Is tea grown in England? Or anywhere else in the UK? The answer is yes to both of those questions. Read on to find out more.
The top three tea-producing nations in the world are China, India and Kenya. The UK doesn’t make it into the top 40 in terms of quantity, but in the last couple of decades, we’ve seen more and more producers successfully starting to grow tea in this country.
The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has its origins in the Yunnan region of China, where it has been cultivated as a medicinal drink for at least 5,000 years. The British stole seeds and plants from China and introduced commercial production to India in the 19th century to compete with the Chinese and provide the British Empire with a cheaper and more reliable source of tea .
Up until this point, almost all tea was green but the need to export to a European market which could involve months of transportation by sea saw the rise of black tea, an oxidized form of tea which has a much longer shelf-life. As a result of this wholly unnatural intervention by the British, India rose to be the top producer of tea for much of the 20th century but was overtaken again by China at the start of the 21st.
The UK’s first tea plantation
The UK’s first and largest tea plantation was founded in England on the Tregothnan Estate near Truro in Cornwall, in the far south of the country, and produced its first tea crop in 2005.
The Estate, which is even larger than Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall, has belonged to the Boscawen family since 1334 and has long been a leading botanical garden growing unusual plants from all over the world.
It is believed to have been the first place in the UK to grow ornamental tea plants, more than 200 years ago. However, growing tea with a view to producing a beverage on a commercial scale is a relatively new idea.
Tea grown in the UK. Really?
It’s not entirely straightforward, no, but our climate is surprisingly suitable for tea plants, particularly in areas such as Cornwall which rarely suffer a winter frost and are mostly mild and wet. It’s an evergreen shrub that needs cool, damp conditions, preferably all year round, and plenty of light but not direct sunlight all day.
It is quite slow-growing and can make attractive indoor pot plants while young as long as they’re kept in a cool room. As a member of the Camellia family, they like an acidic soil, so an ericaceous compost suitable for heathers or rhododendrons is suitable.
I have recently started growing a tea plant at my home in the West Midlands, which you can read more about here. It’s early days yet and it looks like a very unassuming ordinary shrub, but hopefully in time I will be able to harvest and process a small crop from it.
Tregothnan is blessed with just the right sort of climate as well as soil which supports some of the biggest and most beautiful collections of rhododendrons and azaleas in the UK so it was a natural place to start trying to grow tea on a commercial scale. Their first crop in 2005 was just 28g (1 oz) of tea but by 2014 that had risen to 10 tons.
Tregothnan has set the trend for luxury tea production in the UK. It’s sold in one of London’s top department stores, Liberty’s, but also in the supermarket Waitrose.
Most of its production is exported to the US, China, Korea, and Japan. The last three are slightly surprising as they are all tea-producing countries, but it seems the cultural associations of “English tea” are helping sell the idea of “tea grown in England” across the world.
As well as the commercial side of selling tea, Tregothnan offers garden and plantation tours, as well as selling Manuka and wildflower honeys, jams and sustainable charcoal as well as an educational programme with courses on bee-keeping and floristry as well as tea growing. They also have holiday cottages for rent on the banks of the River Fal and offer their beautiful location for film and TV directors.
Outside of Cornwall: Tea grown in Wales and Scotland
In addition to Tregothnan, there are now a number of small tea producers in the UK.
The Tea Gardens of Scotland is a group of nine farms and businesses located across Scotland who joined together in 2016 to form the Scottish Tea Growers Association who can be found on Twitter at @TeaScotland. The associated Scottish Tea Factory now lists three Scottish-grown teas which are available to purchase. They offer tea courses, tasting experiences and visits by appointment and links to buy some of these very first Scottish Teas.
In addition there is Peterston Tea in Wales, another mild and wet part of the UK which has released its first ever teas in Autumn of 2019.
This is still a very young industry in the UK so expect updates soon!
Is tea grown in the UK any good?
This is not a cheap replacement for PG Tips, this is high-quality tea. With Tregnothnan’s tea you’re buying an essentially local (or at least a lot more local) product which has been picked and processed by hand unlike the estimated three million tons of tea that is grown worldwide each year. This is a different kind of tea for a different occasion rather than just another brand of tea bag.
Tregonthnan tastes more like a high-grade loose leaf tea than your standard teabag tea. It is more refreshing, less malty and has a brighter, fresher, cleaner taste. It is distinctively more delicate in flavour, a distinction which is largely lost if you are one of those people who insists on adding milk to their tea.
So yes, it does taste good. But more importantly, by buying it you’re supporting British horticulture and British jobs. If you’re in the UK you are also drastically reducing your food miles (I dread to think over how miles my tea is flown from Kenya each year. No, I don’t want to think about that) and buying something far more sustainable.
Although tea production is in its early days in the UK, it is definitely catching on. Concerns over the environmental impact of flying in tea from distant parts of the world, fears about food security, and the effects of climate change are all feeding into the growth of this fledgling industry and I very much hope it goes from strength to strength, if you’ll pardon the pun.
If you’re in the UK and you know of another tea grower on our islands, let me know in the comments below and I’ll update this page to reflect it. Thank you!
Featured image: chrispicnprint / pixabay