When you think of the mountains of Upstate South Carolina, do you think of tea growing country? If not, Steve and Jennifer Lorch of Table Rock Tea Company want to change that.

    Right now, both Steve and Jennifer have day jobs while they live and work on the property in Pumpkintown, intentionally growing the business slowly and steadily, with just an acre of tea plants right now. But they have plans to build up to 5 acres in the next few years, and in 10 years or so, there are plans to purchase the neighboring property, which will give them more land to plant and another building to house a café and bakery.

    Right now, though, the focus is on germinating the seeds from the plants they have so that all of the future plants will come from their own property, without having to import seeds—and on growing, making, and selling tea.

    Mature seeds of the tea plant

    Making the most of other income-generating opportunities, Table Rock also sells honey from the bees they keep to pollinate the tea plants in their Christmas gift boxes, and there is a camp site on the property that is rented out nearly every weekend of the year.

    Additionally, the Lorches have created a tea consortium so that others can help them grow and process more tea than they can do on their own. Because that one acre is all the two of them with their day jobs want to manage, the consortium allows anyone within an hour radius to buy plants from the Table Rock greenhouse. “They own the land, they own the plants, and we buy the leaves back from them,” Jennifer says. The hour radius allows for the freshest leaves to be used to make the tea.

    The seeds are harvested in November, right when the plants go dormant for the winter, and they are mass-germinated in bins in the greenhouse: an inch of soil, 1,000 seeds on top of that, and then another inch of soil. The bins are covered and placed in a smaller greenhouse inside of the greenhouse, where they stay warm through the winter before the little plants pop out in the spring.

    Around 20,000 plants will survive to be planted in the ground, of which 5,000 will be sold to tea consortium members.

    The spring volunteer days bring students and visitors to the property to help plant the seedlings in pots to keep growing for another year in the greenhouse before they can be sold to the consortium or planted on the property. Future Farmers of America students come for a couple of hours and can plant 1400 plants in that time. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Jennifer says.

    Harvesting the tea is a labor-intensive job, as it’s done by hand to get only the bud, or “flush” of new leaves for the best flavor. After harvest, the leaves go on a withering bed for 10-20 hours—just so the leaves get limp, but not dry. What happens next depends on whether they are going to be made into green tea, Oolong tea, or black tea—but all of those tea types, as well as white and yellow tea, start with the same leaves.

    Steve and Jennifer do all of the harvesting and processing on their own for now, but they are dreaming big for the future. “Here’s our big dream: We want the Upstate to be known as tea country, just like Napa Valley is known as wine country,” Jennifer says.

    If you’re interested in visiting yourself, click here to find out how!

    Some tea facts:

    • ¼ pound of dried tea comes each plant each year, which is 50 cups of tea. At 4000-5000 plants per acre, that’s 50,000

      Mature tea plants

      cups of tea from one acre

    • Only tea that comes from tea plants is a true tea. Although we refer to herbal teas, they are technically “tisanes,” but we have come to call any beverage that is steeped “tea.”
    • There are two ways to decaffeinate tea: one is a chemical process (which is what large companies like Lipton and Tetley do), and the other is to steep for 20 seconds and then pour off the water, which loses about 80% of caffeine. Chemically decaffeinated tea still has about 3% caffeine.
    • A pound of dried tea has twice as much caffeine than a pound of dried coffee, but a cup of coffee has more—because it takes 20 grams of coffee to make a cup, but 2 only grams of tea.
    • Tea leaves are serrated and waxy and naturally caffeinated, so the plants have no natural predators—deer, rabbits, raccoons all leave it alone.

    by Sharon Purvis

    A sampling of the products for sale at Table Rock Tea Company

     

    View of Table Rock from the camp site.