CHARLESTON, S.C. — I must have had a childhood trauma involving coffee. I’ve never had a cup of it in my life, shudder at the aroma, wouldn’t touch coffee ice cream, or Kahlua or tiramisu or anything mocha. Yuk.
But I need my caffeine and have grown to love tea, aptly known as “a hug in a cup.” So when recently in Charleston, I had to make a pilgrimage to the country’s only tea plantation, which sells tea under the American Classic Tea label.
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only place where tea is grown in North America. It’s actually on Wadmalaw Island, about a half hour south of Charleston. At the farm, my husband and I stepped into the greeting area, where we were directed to a tea bar for our choice of hot or iced teas.
According to a historical marker out front, the first confirmed tea cultivation in the country occurred when French botanist Andre Michaux brought tea plants to Middleton Barony near Charleston at the turn of the 18th century. But large-scale production didn’t occur until 1880, when Congress began to subsidize efforts in nearby Summerville. It wasn’t until 1963 that those cuttings were transferred to 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island.
Though a self-guided factory tour is free, we decided to take a trolley tour, too, which lasts about 40 minutes and costs $14. Our affable driver, Stephen, pointed out the fields and told us about the history, cultivation, and myths of tea. Occasionally, owner and tea master Bill Hall would chime in over the bus sound system. In 2003, Hall, a tea grower and taster trained in London, partnered with the Bigelow family to make American Classic.
“Here’s a big lie you’ve been told,” Stephen told us. “There’s no such thing as herbal tea. It’s just a marketing term. You can flavor tea with mint and other things. But green, oolong, and black tea all come from the same plant.”
Later, in the factory where the leaves are withered, we’d learn that black tea leaves spend longer on the oxidation line, about 50 minutes, while oolong tea gets only 15 minutes. Green tea is not withered or oxidized at all, resulting in a more delicate flavor and color.
As the trolley made its way through some muddy paths adjacent to the green fields, Stephen told us that tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, after water.
The Camellia Sinensis tea plant thrives on heat, humidity, rainfall, and sandy soil. So the Lowcountry of South Carolina provides perfect conditions for the 25,000 tea plants, which grow from April through October.
But after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, followed by a rare snowstorm, “it’s been one thing after another” the last couple of years, Stephen said. The result: a late harvest this year. When we were there, in mid-November, some fields were still being cut.
Last year, about 65,000 people from all over the world visited the tea plantation. It’s a lovely setting, with oak trees dripping with Spanish moss (which is neither Spanish nor moss but rather an air plant, we were told). About 20 others were on the trolley with us, including Walter Leach, who was with his wife, Linda. They came from the Isle of Palms, about a half hour away.
Leach, 66, is a daily tea drinker (“hot, black”) and found the tour educational and fun. “The most surprising thing I learned was how often they cut the tea leaves,” he said. “It never occurred to me that they’d have up to 10 cuttings from the same plant during the growing season.”
Indeed, we were told that the tea — it is pruned at waist height, the better for both the plants and the workers’ backs — grows up to six inches after a cutting, which occurs every 20 days. The low leaves aren’t picked because they tend to be bitter, so the cuttings come only from the top. It takes five pounds of fresh leaves to make one pound of tea, after stalks and fiber are removed.
Fun facts: 80 percent of all tea consumed in the United States is iced tea. But in the South, it’s 99 percent. Mostly sweetened, in my experience. And did you know that Charleston also had a tea party? “But they didn’t throw it in the harbor,” Stephen said. “They sold it to raise money for the Revolution.”
After a stop at the greenhouse — and a glimpse of a gator in a nearby pond — we arrived back at the main building. There’s a killer gift shop and, of course, the tea bar, for one last hug in a cup.