There is nothing like visiting a tea farm

Longing for carefree days of travel, I recently started thinking about which tea country I should visit once the pandemic is over. So far we have been fortunate enough to travel to India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and have also seen what Turkish tea culture was all about. While researching on the internet, I landed on an article by Kill Green that listed all the tea producing countries of the world. I was shocked when I saw the number. Care to guess how many? A total of 64 countries are known to produce tea in some kind of capacity!

In general, we associate tea growing regions with Asian countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan. Or African countries such as Kenya or Rwanda. Reading this article made me realize that there is so much more to it and am happy to see that my future holds a lot of traveling. You know, for business purposes, of course.

Getting back on the road – The Charleston Tea Plantation, USA

I’m thrilled to say that at the beginning of April 2022, we visited Charleston Tea Garden – the largest American Tea farm with 150,000 tea plants.

Fun Fact: Since 1987, the Charleston tea estate’s original American Classic Tea is the official tea of the White House.  

Traveling and tea still proved to be a fabulous combination! More on the details of our trip momentarily. But first, a little bit of history…

How did tea make its way to the USA? 

Even though tea has been consumed in the USA since the 1600’s, it wasn’t until 1888 that anybody thought of actually growing it. The first person to bring Camelia Sinensis tea to America was a French botanist named Andre Michaux. Michaux gifted the tea to his friend Henry Middleton. Then, around 1880, the US Congress created subsidies to grow tea on American soil. A Dr. Charles Shepherd decided to take part in the program and brought tea plants to America in 1888. Dr. Shephard grew tea at his Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, South Carolina, from 1888 to 1915 – and also won top honours at the 1904 World’s Fair. When he died in 1915, it brought a temporary end to tea growing in America.

In 1960 the Thomas J. Lipton Company went to Summerville and took some cuttings from those abandoned trees and planted them on Wadmalaw island, the actual site of the Charleston Tea Plantation.  Lipton, spent the next 24 years on research and development at this experimental farm. The project came from a fear of not being able to import tea from Asia due to unrest in tea producing countries. Then in 1987 – Canadian born William Barclay Hall  – one of the last few tea tasters in America – and Mack Fleming bought the 127 acres tea farm from Lipton. Together, they turned Lipton’s R & D efforts into a commercial operation.

After many years of hard work they came to the conclusion that it was not as profitable as they would have liked. The company was facing financial difficulties and was closed due to bankruptcy. So, in 2003 Bill Hall ended his partnership with Fleming and decided to ask one of his friends for help. That friend just happened to be the owner of the Bigelow Tea Company. Bigelow Tea was good at selling tea but had no knowledge about producing it. So naturally, they were a little bit hesitant to take on the venture.

After doing the math, they also realized that even if they would buy the property, the product “American made tea” was not selling as well as they would hope for. But, being passionate about the industry, they decided to buy it for $1.28 million US after they heard that a promoter wanted the land to build some residential units. The previous owner mentioned at one point that people were very curious about the tea making process and were wondering if they could come for a visit. This sparked an idea to make the company more financially viable.  After closing for renovations they reopened in 2006 to offer tours to the public as a way to boost revenue. Their success comes from the fact that they are located near the town of Charleston, a popular tourist destination.

Visiting the only commercial tea plantation in the USA

Back to our trip to the Charleston Tea Factory. Although tea was not ready to be processed yet, we still got to learn a lot about the plantation.  Every 15 minutes, they start a 3 step presentation that walks you through their production area. The presentation videos talk about the history of the plantation, and the way tea is grown, harvested and manufactured. Once you’re done with the presentation. You can walk back to the gift shop where you can find everything related to tea.

From books to teapots and – what we were most excited about – their line of loose leaf teas produced on site. If you don’t know which one you will go for – they do have a tea bar were you can sample them all. For hot tea, our favorites were the American classic (described as light, bright, smooth and mellow) and their cinnamon spice tea which was like Christmas in a cup. For iced tea, our favorite was the Rockville Raspberry.

The free admission gives you access to the tea fields, the factory tour, as well as the gift shop and tea bar. If you want to deepen your tea knowledge (who doesn’t?) and learn more about the way Charleston Tea Estate works, you have to go for the Trolley tour. The price for this tour is $15 US per person and takes you through 40 acres of the plantation, which includes a stop at the nursery where they explain to you how they reproduce the tea bush – camellia sinensis. One thing I learned, is the reason why they use cuttings (clones), instead of seeds to reproduce the tea bush is for consistency in the tea flavour. During the tour, you can hear Mr. Hall explaining a little bit of the history of the plantation which is complemented by the information provided by our more than dynamic guide.

The Big Green Machine

What differentiates this tea plantation is the way they harvest the tea. We have gotten used to seeing a group of  “tea pluckers” picking up pounds of the precious 2 buds and a leaf – but in the USA, they do things a little differently.  Because of the cost of labor, they had to find a more economical way to pick the tea. So they invented the Green Giant – a cross between a cotton picker and a tobacco harvester and the only one of its kind.

The machine cuts the top layer of the bushes, collects them and transports them to the factory where they will be processed. Instead of using hundreds of people to pluck the tea, the plantation only employs 3 individuals to grow and harvest the tea leaves. This differs greatly from Asian countries where they do need tea pluckers to harvest the tea because tea fields are usually located in mountain areas or places that are not accessible to any kind of machinery. The estate is open year round. If you want to see tea making in action, it is preferable to go during the summer months from May to October. But if you want to avoid the crowds anytime outside this window is preferable. It was so nice to be traveling and learning again! I highly recommend adding this tour to your itinerary if you’re ever in Charleston.

Sarah + Chris

Have you ever visited a tea plantation? Let us know in the comments below.

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