Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Charleston Tea Plantation -

The Charleston Tea Plantation
By JP Saleeby, MD

As a small town Emergency Room physician in the Lowcountry and the recently christened medical & health writer for the Tea Experience Digest magazine, I felt it my duty to visit the Charleston Tea Plantation. If you have not had the opportunity to visit the area, our Lowcountry simply refers to the coastal region of South Carolina & Georgia. At best Charleston and its surrounding areas are genteel, refined and laid back. In the immortal words of George Gershwin, “Summertime and the living is easy.” At its worst it is hot and humid, hard on us southerners, downright unbearable on our northern visitors, and positively the best environment for tea growing.

The drive was fabulous, a kaleidoscope of shade thrown on the trail by overhanging Spanish moss draped oak trees, so typical of Charleston back roads. What makes this plantation so special is the fact that it is the only tea growing operation in the continental United States. The origins of the plantation, its development, its owners and the tea production are each stories in their own right.

Calling ahead I was promised an interview with the owner. Upon my arrival at plantation on Wadmalaw Island, I were ushered back to a corner office in the main building of the facility. At the doorway a burley old salt of a fellow greeted us. Not quite the image one entertains when told you were about to meet a professionally trained third generation tea taster. William (Bill) Hall, the co-owner of the Plantation (he is partnered with the Bigelow Tea Company), is a commanding figure, with long finger-combed locks of hair and well tanned from days in the field. Bill greeted me with a warm smile putting me at ease. He took a bit of time out of his busy day for an impromptu interview on this locally produced tea (Camellia sinensis), the history and business of tea in America, and what makes American Classic Tea stand out.

The history of the Charleston Tea Plantation goes back to a tea grower by the name of Dr. Charles U. Sheppard. In 1888 he established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation near Summerville, SC. Dr. Sheppard’s farm was maintained by a force of child laborers, who had the arduous task of picking tea leaves by hand. In exchange for their hard work they received an education on the grounds of the plantation. The Pinehurst plantation produced award-winning teas for many years. In fact at the 1904 World’s Fair their oolong tea took home first place awards. Upon his death in 1915, Dr. Sheppard’s plantation became dormant and the tea plants flourished unattended.

In 1963 the Lipton Tea company set up a research site on Wadmalaw Island and transplanted some of the original tea plants from Sheppard’s garden to their new site, a former potato farm. Lipton maintained this research facility due to fears that the third-world tea producing countries would not be politically stable enough to ensure a consistent supply of tea leaves to US markets. It remained in operation until 1987 when Bill Hall and Mack Fleming acquired it from Lipton. They turned the research facility into a working tea producing farm until 2003. The Bigelow Tea company then partnered up with Bill to purchase the plantation at auction in 2003. After a three-year renovation of the plantation by Bigelow, it opened in January of 2006 for tours and full production. The brand American Classic Tea is made up predominately with tea grown from this plantation. This tea besides being home grown is free of pesticides and synthetic chemicals necessary in other tea growing regions. Bill describes this chemical-free gown tea as those produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides of any sort. Fortunate for the American grower, there are no know indigenous insects or opportunistic flora that infest or threaten the plants unlike Asia.

The tea plants are propagated by means of cloning plant cuttings. After growing for 3 to 4 years they are ready to give up their top shoots for the production of the tea we drink. I learned that the tealeaves are harvested every 15 days. To keep the cost of the harvest competitive, the plantation mechanized the harvesting process by customizing a tobacco harvester. Lovingly called the “Green Giant” this machine keep labor costs down. Some 5000 pounds of leaves are harvested a day. Once the clippings reach the factory they are loaded on a machine that blows warm-dry air to dry the leaves. From there the leaves move into a Rotovane where they are ground in order to rupture the leaf cells so oxidation can occur. For black tea the leaves are allowed to oxidize for 50 minutes. For oolong tea it requires only 15 minutes. After this process the leaves are dried at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for a half-hour. Then they are placed through sieves to remove stock and fiber. For every 5 pounds of tealeaves harvested from the field this process yields one pound of ready to steep tea. Finally, these leaves of American Classic Tea are sealed and packaged awaiting shipment to retailers and ultimately the hot water of your teapot.

A trip to the plantation is a fun learning experience as well as a chance to enjoy the serenity of the gardens. A few hours sipping freshly brewed tea and walking the grounds will melt away the stress built up from long days at work delivering healthcare.


JP Saleeby, MD is the current medical writer for the Tea Experience Digest magazine. He is assistant medical director of the Emergency Department at LRMC, Hinesville, GA.. Dr. Saleeby recently authored a book on herbs entitled “Wonder Herbs: A guide to three Adaptogens.”

Submitted for publication in "Physician's Money Digest" Travel Section, editor Lisa Tomaszewski 10/2006.


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