Just southwest of bustling Charleston, S.C., lies a lush and rural gem called Wadmalaw Island, one of the Sea Islands that dot the shoreline. This is the home of the Charleston Tea Plantation, the only commercial tea plantation in North America.
Here, 127 acres of gleaming dark green tea bushes unfold in endless rows, framed against light-green fields and silvery loops of Spanish moss that festoon the oak trees. With its sandy soils, subtropical climate and generous yearly rainfall of about 50 inches, Wadmalaw is an ideal home for tea.
Rather than planting tea seeds, the Charleston Tea Plantation grows cuttings in a nursery for four years. The fledgling bushes are descendants of the same Camellia sinensis plants that were first brought to the Carolinas in the 1700s by French botanist Andre Michaux.
The plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., in partnership with third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall, a fellow with a magnificent passion for tea and the knowledge to match it.
I spoke with Hall about the tea business while sipping a cool cuppa and gazing out at the glimmering rows of tea plants flowing like green scarves to the horizon.
Your grandfather and father were professional tea tasters. How did you become one, too?
My father suggested I go into tea. Back then you had to have family connections to be trained. London was the center of the world trade in tea at the time, and every week teas were sent to London to be auctioned off. I tasted as many as 800 teas a day, five days a week. The goal was to be able to blind taste 10 teas and identify each one’s country and region of origin, and even the tea plant used.
Were those many hundreds of cups of teas simply laid out for tasting?
About 80 were laid out at a time, on long benches. You would taste them all along with a buyer, then everything would be cleaned up and 80 more teas would be laid out.
Though there is only one tea plant, Camellia sinensis, there are thousands of varieties. But they don’t have names like Golden Delicious or Granny Smith — they have numbers. Believe it or not, all of the teas become individual to you. We have a special terminology for tea that … is hard to convey to an outsider. We might say, “This tea has good character.” Well, what does character taste like? Or “This tea is out of condition, that one is bright, that one is brisk, and this one is burnt.”
Those descriptors are very important, because tea is one of the few commodities in the world bought and sold strictly on taste. And what makes teas so interesting, as opposed to, say, grapes, is that tea is harvested every 15-18 days. Grapes are harvested once a year — and you either have a good, bad or indifferent year. But tea is changing all the time. Is it too hot or cold this month? Is it the beginning, middle or end of the season? Did we have too much rain? All this influences the flavor of the tea.
Tell us a little about how you grow the teas here.
We don’t use any pesticide, herbicides or fungicides. Tea is naturally pest resistant, because the caffeine and tannins repel insects. We use a custom irrigation system. We plant the bushes in long rows, very close together, with just enough space between the rows for the mechanical harvester to fit. That way, very little light filters down between the rows, and very few weeds or random tea seeds sprout. We dry the leaves on “withering box” screens for 18 hours, then macerate them in a grinder. I then steep and taste and blend each batch until it tastes just right.
You live on the property full time. How do you like it?
What could be better than a life centered around tea? Nothing, absolutely nothing. People all over the world start and end their days with tea. It’s hardy, lives hundreds of years, requires no tilling of the soil and you can plant 5,200 oxygen-producing plants in every acre. It’s healthy for you. I love it here so much that I will eat everything out of my refrigerator, even down to my last jar of mayonnaise, before I leave the plantation and go to the city to shop for food. Tea is the greatest crop in the world.
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.
Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times.