By Julian Brunt
In 2012 when Jason McDonald and Timothy Gipson started the Great Mississippi Tea Company, the outcome was far from certain, but they were confident they could pull it off. The timber farm they owned was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and they needed to find another way of make a living, but they wanted something that was interesting and challenging, too. They visited the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina while on vacation and learned that the tea plant is in the camellia family. Camellias grow great in Mississippi, so maybe this was the idea they needed.
As with any new project, the learning curve was steep. They had visited the Charleston Tea Plantation again, gathered as much information as they could, and the project seemed straight forward enough. The task at hand was to clear 10 acres of the property they already had, buy tea plants, water, weed and start. That’s not so hard, right?
Starting a tea farm proved to be difficult, really difficult. The mortality rate of their first plants was extremely high, only 7,000 of the 30,000 they eventually ordered survived. It takes years for tea plants to mature to the point where their leaves can be harvested, so making a profit in the first years of business is near impossible.
Obviously, this is not a simple business to get into, and the Great Mississippi Tea Company faced many a dauting task. Jason and Timothy are very bright fellows, have worked profoundly hard and are highly respected in the American tea community. Today, the Great Mississippi Tea Company is considered by many to be the most successful tea operation in the continental USA. Even southern Mississippi’s tea expert, Mimsie Ladner, owner of the tea company “Gachi”, agrees.
“Although it’s relatively new, American-grown tea is a growing industry. In recent years, there has been a number of new growers entering the scene, with varying degrees of success. Many of them are flying by the seat of their pants, with little knowledge of the meticulous skills it takes to make a really good cup of tea.” Mimsie explains. “Jason and Timmy set themselves apart with their dedication refining the art of tea making to produce a quality product that competes with the specialty tea regions that have been growing tea for centuries. And their commitment and passion has not gone unrecognized; in the tea community, they are among the most respected American growers, while their tea is considered some of the best in the country.”
Their first task was to find the tea plants that would do well in Mississippi’s hot and humid climate. The tea plants that do well in the mountains of China would not do well here at all. There are only two main varieties of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. One is Chinese and one is Indian. All tea plants prefer a rich and moist soil, with full to part sun, but with in the two varieties, there are types, or genetic variations, that prefer different conditions. They caught a break when they discovered that at one time the Lipton Tea Company operated experimental tea stations all over the country, and that one had been in Poplarville, Mississippi.
They visited the site and brought home two plants. Eventually they found a source, and were able to order the plants they wanted, but the first two years were a total loss and the next was not much better. There was so much to learn about irrigation, just knowing when to plant, knowing what supplements were needed, even figuring out how far apart the plants needed to be planted. But they learned by trial and error. They even ended up selling their beautiful home and downsizing to save money.
Once they had enough plants in the ground, and they were mature enough to harvest, a new learning curve began. They had to learn how to harvest, and they had to learn how to process the leaves into specific teas.
Harvesting, at least at first, was done by hand. A full day of picking by hand harvests just over two pounds of leaves. But you don’t just go out there and start plucking tea leaves. If you are going to make green tea, you harvest two leaves and a bud. If you want to make oolong, then it is the third, through sixth leaf and for black tea, its three leaves and a bud. It is a complicated business. But remember, the tea they were trying to grow is no what you buy at the grocery store for iced tea. They were looking to get into the fine tea market. If you want to get an idea of how many different types of tea there are in the world, look at the Imperial Tea Court web page. There are hundreds, and each is different. Some teas go for a few dollars an ounce, other cost thousands. The tea world is like the wine world, its not just reds and whites, and just like in wine, a tea expert is called a “sommelier”.
After the leaves are harvested, they must be processed into the style of tea you are trying to make and there is a science to those processes as well. Each type of tea, and there are four main varieties (green, oolong, black and Pu'erh (poo-air)), requires a different technique. The process of making tea from harvested leaves can involve drying, spinning, rolling, oxidizing, steaming, carding and more. It is not a recipe that is just figured out. They took classes, did research, and finally got the recipes right.
The Great Mississippi Tea Company has one of the only USDA certified tea processing plants, and they call it the “Tea Shack”. It is unassuming, from outward appearances, but once inside the image changes. There are three rooms, each specializing in a different process, like drying or rolling. Again, it is a complicated business, and the Tea Shack looks like a scientific lab.
I am by no means a tea expert, but I do love a good cup of tea, thanks to my friend Norwood. James Norwood Pratt is considered by many in the field to be America’s expert on tea. His first book on tea, “A Tea Lovers Treasury,” came out in 1982. Norwood taught me that good tea was a very special thing indeed. A cup will stimulate you, but with out the ragged edge that coffee can cause. I find it perfect for the early afternoon pick-me-up.
My experience with tea is certainly limited, and I relied heavily on Jason and Timothy for tasting notes, but the six teas we tried while on this visit were grand. Each kind of tea requires a different brewing method, different temperature and different brewing time. The first tea we tried was a green tea, called Mississippi Queen. It was a bit grassy, in a lovely way, was not bitter in the slightest and very smooth. Yellow tea was next; it is a fermented tea called Mississippi Sunshine. It was similar to the green tea but lacked the grassy quality. Oolong was next, a buttery and slightly floral tea. Black Magnolia had a delightful sweet potato flavor, not strong, but just enough to be delightful—my favorite.
Next were two flavored teas, an adaptation that is popular in the U.S. We tried a smoked tea, with peach and vanilla flavors, and Earl Gray style tea that was sharp with orange, lavender and sage. The Great Mississippi Tea Company is going places. The first year they were in production, they ended up with 40 pounds of processed tea. Last year it was 500 pounds.
Today, they sell tea in 19 states and in a famous tea shop in London. They have also won many awards, including two silver medals at the Global Tea Championship in 2018 and 2019.
Check out their website, greatmsteacompany.com, to learn where to buy their tea and to see what is going on at the farm. Tours of the farm are also available, contact the farm for further information.
2575 E Lincoln Rd SE, Brookhaven (601) 823-4295