There can be no denying that tea, as a drink, is gaining popularity in the United States. boutique tea stores are popping up in almost every city across the country. Even Starbucks is trying to break into the tea market. So, with teas rising popularity, why is the US not competitive in the production of tea?
The United States ranks second on the list of countries importing tea worldwide. In 2017, the US imported 7.9 percent (or $483.2 million) of the worlds produced tea. We exist second only to Russia, who imported 9 percent (or $548.3 million) of the world’s tea crop.
Of the imported tea into the United States the top five suppliers were:
To that end, the number one supplier of tea to the world is China, boasting an incredible 22.8 percent of total tea exports to the world. China is closely followed by Sri Lanka – which exports 19.2 percent of the world’s tea crop. Trailing in a significant, but no less disturbing way are Kenya (10.4 percent), India (10.1 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (4.4 percent). The United States comes in a dismal 9th on the list, exporting an anemic 2 percent of the world’s crop.
The tea that is being imported is, actually, of a single variety: Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as “tea plant,” “tea shrub,” and “tea tree.” The latter should not be confused with Melaleuca alternifolia, the source of the essential oil tea tree. From this plant white, yellow, green, oolong, pu-erh, and black teas are made through a varied process of oxidization and roasting.
The Camellia sinensis plant can, in fact, be grown in the United States and has been grown at various times. In colonial times, this plant was cultivated outside Savannah, Georgia on Skidway Island, and in the 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s, it was successfully cultivated in South Carolina.
But while Camellia sinensis can be grown in the United States, there isn’t much of a market interest when it comes to production. This is self-evident in the import/export numbers. American tea companies would rather import from China, Argentina, and India, where labor costs are low, and work conditions suspect than to cultivate the crop here on American soil.
So, what if there was an indigenous plant in the United States that could be used to create great tasting tea? What if there was a plant that grew wild, was abundant, and could produce the same variety of teas made from Camellia sinensis but didn’t need to be imported?
Interestingly there is such a plant. It’s called the yaupon holly, and it used to be quite popular as a tea source in the Southeast in the late 1800s, to the point that some industrious individuals sought to export it to the tea-loving nations of Britain and France, and even as far as Southeast Asia. Native American tribes as far north as Cahokia, Illinois, as far West as Texas and as far south as our landmass permits, have been discovered to have partaken in the brew since before the arrival of the Pilgrims.
In fact, yaupon tea – known to the Seminoles as the “black drink” – has quite some health benefits. Food chemistry professor Steve Talcott from Texas A&M University, states that yaupon tea is high in antioxidants known as polyphenols. Talcott also points out that the yaupon holly is the only native North American plant that contains caffeine and at levels comparable to green and black tea made from Camellia sinensis.
Additionally, several studies have concluded that the quercetin and kaempferol 3-O-rutinosides contained in yaupon holly affect the inflammatory processes associated with some types of cancer, including colon cancer, and some forms of liver disease. Yaupon holly’s high levels of antioxidants also help to stave off osteoporosis and oxidative damage to our bodies, even as it acts as a manager to free radicals in our systems.
But while the yaupon holly is plentiful in the American Southeast, relatively few are seeking to cultivate it for tea. Instead, it is used ornamentally in landscaping and even destroyed as a weed plant in southern counties and states.
The existence of yaupon holly as an indigenous tea source – and that at one point in our nation’s history it was popular enough to warrant exportation begs the question. If we have a native plant that makes a tea that not only rivals the imported Camellia sinensis in taste but challenges it in health benefits for all who consume it, why isn’t the United States more competitive in the domestic and global tea markets through the utilization of the yaupon holly?
To that end, why are American tea drinkers – dare I say an astute and knowledgeable demographic – not flocking to the purveyors of yaupon tea to experience this wholly American product?
The answers could be many, but the domination of the tea market in the United States by China, India, and Sri Lanka – in addition to human beings being creatures of habit – appears to rank among the top reasons.