Part One: Minto Island Tea Farm Adventure!

Friends, I have a confession.

I've been in the tea industry for twenty years. The past two decades of my life have been dedicated to studying, connecting, experiencing, and generally learning about tea to a truly voracious degree.

And in all that time, I have never picked my own tea.

To be fair, for a farm kid raised by green thumbs, I'm a TERRIBLE farmer. There's a reason I work exclusively with dead plants: I can't keep any alive long enough to manage a full growth cycle! Fortunately, in those twenty years of research and networking, I've encountered myriad incredibly warm, welcoming leaf geek farmers who are more than happy to let a dweeby tea witch from Seattle come play in their fields and factories. Three cheers for indie farms and, in this case, a wonderful small holding just outside of Salem, Oregon here in my own beloved PNW.

Meet Minto Island Tea, one of only a scant handful of tea estates on North America's West Coast! We first met the Minto crew at Tea Fest PDX a few years back, and instantly connected with them as a fellow queer millennial hippie teaheart operation. We've chatted here and there over the years about bringing the Friday Tea crew down for a tour of the farm, but with a five hour drive between us and the pandemic kicking our party plans in the teeth repeatedly, we haven't been able to make things line up. Enter stage left, the Minto Teamaking Workshops.

These processing workshops are brand new for Minto as of last year, and my plant pathologist mother (Dr. Elliott, Actual Mad Scientist, PhD) happened to have a birthday line up with their spring green tea workshop, so we jumped on the chance to make a day trip of it! We got up at the absolute crack of dawn and took our morning cuppa on the road (Unsmoked Lapsang for me, coffee for her). It was a stunning morning for a 5ish hour drive from Seattle, but we found ourselves the first to arrive at the farm.


two smiling ladies in front of a tea field

We were SO geeked to be there, and as folks rolled into the farm parking lot a few at a time, we found all and sundry to be absolutely delightful humans every bit as excited about the day as we were. I was reminded once again about the best feature of every tea event: tea PEOPLE! Our class was sold out with ten students and led by a guide, Gavin. After learning his trade on a farm in Japan, Gavin has spent the past three years at Minto. His background in Japanese production and processing was a particular boon to our task of the day: steamed green tea in a rough Japanese style. A perfect pairing for the season, as I've seen from a distance all my farmer friends around the globe working hard these past two months to finish up their first flush green tea harvests, all the while salivating in Seattle and making grabbing hands into the void, waiting for the tea to rest long enough to be worth sharing with our customers.

So yeah, you can imagine how ready I was for some delicious green tea of my own creation! We made our introductions all around the circle (a well-rounded group consisting of myself, my mother, four aspiring tea farmers from three different farms, and four passionate tea hobbyists) and followed Gavin for a quick tour of the mother plot and processing space. It was 9am on a gorgeous sunshiney Saturday and we were more than ready to get our agritourism on!
Within the processing room, I was delighted to see several pieces of equipment very familiar to me from assorted photos and videos shared by tea industry friends over the years. I think of them as "Rolly Bois" (the leggy green tea-rolling machine), "Speed Racks" (that's a bakery thing, the racks which hold trays aside for further processing) and "Mondo Canastas" (big ol honkin baskets).
three pictures of tea processing equipment
We were each given a yellow plastic perforated tub with fabric clamped across the top to shade our leaves after picking. This setup allowed us to hold our fresh pick away from the wilting sunlight long enough to get them to the steamer with minimal wilt. Armed with our tubs and fresh morning energy, we were walked out to the mother plot to begin picking!
Gavin demonstrated a picking method for us with hands held pretty close together moving over a small surface area of the hedge before moving to a new patch rather than casting one's gaze all over the place for selection (ooh, that one looks good, that one looks good, etc). As someone with a great periphery and highly developed "ooh, shiny!" reflex, I found myself immediately challenged and picking went more slowly than anticipated. Lively conversation with my classmates sped the time by, though, and before I knew it we were an hour deep into picking and collectively had only managed to gather about six pounds of raw leaf. A quick water break and we were back at it!
Fascinating questions were posed by our group's farmers and pathologist, and my mother was in absolute heaven advising on root rot, fungal parasites, and other nursery plagues. I was the only tea retailer in our student body and was asked for input throughout the day regarding market trends, customer interests, and solutions to our local tea farmers' dilemmas being explored in other growing regions. As I didn't think I'd have anything to teach anyone at this gathering, getting to trot out my own area of expertise was a gratifying treat for me!
A few things we learned in the field:
  • Tea farmers in the PNW struggle with regionally-specific threats such as plant longevity due to waterlogged roots ("tea plants don't like their feet to be wet"), pest damage (specifically voles), and groundwater-borne fungal pathogens (Dr. Elliott spotted phytophthora ramorum, aka "Sudden Oak Death," on a number of leaves: common globally, harmless to humans, but a danger to plant health).
  • Selecting tea leaves for harvest isn't just a matter of visual inspection. More mature leaves can appear spring green and tender to the eye, but feel slightly rigid to the touch, which manifests in production as unyielding, unshapeable product.
  • Shaded leaves will be sweeter and more tender, sun-grown leaf will be drier and more firm. This is a function of the plant's supreme adaptability, growing its wax coating to a thickness best suited to protect leaves as their relative age and sunlight patterns dictate.
  • More tender leaves tend to have higher caffeine, as the plant manufactures caffeine as a chemical weapon against insect and fungal threat. High trichome presence (the fuzzy baby hairs) is one indicator of high caffeine, but not a fail-safe tell.
  • Tea plants produce a very deep taproot and, once firmly established, can be pruned deeply to allow for shaping and structuring to a farm's standards. Minto has several rows of tea plants pruned nearly to the ground in order to allow for selective growth of the strongest branches and shaping to the ideal harvest row height.
  • Most of the tea plants in the United States are cloned from hybrids of C. Sinensis var. Sinensis (small leaf, fragrant, delicate, native to China) and C. Sinensis var. Assamica (large leaf, malty, hardy, native to India). The Minto mother plot was established in 1988 with clones sourced from a garden in South Carolina, and are examples of this hybrid class.
 three photos: trichome-dusted tea bud, fungal parasite on tea leaf, deep-pruned hedges
By the end of our picking time, we ended up with 11.11 lb of tea leaves. That's right. Two hours. Eleven pickers. Eleven and change pounds of raw leaf. That is...not a lot of tea. Obviously, experienced professional tea pickers can yield way more than a small group of randos, half of whom have never picked a tea leaf in their lives, but I have to say that immediately I found myself more aware of how quickly I go through my tea leaves at home. Incredible how getting hands-on with your produce can make you aware of how much farm worker's labor we take for granted.
Next, it was time to steam, roll (and roll, and roll, and roll), and more!
Tune in next post for steaming leaves, fancy chopstick maneuvers, and commonly misunderstood processing terminology!
xoxo, Friday
PS, for the "TL;DR" version of this series, follow along with our TikTok 30 second video recap series!
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