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California grown tea

California grown tea

Last December I visited Golden Feather Tea, a small tea farm in the Northern Sierra Nevada foothills, not far from the town of Oroville, one of the Gold Districts of California during the Gold Rush. Mike Fritts has about 800 hundred Camellia Sinensis plants in his back yard. Last year he made 6 pounds of tea, all of which was bought by Lazy Bear restaurant in San Francisco.

“I started in 2010. I was working at a nursery in Southern California, I got sick, I found out that I had Lyme disease. Right before I quit, I saw Camellia Sinensis at the nursery. I’ve always planted Japonicas and I am familiar with them. I had never seen a Sinensis. They had 20 plants and I bought them all. They ordered some more and I bought those and then I bought another 100. These tea plants were not grown for tea, they were grown for ornamental purposes. I believe the varietal is Japanese. I’ve got some DNA-testing done in Japan right now.”

At this time of the year, the plants are blooming and attract wild bees. They seem to be doing really well out here. I’m curious. What’s the secret? Is it the soil? Is it the climate? Is it Mike’s loving care? 

“It’s the soil and the water and the environment, they’re ideal for tea here. In this valley, it’s all decomposed granite. Very mineral-y. The more minerals, the more micro-nutrients in the soil, the more flavor the tea plant will bring up. And especially if it’s organic and you don’t use any chemicals. There are no chemicals in our water. A lot of towns have treated water and that ruins the taste of the tea, that ruins the taste of anything, even vegetables. Planting wisely and using trees to shade, that’s what I’ve done here. I really like the fact that I am able to incorporate the tea plants into the nature of our valley here and in the environment.”

Mike wants to keep his farm an artisan, cottage business. Everything is done by hand, “ancient style”, no machinery. 

“When you start doing machine cutting, machine rolling, it doesn’t have the care and it doesn’t have the heart in it. Golden Feather Tea is all picked by hand, rolled by hand. It’s pretty labor-intense once you start the harvest. The rolling is the most tedious part, because you got to put a lot of pressure on it. It’s all done by hand.”

He invites me inside for a tea tasting. The Gold Rush theme is evident in the names of his teas. Golden Oolong, Mother Lode Black Gold, 24-karat Gold. The first tea I get to try is his sun-dried Green Oolong. It smells amazing. It reminds me a little bit of a white tea, somehow. Very floral, very subtle. It’s delicious. Mike steeps it at 185-190 F. He doesn’t rinse the tea leaves before steeping because he knows from a chemical analysis that his tea is very high in amino acids. By rinsing it, you would wash all the tiny white hairs off, and with them all the amino acids that give the tea so much of its flavor.

Mother Lode Black Gold mixed with some Camellia Sinensis blossoms

Mike harvests 6 times a year. “Once all my plants are mature I will probably harvest every week and I should be getting about anywhere between 20 and 30 pounds a harvest of dry tea. The first harvest is around the 1st May, I like to try and make it May 5th if possible and then about three weeks later. With my first and second harvest, I do an oak roasted oolong, it’s lightly smoked and it’s really delicious.”

He takes out a tiny Yixing teapot to brew his Mother Lode Black Gold mixed with Camellia Sinensis blossoms. It’s a very unique-looking tea and the blossoms are so beautiful. This is a sun-dried oolong, but the blossoms were not sun-dried, they were dehydrated. As soon as they hit the hot water, they open up. It has definitely floral notes but not like a gardenia or an orchid, more like lotus. The flavor is very distinctive, almost savory to me. I think this tea would pair really well with savory food. 

“What I’ve been told is, there is no other tea like it. It’s got its own terroir, it doesn’t fit in with any other teas from around the world. That’s what’s really special about it. It has its place. They are really California, Sierra Nevada teas.”

Mike wants to expand and experiment with matcha green tea. “I have a spot where I can plant for afternoon shade, I’m going to put some more plants in. We are getting ready to put in a little tea house out there, so I can process there and when people come, we can sit there, out on the tea garden, and enjoy the tea plants as well as drink tea.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Golden Feather Tea. I was not asked nor paid to mention or review products, services or businesses that appear in this blog post.

My tasting notes: Water Lily oolong

My tasting notes: Water Lily oolong

The Tea Squirrel reports from the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

The Tea Squirrel reports from the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis