Sunday, May 16, 2021

Meetup with Jason and Timmy of the Great Mississippi Tea Company


photo credit Suzana

That running meetup theme took a cool turn hearing about US tea production, in relation to meeting Jason and Timmy, owners of the Great Mississippi Tea Company.  As in other write-ups about meetups here this isn't intended as a complete or indicative summary of all we talked about, just some interesting parts.  Their general background is cover more in this prior interview post.

US tea production isn't a theme I'm well informed about.  I've never actually tried a US produced tea.  That's especially odd since I lived in Hawaii in the States last, where some tea is produced, but I wasn't into tea then, drinking tisanes instead.  I've tried some tisanes from Hawaii since leaving, sent by an "uncle" from there (reviewed here and here), a local family that more or less accepted my wife as extended family while looking out for her during our grad school stay there.

traditional Hawaiian tisane blends emphasized health benefit, covered in the one post

One main starting point for US tea production (beyond the background about preferences, awareness, types produced, and so on) is where the Charleston Tea Garden stands (also on FB).  They do sell loose tea, but it's not the range familiar to specialty tea enthusiasts, more about blends, with two basic, plain versions along the lines of English Breakfast Blend.  It is what it is; there are US based specialty tea enthusiasts, but not many by total count.  It's great that tourism can bring visitors to that garden (formerly a plantation, I thought), that US production can take one developed form like that.

The Great Mississippi Tea Company seems to be the second largest US tea producer, which to me is quite an interesting accomplishment.  To some extent they have to work around US tea preferences that lean more towards blends and teas that would seem "basic," or even low quality, to specialty tea enthusiasts.  It's great that Jason and Timmy split the difference though, producing interesting and higher quality blends and also plain and higher quality teas.  I'll cite more about that range at the end.

As typically happens conversation was a bit diverse, focused on different preference issues, stories, and tea culture tangents.  I suppose in relation to tea production in places like China or Taiwan, or even Vietnam, there just isn't much diversity in what is coming out of the US for tea.  In the sense of there being a lot of very small producers doing their own thing that's wrong, but in relation to the range and quality level of Chinese tea the US hasn't even started yet.  Or even compared to India, Thailand, and Indonesia, really.

without Timmy and Suzana but Kalani joined just then

The biased view I have towards tea awareness and preference in the US stands in direct contrast to that.  Facebook groups like Gong Fu Cha and the Puerh Tea Club collect together the limited number of people really into better tea, and make it seem like there are lots of people here and there exploring really good tea.  Those groups have thousands of members, as the International Tea Talk group I moderate does, so it's not as if there are only a few hundred such enthusiasts in the US.  But I suppose to some extent better Chinese tea is "sucking all the oxygen out of the room" related to preference focus.

Related to what teas they make a website or Facebook page content could cover, which I'll cover more in a following section.  They sounded nice, the blends and single type orthodox teas.  Jason also talked about ways they might expand on the business in the future as they are able to scale up production volume, maybe getting into making soap or such.  The production volume he mentioned already seemed scaled up, expressed in tons instead of the grams or kilograms I'm accustomed to.

We talked a good bit about the direction of tea preference in the US, if that really did seem to be expanding, or what would cause it to.  He didn't seem to be interested in changing the tide, maybe just putting enough information out and networking to distribute what they produce.  I think for being very active in online groups or platforms I experience a rosier picture of awareness transition, for seeing examples of it in personal accounts essentially every day.  But it's little by little, person by person.  I've done what I can to support that, adding thousands of suggestions and links in thousands of post discussions. 

The regular articles saying that tea is going to be the next big thing in the US never really describe a different situation from one year to the next. It's always something about to happen, or just beginning to.  For those individuals just getting into tea that's accurate; as a broad food preference trend maybe not.

Another interesting point was about how minor smaller waves of awareness can be caused by individuals.  It's a recurring theme most typically related to a local vendor putting a lot of effort into holding classes, doing tastings, creating content, and whatever other promotion goes along with all that.  Steven Smith was an example he mentioned, a familiar name from earlier pioneering in broad tea awareness recognition and development in the Portland area.  In glancing through his bio he founded Tazo in 1994; that was right around that time period that I first tried anything other than Lipton in the form of those blends.  I remember liking "Zen."  It didn't lead to exposure to better plain loose tea; that would wait a lot longer, after another very long cycle through drinking tisanes.  Anyway, Jason mentioned a few such influential tea teachers and the areas where uptake was stronger due to that input, areas where his tea is now sold.

I essentially never talk to people who have the same degree of impact as Steven Smith but we have been talking to "tea influencers" frequently this year, to people like Jason.  It seems like at some point that influence should pick up steam.  It probably has been; some teas that would've seemed quite rare a half dozen years ago are gaining limited traction today.  Huyen has mentioned that an increase in Vietnamese tea demand caused their wholesale level prices to spike, with teas that sold for way under $100 per kilo--closer to zero than that--now extending to whatever vendors can get, to lots more than that.

Broad US specialty tea demand is just something else, a more distant potential threshold.  But again, hearing a slight buzz in "online tea circles" may not amount to a shift in demand that really impacts farmers that much.  Interest in Nepal tea drew some attention some years back but I'm not sure that my friend Narendra, a small producer there, benefitted much from that.  It seems like as demand grows so does supply, and temporary imbalance that limits producers' commercial success is just as common as the opposite.

Great Mississippi Tea Company teas

I'm not going to run through their entire line, but I'll say a little about a couple of versions, which was part of what we discussed.  Later on I'll try some and say more in review form.  Let's start with flavored teas:

photo credit their Faceook page

The point here seems clear enough, to make flavored tea versions that aren't completely identical to what is already on specialty grocery store shelves.  Their description of these:  Mississippi Mint, Grilled Southern Peach, Mississippi Mud, and Colonel Grey.  Their Earl Grey variation describes how that works (from a sales page):

This is a Black Magnolia based tea that is flavored with premium bergamot oil then blended with orange peel, lavender flowers, and sage.

So a variation of Twining's "Lady Grey," using lavender versus cornflower, adding orange peel to the bergamot, and sage.  Plain sage is actually my overall favorite tisane.  It's nice to get a slightly better version than the ground stuff typically found in a spice jar but it's still well worth it to try dumping a teaspoon of that spice-jar version in hot water to see what comes of it.  This Earl Grey sounds nice; sage would complement the rest, and the two other inputs sound positive.  Maybe one more description of a smoked tea version before considering a plain one:

Grilled Southern Peach:  This is a pecan wood cold smoked black and oolong tea blend with dried peach pieces. The pecan wood smoke lends a vanilla note to the tea. 

So a Russian caravan blend theme with dried peach for fruit input; nice.  I don't think I need to tell any readers here how hard it can be to find a well-made and well-balanced smoked tea version.  The tea that sounds the best to me is a black tea version, kind of a personal favorite range, even though I'm more on sheng pu'er these days, and oolong might be a second favorite, in general:

Black Magnolia: This particular black tea is lightly oxidized to allow for its more delicate flavors to come to the forefront of the tea... This has flavor notes of sweet potatoes, molasses, malt, and stone fruit. 

their Black Magnolia, photo credit their sales page

It's always a judgement call whether or not to address value as an issue but let's do that.  This black tea sells for $45 for 4 ounces, or around $20 for 50 grams.  Is that a good value, in relation to a good Chinese black tea version?  In a sense no, but in a broader sense that's not really the right question.  You can find quite good Chinese black tea for around $10 for 50 grams, and $15 opens up the range to most of what's out there that's getting on towards as good as it gets.

Of course I'm mixing subjects here.  Saying that $8-9 can buy you upper medium level quality Dian Hong on Yunnan Sourcing isn't the same as comparing an option for what might be the best black tea being produced at any significant scale in the US (or maybe the only decent orthodox / specialty black tea version made in volume, so the best by default, and also the worst).  Let's compare it to the lowest price black tea out of a well-known Austin, Texas shop, the West China Tea Company--to those familiar with him, the one ran by So Han Fan, who creates nice Youtube content):  

Nannuo Sun-Dried Red 曬乾紅茶 (30 grams for $11.99)

...The oxidation gives this tea its refreshingly light astringency and its deep, sweet woody character. This tea was our introduction into the world of Shài Gān Hóng Chá ("Sun Dried Red Teas"). The juicy freshness of this uncooked red makes it a great starter red tea for folks just beginning their red tea journey or who might be unaccustomed to the astringency of small-leaf, cooked red teas.

I'm quite well accustomed to a broad range of black teas but I still like this style of Dian Hong; it's not necessarily mostly a "beginner tea."  But I do tend to recommend Dian Hong and light rolled oolong as two main starting points, so I agree.  The Great Mississippi black tea just mentioned is selling for 43 cents per gram (at the lowest volume), with this at 40 cents per gram, as the West China Tea Company least expensive loose black tea.  Fair enough.  

Comparing final tea experience results, the quality, between higher end, curated, Chinese specialty tea and that from a producer who started within the last decade isn't fair.  They should be granted a full decade of learning curve time prior to going head to head with the best from a 1000+ year old tea tradition.  Where the Mississippi tea actually stands for quality, in general, you need to brew and taste to find out.  That sales page mentions winning an award, which is a good start, but I say over and over here that I trust my own experience over stories, and recommend that others do the same.  

Novelty is something else though; you sometimes pay more to try something different.  I remember visiting Korea once, hectically looking for shops in an older part of Seoul, and in a rush I bought a couple of versions that cost in the range of $1 / gram.  In terms of experienced quality level versus all teas from other origins they weren't that good, but related to novelty they were worth it, to me.

Then you also have to consider how I'm still stuck in the context of someone who knows what Yunnan Sourcing and the West China Tea Company sells, and a crazy range of other vendors.  For $12 buying one ounce (28 grams) of tea you can brew a dozen large cups, the same expense for two Starbucks drinks.  Or maybe more cups than that; it gets complicated about brewing tea twice and people liking different infusion strengths.

It all sounds good to me.  The blends sound unique enough to bring something slightly different to the table, and even with a touch of minor flaw here or there, if it works out that way, the orthodox teas would make for a novel experience.

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