tea.

Tea has made Fong and many of his farmers very successful, so he has become comfortable demanding high standards from farms all across China. Fong’s latest venture—starting a California tea farm—is showing him just what tall orders he’s been dishing out.

Fong’s Yolo County tea farm. (Photo courtesy Roy Fong.)
At right, Fong’s Yolo County tea farm. At top, Richard Sakuma works in his Washington tea farm.(Photos courtesy Roy Fong and Sakuma Brothers.)

When you meet Fong, his ambition is not immediately obvious. If not for his silver hair and his apparent wisdom, you might mistake him for an enthusiastic schoolboy rather than a hard-driving businessman. He likes to crack jokes about joy rides on his tractor and pulling tea-making all-nighters. From the outside, you see a guy who goes with the flow, who lives from his heart and who is more concerned with the journey than the destination. Like anyone who has dedicated decades of focus and determination to his art, his work seems effortless; as if by magic, things seem to just sort of work out for him.

So, in 2010, when Fong purchased a picturesque, twenty-three-acre farm in Yolo County, just east of the famed wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, and set about creating a tea garden, one might have expected things would fall into place. During the first few years he tried a lot of approaches, made a lot of guesses, and in the end watched a lot of tea plants die. He learned a whole lot. Specifically, how important soil and water pH are to plant viability and how to install solar panels, hydroponic growing tanks, and 3,000 feet of irrigation pipes. He learned all about composting, soil amendments, and cover crops as well. “I took it too lightly at first,” he says. “I took for granted how hard it is.”

After much trial and error, his approach has taken an aggressive turn and he has removed the guesswork. “Tea plants are from Asia and processing techniques are passed down from generation to generation. There is no ‘reason’ why things are done. I don’t want to guess anymore.” He is now on course to create something very rare: a meticulously tended, high-tech tea grown in one of the world’s youngest tea origins.

Tea production has been attempted in the United States over the last 270 years, with only a few successes. The first commercial tea growing operation in the US began in South Carolina’s Lowcountry in 1888, when Charles Shepard, in conjunction with the US government, founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation with tea seeds from China, Japan, and India. In the early 1800s, the British began farming tea in India to break China’s monopoly over the tea trade. Similarly, the United States was interested in localizing and controlling tea production. Pinehurst enjoyed a reputation for producing fine teas and won first prize at the 1904 World’s Fair, but after Shepard’s death in 1915, it wasn’t able to continue. The tea plants were transplanted to what is now known as the Charleston Tea Plantation, where tea has been grown commercially since 1987.

It’s one thing to coerce Camellia sinensis into surviving in the US; it is another, and harder, thing to create the conditions needed to produce a distinct and excellent tea.

Apart from some success in South Carolina, US tea production has never taken off as an industry—except in Hawaii. The mainland US has never become a true tea origin with high quality teas or a unique style of its own. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, thrives in tropical areas with regular rainfall and well-drained, acidic soils, like the cloud forests of China, its homeland. It’s a tautology, but the United States hasn’t grown tea because it doesn’t have the specific agricultural know-how to grow tea. Tea plants take years, even decades, to cultivate before they sprout high-quality leaves, and that’s when grown by farmers with ancestral knowledge. Plus, growing and processing tea in the States is magnitudes more expensive than in origin countries, because the wages for the skilled, time-consuming, and laborious picking are so much lower in developing countries.

But US tea is in a period of rapid transition. Over the last quarter century, tea gardens have sprouted up across America as farmers develop ways to grow tea in various climates. Very recent history has seen tea-farming spread like brushfire. As more and more people value the where and who of their food, and more and more tea drinkers become aware of the impact of terroir on taste, they seek out teas that bear a story and are unique to their environments.

And as US tea growers have success growing Camellia sinensis, the proof of possibility encourages more people to try.

Harvest at Minto Island Growers in Oregon. (Photo: Shaw Linehan.)
Harvest at Minto Island Growers in Oregon. (Photo: Shaw Linehan.)

In 1989, John Vendeland, an agriculture and business development specialist, and Steve Smith, founder of Stash, Tazo, and most recently Steven Smith Teamaker, worked with Rob Miller at his farm, Minto Island Growers, in Salem, Oregon, to develop a tea cultivar that was suitable to the cold, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest. Starting with plants from Charleston and selecting the healthiest, they intended to breed a type of tea that could flourish in Washington and Oregon.

In 1997, Vendeland continued his effort to create a Pacific Northwest tea terroir by encouraging Sakuma Brothers, well-regarded berry farmers in Washington State, to give tea a try. Vendeland and the Sakumas planted three acres using plants bred by Minto Island Growers for cold, wet conditions. Over the past fifteen years, Sakuma Brothers have been perfecting their processing techniques and increasing the quality of their teas. On a visit to Taiwan, Richard Sakuma acquired custom Taiwanese machinery that raised the quality of the teas tremendously. Today, they are growing and producing green, white, and oolong teas with all of the fruity, buttery, and vegetal notes expected from these tea types, but with a lighter, more subtle flavor than those grown in China, Japan, or Taiwan. When you taste a cup of Sakuma Brothers’ tea, there is a fresh quality, and the knowledge that it was grown locally makes it even more enjoyable.

When you taste a cup of Sakuma Brothers’ tea, there is a fresh quality, and the knowledge that it was grown locally makes it even more enjoyable.

Meanwhile in Michigan, well above Camellia sinensis’s preferred hardiness zone, biodynamic farmer Angela Macke is successfully growing tea. She bought her first tea plant from Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina just ten years ago. Today, she has about 3,000 square feet of tea in hoop houses where she grows plants that she sprouts from her own tea seed and makes into white and green tea.

Being a biodynamic farmer, she has a few tricks up her sleeve that have helped her along the way. She says the key to getting the seeds to sprout is to soak them for forty-eight hours in a biodynamic preparation, which less scientifically or romantically is “basically cow dung in water,” she says. She cites frequent watering and ensuring an established root-stock before planting in the ground as important factors in her success. At her farm, Light of Day Organics, she also grows a number of botanicals that she blends with her teas.

These are only a handful of stories. It seems that more are added daily. Alabama’s Fairhope Tea Plantation and Mississippi’s FiLoLi Farms plan to start a garden this fall and tea plants are waiting in greenhouses to be planted from New Mexico to New York. Last fall, at World Tea East in Atlanta, The US League of Tea Growers held its first meeting.

With all this rapid development, it should be remembered: It is one thing to coerce Camellia sinensis into surviving in the US; it is another, and harder, thing to create the conditions needed to produce a distinct and excellent tea that would put the US among the worlds great tea origins.

Tea plants at Roy Fong’s nursery. (Photo courtesy Roy Fong.)
Tea plants at Roy Fong’s nursery. (Photo courtesy Roy Fong.)

In his greenhouse in Yolo County, Roy Fong has worked with specialists, including the renowned agricultural scientists of the University of California, Davis, and is now growing tea with cutting-edge technology and techniques that farmers in China don’t even use. He says, “A lot of work is being done in China to maintain high quality and to streamline production. Why not take it to the next level?” With this technology, he can dictate the humidity level, ambient temperature, water quality, and the amount of light the plants receive. He doesn’t just water his plants, he sprays their roots and mists their leaves with the purest, reverse osmosis, temperature-controlled water. In Fong’s greenhouse, each of his 2,000 tea plants gets individual attention, including a hand bath once a week, and conditions are altered based on each plant’s performance. With this kind of micro-management, Fong claims he can produce top quality teas in three, not the accepted average of thirty, years. He says that his approach is unprecedented and that by creating a carefully controllable climate and environment, he can grow a brand new kind of tea only available in five or ten kilogram lots, with every leaf being perfect.

In Fong’s greenhouse, each of his 2,000 tea plants gets individual attention, including a hand bath once a week.

Fong does not plant seeds, which hold way too much genetic variability for his careful control. Instead, he splices cell tissue from his best performing plants and creates clones. He says that by doing so he can eliminate the risk of cross-pollination and unwanted genetic traits and retain the best qualities of the best plants. His approach may have changed from his early days of trial and error, but his vision remains the same.

Tea farming is certainly growing in the US but it has a long way to go, especially in quality. Given the cost of labor and infrastructure and the time required to develop suitable cultivars and learn processing techniques—all of which will add up to a more expensive product—it is the high-end, specialty tea market that will support a uniquely American tea. Fong’s focus, experience, and dedication to education might just be what the future success of a US tea industry hinges on. It seems appropriate that Fong, a master from the world’s most ancient of tea cultures, a man who is seasoned at pulling off tea stunts, would push to leave such a legacy. His commitment to learning about tea may end with a whole new terroir.

—Sarah Scarborough is a tea writer; she blogs at fairtradeteas.com, and owns Firepot Chai in Nashville.