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Tea farm begins process of developing taste samples
BROOKHAVEN, Miss. -- Mississippi tea drinkers are one step closer to experiencing a locally grown product.
The Great Mississippi Tea Company began harvesting a small quantity of leaves from its 2-year old plants in mid-September and will soon share samples with prospective vendors.
“We are experimenting with handcrafted tea blends to discover the flavors of tea we will soon process and sell,” said Jason McDonald, owner of the tea company. “The teas we come up with from this year’s minimal harvest will be distributed as samples to stores, cafes and other retail outlets in the United States and in the United Kingdom that might be interested in selling our products.”
McDonald held a workshop for personnel with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station on Oct. 2. Agents, researchers and other staff members learned about field management, tea processing, and field and nursery husbandry.
“Agents get questions about the tea farm all the time, and many of them don’t know a lot about the process. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to introduce them to field management and processing,” said Rebecca Bates, MSU Extension coordinator in Lincoln County, who helped coordinate the workshop.
Tea experts Beverly Wainwright, David Bromwich and Nigel Melican are cooperating to help the tea company produce a set of artisanal, handcrafted tea blends unique to the company. Experimenting with green, white, black and oolong teas. They have developed 24 tea blends since mid-September.
Wainwright is a renowned tea blender and consultant from Scotland who recently spent four years as the tea and business development manager at the Sri Lankan tea plantation Amba Estate. She now works with Scottish tea growers to develop new blends.
Bromwich owns Bromwich Tea, a processing and marketing firm based in New York. Melican, who has worked with McDonald since the Mississippi tea company’s inception, represents Teacraft Ltd., a tea consulting firm based in the United Kingdom.
All tea is made from the camellia plant, but the different varieties are created through processing the leaves, Wainwright said. White teas are the least processed, while green, black and oolong teas all vary in levels of fermentation. These teas are processed by multiple combinations of drying, rolling, heating and rerolling, which achieve different flavors.
“There are as many teas as there are stars in the sky,” Wainwright said. “It’s a matter of going through the process to work out the flavor profile of the leaf. A big part of that process is keeping product records and incrementally changing parts along the way to get the flavor we want.”
Teas can have a wide range of flavor profiles, including smoky, buttery and sweet, Wainwright said.
“Good tea can be compared to wine when it comes to flavor,” she said. “Just like wine, the climate and growing conditions affect the end flavor of tea, but through processing we can bring out the best flavors of the leaves.”
Six of the 24 blends the team has developed will be entered into the Tea of the United States competition. Results will be announced Nov. 7. All tea farms, researchers and beginning growers who grow tea in the United States can enter the competition.
McDonald said his tea plants need another two years to mature to full harvest potential. A limited release of tea grown at The Great Mississippi Tea Company will be available next year.
“We hope to be in full production in 2017 with harvest, processing and sales in full swing,” he said.