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How Sweet Tea is…

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How Sweet Tea is…
Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

We weren’t silly enough to dump all of our tea in the harbor.

Oh no, we knew what to do with it—brew it strong, cool it down, and once ice was available, serve it iced, and lead the country into an iced tea obsession. We sweetened it, transformed it into liquid summer through the addition of lemon, and generally made it our own. Now it’s a symbol of us, this “table wine of the South,” and it seems we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The First Flush of Success

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock
Charleston Tea Plantation / Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

The first tea plant, or Camellia sinensis, in the United States was growing in Lowcountry soil by 1800 at Middleton Place. It was a novelty plant at that point, a “pass-along plant” and not a crop plant in the land where cotton and rice were king.

However, not quite a century later, Charles Shepard established a moderately successful tea plantation in Summerville, South Carolina, called Pinehurst. He trained workers and his efforts were even reported in The New York Times, but after his death in 1915, the plantation was abandoned and the plants were left to “grow wild.” Although the plantation property is now a residential development, the plants propagated yet another attempt—and this time a long-lasting one—at the Charleston Tea Plantation.

Bill Hall, current president of operations and founder of the Charleston Tea Plantation, is a third-generation tea taster, but his career beginnings were simply out of necessity.

“I hated school,” he says, so he dropped out in the tenth grade and was planning to join the Navy when his father asked him if he was interested in tea. “I was interested in anything that wasn’t school, so I said yes.”

Before he could follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he had to show some potential. Through a family connection, he started working in a tea factory, moving from packer to forklift driver before eventually getting the chance to enroll in a tea apprenticeship in England where he learned to be a “tea taster.” It is up to trained tea tasters to place a value on how much a tea is worth. Since there is no chemical way to determine the quality of tea, tea is bought and sold strictly on taste, and in order to develop his palate he tasted eight hundred to a thousand cups of tea, five days a week, for four years.

“At first, I just loved saying I was a ‘tea taster’ at cocktail parties. It was an interesting job, but eventually I did start enjoying tea,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

It was a trade magazine article about Summerville’s Pinehurst Plantation that eventually drew him to Wadmalaw Island, just outside of Charleston, where Lipton had set up an R&D operation to investigate the Summerville plants. The R&D operation ceased—and a tea plantation was born.

Since 1987, Charleston Tea Plantation has operated commercially, and after partnering with Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, is now known nationally through Bigelow’s American Classic Tea series. The plantation welcomes an average of 60,000 visitors a year who take trolley tours of the fields and see how tea is processed.

One of the main events of the year at the plantation is the First Flush Festival, a music festival celebrating the first tea harvest of the season.

“Tea is much more complicated than wine,” Hall says. “With wine grapes you have one harvest, and with tea, you harvest leaves every fifteen days. So the product consistency is very hard, very complicated. But that first harvest of the year is celebrated around the world as the best, and we bring that tradition to Charleston.”

The plantation brews up gallons of the first flush tea for its guests and welcomes musical acts ranging from Robert Randolph and the Family Band to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It’s essentially a backyard party for Charleston; partygoers bring their chairs (and sometimes tents) and spend the day. Tickets usually sell out, and everyone gets a chance to taste the tea.

Hall explains his success quite simply: “I believed that tea could be grown in this country, and it turns out I was right.” Each year he and his team celebrate that again with the first flush.

Join The Local Palate Club at the First Flush Festival on Sunday, May 20th at the Tea Planation.

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