Tea Growing Away from the Mountains? It Can Be Done!

There is a school of thought among tea connoisseurs that tea is best grown on mountains. It’s a thought based on the fact that tea in many tea growing locations is grown on – you guessed it – mountains! I don’t doubt that tea grown on mountains is good. I’m just not sure it is best. So much is being done these days with cultivars of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis species) and agricultural methods that teas are being grown elsewhere, and some of it can claim to be among better quality ones out there.

Photo by Alexander Synaptic. Taken on July 5, 2014. Lugu Township, Nantou County, Taiwan.

Photo by Alexander Synaptic. Taken on July 5, 2014. Lugu Township, Nantou County, Taiwan.

Elevation Versus Slope

The real basis for the geographical debate seems to be elevation versus slope. Elevation seems more important than slope, although that slope can make a difference. Sloped land involves water runoff, meaning that the roots have to go deeper to get moisture. Level land has the water sitting and soaking in, so the roots are more shallow. Mountains also tend to get covered with mist (actually clouds that hang low over them – we call it “fog”) so the plants get moisture through the leaves (see more info in our article here). But the elevation determines things like day versus evening temperatures, which will vary more in higher elevations, and soil conditions (lower elevations are often alluvial soils that have eroded off of hills and mountains). All of this affects flavors. But to say one is better than another is an expression of personal preference, it seems, over hard fact.

Some Non-Mountainous Tea Growing Areas

A lot of the tea being consumed actually comes from low-elevation tea gardens. Some are quite good and others just passable. A lot of this tea serves as a base for tea blends where the good stuff is used to raise the flavor profile to tolerable. Here are some gardens/areas (we have tried some teas from these but not all):

  • Doke Tea Garden in Bihar, India – founded in 1998 and situated on fairly level land. The average elevation of Bihar is 173 feet (53 meters), a far cry from the great tea mountains of China and the Darjeeling gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s a very lush tea garden in an area called Pothia, Kishanganj of India. The land was considered useless until 1998 when Rajiv Lochan, founder of Lochan Tea Ltd., planted new tea bushes there. Local workers and farmers helped him turn that “useless” land into a highly productive tea garden. He shares the profits with workers and also established the Indus Foundation to help educate local residents. The tea quality is variable, with the Doke Black Fusion being best, IMHO.
Doke - Lochan Tea garden

Doke – Lochan Tea garden

  • Assam gardens are fairly level and at lower elevations (about 80 meters). The tea plant is grown in the lowlands of Assam, unlike teas from the Darjeeling and Nilgiri gardens, which are grown in the highlands. The area is in the valley of the Brahmaputra River and has clay soil rich in the nutrients of the floodplain. These teas don’t have the subtleties of some mountain grown ones, but that is more due to the tea plant varietal (Camellia sinensis assamica) and the style of processing which until recent years was mostly CTC style and ground to dust for teabags. Some “high elevation” teas are now being grown in hills on either side of the Brahmaputra Valley at elevations of 1000 to 1200 meters. The flavor is said to be less bitter and more layered.
  • Brazil tea growing, which started in 1812, is progressing. Formerly, Brazilian teas were mainly the Chinese varietal, but now are more Japanese and have a lighter flavor, being grown at lower altitudes on low rolling hills in the Brazilian Highlands. They are mostly machine harvested and used in blends. Most of the tea is exported, about 70% of it to the U.S.
  • Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina – owned by Bigelow Company. Tea was first attempted to be grown in the U.S. around the 1700s but was not commercially viable until 1888. Then there was a gap between 1915 and 2003 where tea was an iffy business. Now, though, it is proving more successful to a fairly limited extent. The tea plantation is at about 120 feet elevation on about 127 acres located about 20 miles south of Charleston, SC. The tea plants (Camellia sinensis) grown there are direct descendents of Dr. Shepard’s 1888 crop, so the Charleston Tea Plantation is a living part of American history. The leaves are all machine harvested and processed as either black or green teas, and some are flavored. They are sold as American Classic teas. The quality is rather questionable.
  • FiLoLi Farms tea garden in Brookhaven, Mississippi – in Lincoln County at 487 feet elevation, just getting started, dealing with issues such as weed control and the weather. A guy bravely soldiering on. We wish him the best.

Overall, I’d have to say that teas grown on more level land tends to be at lower elevation, and it seems the elevation is more the issue than whether the land is level or sloping. Please feel free to post your thoughts here. We’d love to hear from you.

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
This entry was posted in Tea Info for Newbies and Up and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tea Growing Away from the Mountains? It Can Be Done!

  1. Also of note, FiLoLi Tea Farm has changed its name to The Great Mississippi Tea Company.

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  2. Some thoughts on altitude and how it can affect quality:
    – Altitude affects climate and temperature, which – I guess – can limit what varietals could be plausibly grown in a certain place, which in turn will limit what flavor profiles will be available, etc.
    – Altitude affects temperature, which will affect the growth rate of the tea. There seems to be widespread opinion that slow-growing – and thus presumably high-growing – teas taste better.
    – Low-growing teas will oxidize or ferment more rapidly e.g. if producing black tea, and this presumably affects the taste.

    On a different note, I suspect the most important factor for generating a good tea are the methods used and ensuring that they are the best possible: adequate irrigation techniques, good soil control, good pest control, harvest times, the quality of the plucking and so on and including all the later production steps etc. I mean, it’s not enough for a tea to come from a specific region or altitude to be good, it must also be produced well, with the right dedication and care.

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