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A visit to the nation’s only tea plantation

ADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. — A tea plantation is truly a unique place to visit. The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea plantation in America, so that makes it more special.

The drive into the farm is along a wooded road with giant, twisted live oak trees hanging over, providing much-needed shade on this 93-degree day. Once parked and having purchased a ticket for the trolley ride around the plantation, we load up for the tour. The trolley is an old streetcar purchased from eBay. The seats are very narrow for those of us who are, shall we say, “wide lapped.” It is a tight fit for two adults. There is no air conditioning on the ride.
The tour guide, John Kennedy, takes control of our minds with his descriptions of the 127-acre farm, and we mostly forget the hot weather as long as we are moving. He fills our ears with information about growing tea in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The soil here is sandy, very good for growing tea plants because the nutrients affect the flavor of the tea. The farm gets 52 inches of rain per year, a must for tea plants, which require one inch of rain per week.
As we stop to look at the vast field of 25,000 plants, Kennedy tells a little tea history which helps us understand how the tea plantation was developed. Dr. Charles Shepard started a tea plantation in Summerville, S.C., in 1888. The plants are Camellia Sinensis tea plants imported from China. They are in the family of the camellia shrub, which is familiar in our area. When Shepard died in 1915, his tea farm went untended for 48 years, with tea trees growing 15 feet or taller.
In 1963, the Lipton Company went to Summerville, took cuttings from the tea trees and started an experimental research farm at the Charleston site. In 1987, Will Barclay Hall purchased the plantation. Hall had studied tea blending in London and was an expert in tea flavors.
Tea harvest season starts in March when the old leaves on top are pruned because they are bitter to the taste. The bushes are about 3 feet to 4 feet tall and well-trimmed, flat across the top. You never use the leaves on the sides of the bushes. In April, the new growth is cut from the tops of the bushes and this is continued until October. The new growth leaves are cut every 20 days during the season. In October, the plants flower with white blooms and the season is over.
While riding along the farm’s bumpy dirt roads through the tea fields, Kennedy tells us that tea plants can live for more than 100 years, with some living 600 years. They require no pesticides, and the area’s deer population will not eat the tea leaves because they contain tannic acid. It was a taste deer do not like.
I see two men out in the field cutting down a few weeds that have popped up. This 127-acre farm requires only three field workers. Kennedy points out that if a farm this size were in another country where the work was manual, it would need 500 workers to do the hand-cutting harvest. An inventor at the farm developed the Green Giant machine that is a cross between a cotton picker and a tobacco harvester and can move down the rows, cutting the new growth from the top of the bushes. The machine is time-saving and eliminates all the hand-cutting labor. The Green Giant has no use in other countries because tea is usually grown on mountainsides where the equipment could not be operated.
Kennedy tells us the most amazing thing about the tea process. It was amazing to everyone on the trolley. He revealed that all types of tea come from the same tea plants. The Green Tea, Black Tea, and Oolong tea all come from the same field and the same plant.
How can that be?
It is all in the processing. The top leaf cuttings are dried 12-18 hours and then oxidized for about an hour. The leaves are then baked to remove the remaining moisture. The different teas and flavors are created by varying the time in each process. A change in drying time can give you a different flavor. For example, green tea that contains all the antioxidants that are good for our bodies requires the least amount of drying time. Many of the antioxidants are left in the tea. Oolong tea, or “Chinese tea,” requires more time. The Black tea that most of us drink gallons of requires the most drying time, but it also loses the most nutrients in the process.
The Charleston Tea Plantation produces six main flavors of tea sold under the brand name American Classic Tea. They are American Classic Tea, Charleston Breakfast Tea, Governor Grey Tea, Plantation Peach Tea, Rockville Raspberry Tea and Island Green Tea. Only in its shop can you get “First Flush Tea,” which is the tea from the very first cuttings of the season in April. It, too, has its own unique flavor.
Since 1987, the White House in Washington, D.C. has used American Classic Tea as its official tea since it is an American product from Charleston Tea Plantation.
Inside the processing plant, I was able to see the green leaves move through the various stages, from withered leaves to ground up leaves to large bags for shipping to the Bigelow Tea Company in Connecticut for final packaging. Bigelow purchased the plantation in 2003.
Kennedy, our tour guide, said that iced tea in the U.S. was first invented in 1904 at the Chicago World’s Fair. India was serving hot tea and no one was drinking it in the middle of the summer. Someone suggested putting ice in the tea and it was a hit with fair-goers.
When you walk into the gift shop, the smell of brewing tea is almost overwhelming.
It was such a strong but pleasant tea smell. All of their flavors of tea, both iced and hot, are available for sampling. After the hot trolley ride, the iced tea is a welcome reward. I liked the iced version of Plantation Peach, but then I did try the hot version of a mint tea. Both are very good.

Retired Post photo chief Wayne Hinshaw lives in Rowan County.

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