American Made Profile | October 25, 2015
Charleston Tea Plantation
If you are looking for an American Grown Tea, you may have a hard time finding one. In fact, you may not think tea grows anywhere other than the misty mountains of China, India, Kenya, and the like. Though it may seem quite unusual, the beautifully saturated green fields of Wadmalaw Island’s Charleston Tea Plantation are all the proof you will need. Growing conditions found on this South Carolina Island are a perfect match for Camellia Sinensis (the tea plant), which thrives on the sandy soil, subtropical climate, and 52 inches of rain per year.
A 20 minute journey from Charleston, South Carolina, will bring you to this charming plantation with unending fields of green waving back and forth when tickled by the breeze. A trolley ride provides an inside look at the inner workings of this plantation and the over 320 varieties of black and green tea grown on 127 acres. More on that later, for now, let’s step back and find out how tea took root in America.
Back in the 1700’s the first tea arrived in the U.S. from China. For over 150 years there was little success growing tea plants. It wasn’t until 1888, when Dr. Charles Shepard started a tea plantation in Summerville, South Carolina. His success continued until the doctor passed away, after which the plants simply grew wild, unattended, for 50 years.
Then, in 1960, the Thomas J. Lipton Company purchased the bedraggled plantation and moved the plants to a farm in Wadmalaw for research. In 1987, the land and the research station were purchased by William Barclay Hall and the American Classic Tea Brand – The Charleston Tea Plantation – began its tale.
I spoke to the charming William (Bill) Hall, a third-generation tea taster, who received his training in London during a four-year apprenticeship. He informed me that during his apprenticeship he traveled the world and tested a lot of teas. He elaborated, “I tasted up to 1,000 teas a day, five days a week.” In amazement I asked if he ever got confused tasting so many. How can they all taste different? He explained, “Unlike grapes or coffee, which are grown once a year, tea grows every 15 days. So the taste changes frequently due to many environmental factors – heat, cold, time of year harvested country of origin, soil. Tea is a product bought and sold on taste alone. Tasters are essential and back in the old days London was the tea capital.”
When Bill came home to America, it was his forty years of experience in tea that helped turn this research farm into the commercial operation known as the Charleston Tea Plantation. Bill told me that every tea plant growing on the farm is a direct descendent of Dr. Shepard's 1888 plants. “Tea plants live for hundreds of years and we use cuttings from those plants to grow new plants. So essentially, all the plants are from the originals.” Learning this, I realized this plantation is a living, growing part of American history.
As I began to understand tea’s history, I wondered how so many varieties are developed. Bill explained, “All tea comes from the leaves of one plant, the Camellia Sinensis, and it gives you three basic kinds of tea; black, green, and oolong. Each is processed a little differently to accomplish different levels of oxidation. Think of an apple with a bite in it and how it turns brown, tea leaves work in a similar way.”
So what goes into the tea? Just the leaves, the American Classic Teas are all natural. They do not manufacture decaffeinated tea because that requires the use of chemicals. Even the tea flavoring is added naturally. When the tea finishes its production cycle an all-natural essential oil is sprayed on each leaf. The tea is then tumbled for several hours to ensure flavor consistency and then transferred to an airtight container to maintain freshness.
Another important aspect of the plantation is the green way they do business. Their impressive philosophy, "do the right thing and good things will follow", says much about the quality of the product and the people. The company strives to protect the environment, give back to the community, and take care of its 25 employees.
You won’t find pesticides (herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) being used here. From the start of his business Bill has chosen the natural way. “My biggest problem is weeds. I decided it was easier to send guys out to pull weeds. We do, however, use nitrogen to fertilize the roots. If we put chicken poop out in the fields, I don’t think we’d have many visitors”, laughed Bill.
The custom designed irrigation system allows the plantation to rely completely on rain and pond water for plant hydration. And what about recycling? Stems and fibers from processed tea are used as mulch in the fields. Not only does this help the soil retain water and inhibit weed growth, it also keeps an even soil temperature and protects against erosion. Bill concluded that in addition to all these positives, “…thousands of plants on the farm produce clean oxygen to breathe.”
Bill shared with me that ensuring freshness is a top priority. “Some things are better with age; tea is not one of them.” Having a factory on the grounds allows for everything to be processed quickly in house, and then packaged in foil envelopes. To keep your tea fresh at home store in the freezer. A great tip to reduce caffeine levels by 65% is to brew in cold water overnight. It is the heat that brings out caffeine.
Since 1987 this brand has maintained die-hard fans, including the White House. The high quality of their products, the healthy benefits of drinking tea, and, as Bill noted, “… tremendous amounts of antioxidants [in tea] which fight free radicals” contribute to their success.
Yet there is another important factor; the consumer’s desire to experience and support tea grown and produced 100% in America. A growing value, as we desire to rely less on foreign goods. While this is great news for Bill, he realizes the challenges businesses face competing with foreign production. “Our cost of making tea is much higher [than overseas] because they pick by hand and income might be $3.00 a week in another country. We have one machine that does what 500 workers could do. America’s technology has allowed us the complete with foreign companies.”
Bill says he is grateful for the swing in Americans’ buying patterns. “In the mid 80’s I went to supermarkets telling them I had the greatest product produced in America. The response was, ‘Who cares?’ If it wasn’t cheap enough, they weren’t interested.” Today consumers are changing that idea. Bill pointed out, “Our jobs have left the country and that’s not good for our communities. If there is an American alternative why not use it and support our country? He believes in buying American made, “[if] everything today comes from somewhere else, how does that help us?”
Today Bill’s plantation is partnered with Bigelow; a large family owned Connecticut based tea company with 60 years in the tea business and a forerunner in green ways of doing business. Due to this partnership, the Charleston Tea Plantation has prospered and continued doing things the natural way as they have done from the beginning.
The plantation has since become a great learning tool with educational tours that give visitors a one-of-a-kind experience. You can visit the grounds year round as there is always something different to see. The month of May commemorates the annual First Flush Festival, welcoming the start of harvest. And then May through October allows you to view the entire harvest process - from raw leaves - to mechanically processed - to ready for purchase.
The plantation’s tea is sold in six different flavors including the regular American Classic Tea, Charleston Breakfast, Plantation Peach, Rockville Raspberry, Island Green Tea, and Governor Grey. You can purchase teas on site or in stores throughout 17 states. Check to see where the tea is sold in a store near you by visiting the store locator under the “shop” menu of the plantation website, www.charlestonteaplantation.com.
Credits // Author: Wendi Wendt Photos Provided By: Charleston Tea Plantation