I went on a tea trip! This is something I had been wanting to do ever since learning that there were tea farms in the Southeast and the timing worked out where I was able to go. Let me tell you all about it.
I went to the Fairhope Tea Plantation in Fairhope, Alabama and to The Great Mississippi Tea Company in Brookhaven, Mississippi. First stop: Fairhope
I was first greeted by a peacock, yes a peacock just roaming around free in Southern Alabama. The owner of the plantation is a nice man named Donnie who was happy to show me around the farm and tell me all about how he operates.
He first showed me his shade grown bushes, which he said he doesn’t always pick because the flavor they produce is too “leafy” and he prefers the flavor from the full sun plants. This was actually my first time ever seeing a tea plant up close, it was neat for sure. He keeps several rows of the plants at waist high for easy picking.
He said he has started cutting some bushes really low (18-24 in.) because they will actually produce more that way. The leaves that are picked for making tea have to be the new growth leaves (the bud and first two or so for green tea and the bud and four leaves for black tea) You don’t want to pick the older, larger leaves because they don’t taste good at all.
One thing that he does differently, is that he sun dries the tea, instead of using air to wither it indoors, which is more common. This affects the flavor of the tea, but I can’t say for certain just how it does. He calls this space where he dries tea the Tea Machine. He has a big sense of humor 🙂
After showing me around, we sat on his front porch and talked for a while and he sold me some of his tea. I purchased a black and an oolong. He has a pretty interesting story about he started growing tea. I would say it’s one of those “only in America” type of stories. You can learn and read more about the Fairhope Tea Plantation here.
I did a quick hotel room brew of the black and oolong and will do a proper brew and review soon.
After visiting Fairhope, it was time to drive on to Brookhaven.
I sent an email to the Mississippi Tea Company asking what I would be able to see if I were to stop by, and they told me that they do an all day tour which includes picking and processing your own tea which you can then take home with you. Sign me up! I was very excited about this and it didn’t disappoint. You can learn more about the farm here.
I was greeted by Timmy, one of the owners of the farm, who also leads all the tours. The first thing we did was go over to the Tea Shack where they do all of the processing.
Our first stop was to see if the black tea was ready to be processed. The black tea is picked in the afternoon and evening and is allowed to wither, or dry out, over night. It needed to lose a percentage of its moisture before it can be further processed. We checked it and determined that it was not ready yet, so we went ahead and.. picked some tea!
We picked the green tea in the morning. For green tea we picked the bud and the first two leaves. This is the first time I have picked tea, and it was pretty exciting. We picked for an hour and I picked a basketful of tea. All of the tea is plucked by hand by one or two people 5 days a week.
After picking the green, we went back to check on the black. And it still wasn’t ready yet, so while we waited, he made us some of their black tea to drink. It was very good with notes of honeysuckle and honey. I’ll do a review of the teas soon, but this is all about the farm visit.
The tea is withered (black) and conditioned (green) in a small room which is kept at a constant temperature and fans are kept blowing on the tea to help it dry out. The black tea is withered but the green tea is called conditioning. The black tea is withered all the way that it needs to be withered at once, but the green tea is withered part way, then fixed, then withered some more before it is dried.
Once the black tea was fully withered, it was time for rolling.
The rolling was pretty fun to watch. the tea is placed into the rolling machine and it rolls around in circles. We occasionally stopped to break up the clumps and continued rolling for about 10 minutes in total. The purpose of rolling the tea is to break the cell wall and begin the oxidation process, which is what makes black tea black.
After the rolling, it was time to let the tea oxidize, or become black. This was actually done in a bread proofer of all things. The tea needs to be above 85% humidity and around 100 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours to become fully oxidized. We had lunch while we waited on the oxidation. The green tea was also withering during this time.
After lunch, it was time to steam the green tea! There are two main ways to “fix” green tea, which is to heat it in a way that stops it from oxidizing or turning black, and keeps it green. The two ways are cooking it in a wok and steaming. Here, the tea is steamed which is in the Japanese style of tea.
The steaming part was quite fun as well! They actually use a burrito steamer for this process. The tea is broken up into small batches that will fit in the steamer. Each batch it steamed for a set amount of time and I had to push the steam button at a set interval. After steaming, the tea was given a quick ice bath, because the stems would continue cooking even after removing from the steamer. After the ice bath, they are put in a salad spinner to get rid of excess water. Then they are spread out back onto the withering rack to continue withering.
After steaming green, the black tea was finished oxidizing. After oxidation, the black tea is dried and then it is finished. The drying took two hours.
While the black tea was drying, we were waiting on the green to finish withering. Timmy let me sample the green and the oolong that they make as well as 5 of his private teas. And holy moley, that Delta Oolong is the real deal, yall! You could have told me it was from Taiwan and I would have believed you. We weren’t making any oolong today, and he didn’t have very much of it, but he was gracious enough to brew some for me. That tea was floral, sweet, buttery, so delicious. I unfortunately wasn’t able to get my hands on any more of it, but if you can, do it!
And when the black was finished drying, we had finished tea!
He also showed me around the farm and showed me all the young plants and the nursery. They use herbicide on the plants for the first three years, but never use pesticides. Tea won’t be picked for the first four years or so, so they don’t make tea with plants that have seen herbicide.
While the green was withering, we went back out and picked some black tea for the next day’s tour group to process. I didn’t take the camera this time, but I had a few shots of the farm in general.
When the green was finished withering, it was time to roll the green tea. But instead of using the rolling machine, we rolled it by hand. Oh man this was not easy to do and made my forearms a little sore! We first rolled it in the basket trying to make it onto a ball or clump. Then we used a cloth and rolled it tighter and tighter pushing both down and away. My forearms hurt just typing this. We were finished rolling when the tea made the shape of a dragon’s egg and the leaves were tightly rolled together.
When we made the dragon’s egg shape, it was time to dry the green tea. We spread it out onto the dryer sieves and popped it in the dryer.
And when it came out, we had finished green tea!
Timmy then packaged up 1 ounce of each tea for me to take home. He said it will take about two weeks before it will be fully finished and ready to drink. So I will be waiting patiently to drink these two teas and give them a proper brew and review.
The entire tour lasted from 8:30 am to about 6:00 pm. It was totally worth and an awesome experience for any tea lover. I highly recommend it. the Tour is $100 per person, but well worth it for a tea lover, especially an American who would have to pay a whole lot more to visit a tea farm in another country.
So that’s my trip. It took two days and lot of driving but it was super fun and I really enjoyed it. I hope you liked reading about it and hope you get a chance to go yourself.
Thanks for reading!