Tea was first introduced as a commercial crop in the US in the mid-18th century. Tea plants were first brought into the US through Savannah, Georgia in 1744. Within the next few decades tea began to be cultivated and eventually turned into a commercial endeavor by the mid-19th century. All of the activity of tea growth was limited to the South, and by the end of the 19th century, Hawaii. In 1887 tea was introduced to Hawaii as a potential commercial crop. By the end of this century the commercial tea production in Hawaii proved to be unfeasible due to the high costs of production compared to other more profitable crops.
In an attempt to diversify their supply and protect themselves against the instability of the developing world, Lipton looked to the US for commercial tea production in the 1960’s; both in South Carolina and Hawaii. Hawaii was immediately eliminated as a prospect, but the experimental plot in South Carolina was further developed. Costs were still high and the product was moved to South America where labor and resource costs were lower. The experimental plot in South Carolina is still in production after being sold to two independent tea growers who have since sold to Bigelow America.
Tea continued to grow in Hawaii, just not on a commercial scale. The USDA and the University of Hawaii continued to explore the feasibility of Camellia sinensis as a diversified crop. By 2010 several dozens of acres of tea plants that had been selected for the tropical island state had been propagated out. Tea gardens are run as independent operations and most growers process their teas by hand in small batches. These teas have become well known throughout the tea world and have even gone on to win international awards, although they are not easily found in the market. The high cost of resources in Hawaii and great care that is put into the cultivation and processing of the tea puts it as price similar to award-winning, famous teas of China.
Within the past few decades tea gardens have popped up in other states. The source of plant material at each of these gardens is different with many of them using cultivars that were selected from plant material that was originally brought into the US during the 19th century. Other growers claim their gardens started from seeds that were planted by migrant workers that came to the US seeking opportunity from China. Each garden is bringing their own character to US grown tea and will have something very special to offer to the tea world. Some new projects have big ambitions to serve the commodity tea market with CTC productions, but most growers have opted to stay small and focus on artisanal tea production so they can receive a higher price for their tea. States with active tea gardens now are South Carolina, Hawaii, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, New York, Michigan, California, Oregon, Washington, and Virginia as well as others.