Longleaf Tea Co. is taking the South’s passion for tea a step further
There’s really nothing more Southern than a glass of sweet tea. As Dolly Parton so perfectly put it in Steel Magnolias, it’s “the house wine of the South.” The South may not have invented sweet tea—though legend has it that Southerners did perfect it by adding ice—but it has become the quintessential beverage that practically defines the region. Tea enthusiasts and founders of Longleaf Tea Co. Thomas and Hillary Steinwinder are hoping to take it a step further, making the South synonymous with tea growing as well.
Thomas’s passion for tea started over a decade ago when the couple were living in Shanghai, China. “Below my apartment was a tea shop, where I spent a lot of time practicing my Mandarin,” he explains. “The lady that ran the shop would teach me about teas and where they came from.”
During one conversation, the lady asked Thomas where good tea came from in the United States. “I realized that I had no idea,” Thomas says. “That got me wondering: Why don’t we produce more in the USA?”
That question sparked years of research by Thomas. When they finally moved back to the States, he and Hillary began germinating tea seeds in every city they lived in—first in Nashville and then in Houston. “We failed over and over again,” Hillary reminisces. “We learned a lot, but we learned most of it the hard way.”
One of the major lessons learned by the Steinwinders is that there is no playbook for growing tea in the United States. With only a handful of domestic tea producers in the entire country, simply getting tea seeds or cuttings from plants can prove quite difficult, much less importing them. But the couple didn’t give up. They made one more move—this time home to Laurel, Mississippi—and landed on an opportunity to try it one more time. Hillary had some land in Laurel that had been in her family for six generations. For years the land was home to a longleaf pine tree farm, but the Steinwinders got their hands on 1,000 tea plants, converted the pasture to a tea field, and officially started Longleaf Tea Co. “It was completely experimental using the best research and information we had,” Thomas says. “We had no idea if it would succeed.”
What they did know, however, is that on a map, Laurel was on a similar north line of latitude as some of the most famous tea producing regions in the world. Despite losing upwards of nearly 300 of those original plants, Thomas and Hillary were patient—it takes at least three years of growing for the plants to even begin to be harvested—and it worked. They were able to harvest enough tea leaves to produce a black tea and a green tea, which almost immediately sold out. “Every batch we put online sold out in about 90 minutes,” Thomas adds.
Harvest season usually starts in April and lasts through October each year. Typically, they harvest every couple of weeks during that time, hand plucking every single leaf. “Our happy place is working in the field together,” says Thomas. “It’s a joy, for both our marriage and our family.”
Each harvest at Longleaf Tea Co. is truly a family affair with not only their kids—son Reimann and daughter Parker Kent—getting involved, but extended family as well. “In every sense of the word, this is a family mission,” Hillary adds. “To see my kids running through the fields, enjoying nature, learning how to work, and learning the value of it—it has been great for Thomas and I to experience, but we love that our kids are sharing it as well. On harvest weekends, we’re all out there, along with our parents, aunts, brothers, sisters—everyone. It’s such a happy time, telling stories and jokes, and then we come together at the end of each harvest day for a huge family potluck.”
Planting at Longleaf Tea Co. has continued. Since the original planting, Thomas and Hillary have imported seeds from Nepal and Taiwan, which was no easy feat, and they also have other plants from India and even the country of Georgia. While thus far they have been able to harvest only from their original planting, this year they hope the others are big enough to start harvesting as well. “You only harvest the new growth, so you’re only taking the top two or three leaves in a bud with every harvest,” Hillary explains. “The thing about tea plants is that they are an 80- to 100-year crop. You really have to be in it for the long haul.”
Thankfully, the Steinwinders are. They continue to produce green, black, and white tea—and they hope to keep adding to their offerings—but just as importantly, they are working hard to cultivate tea growing in the South and encourage others interested in doing the same. “There’s a real opportunity for the deep South to be America’s tea country,” Thomas says. “We want to help foster the growth of the industry here, and the best way to do it is to put out a really good product.”
To learn more about Longleaf Tea Co., visit longleaftea.co.
The Benefits of Drinking Tea
As Americans, we’re nothing if not tea drinkers—tea is the most consumed beverage in the country behind water. Southerners especially love their tea, and though we often prefer it on the sweeter side, there are still many benefits that come with each and every glass.
Tea reduces the risk of many diseases.
In addition to containing many important nutrients and minerals, also commonly found in tea are polyphenols, which research has shown have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Incorporating tea, and in particular green tea, into your daily diet can help decrease your risk for many diseases, including heart disease, numerous types of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Tea can help you sleep.
Some teas do contain caffeine, but there are many that don’t, particularly chamomile and herbal teas. For those who struggle with mild to moderate insomnia, having a cup before bedtime can help you wind down and go to sleep faster. Studies have also shown that drinking tea can help alleviate depression.
Tea can help combat the common cold.
Feeling a bit under the weather? Pour a cup of tea. Peppermint tea contains menthol, which helps the immune system fight off a cold, and it’s also a natural way to soothe a sore throat and fight nasal congestion. Other types of teas that have similar cold-fighting properties include echinacea, hibiscus, and elderberry.