As Anglotopia readers know, the British drink a lot of tea. Per capita, tea consumption in the UK averages 4.3 pounds a year, and in Ireland, it averages almost five pounds a year. Last March, I wrote a column called Finding Comfort in a Cup of Tea, which discusses the many forms that tea drinking takes in the UK, from a quick mug of tea during a mid-morning break all the way up to the elaborate ritual of afternoon tea.
Sadly, Americans drink a lot less tea (per capita tea consumption in the US averages about half a pound a year), but I’d love to see it become more popular. I believe Americans would appreciate a good cuppa a lot more if they knew more about the hard work that goes into creating this special beverage. Fortunately, I know just where you can go to learn about the process.
The Charleston Tea Garden on Wadmalaw Island near Charleston, South Carolina, provides a unique first-hand opportunity to see how tea is grown, harvested, and produced. You’ll learn all about tea’s journey from the Camellia sinensis bushes in the fields to the teapot during a trolley tour through the 127-acre farm and a tour of the onsite processing factory. Afterward, you’ll get to sample some of the teas it produces.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S TEA ROOTS
The Charleston Tea Garden was founded in 1987 and is the oldest and largest commercial tea-growing operation in the United States. However, it isn’t the first. Attempts at tea farming in the Charleston area date back to at least the mid-1800s. Most of these attempts were short-lived, but in 1890 Dr. Charles Shepard met with more success in his efforts at the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, South Carolina. He even won a prize for his oolong tea at the 1904 World’s Fair. Unfortunately, the land was virtually abandoned following his death in 1915, and the tea plants were left to grow wild.
In the early 1960s, the Lipton Tea Company created a research center on Wadmalaw Island using cuttings from the Pinehurst tea bushes. It’s not surprising that the plants could still produce excellent tea. Camellia sinensis bushes can produce quality leaves for well over 100 years, and some recorded plants have been producing leaves for hundreds of years.
In 1987, Lipton sold the land to William Barclay Hall, a professional tea taster who started the Charleston Tea Plantation, which he’s often described as “America’s only tea garden.” The farm’s name was officially changed to the Charleston Tea Garden in 2020. Hall planted thousands of additional tea bushes and created the onsite processing operation you see today. The farm is now owned by Bigelow Tea Company, and Hall continues to manage its operation.
EXPLORING THE TEA GARDEN
A visit to Charleston Tea Garden starts at the main building, where you can purchase tickets for the 45-minute trolley tour (which I highly recommend), take a free, self-guided tour of the factory, sample the farm’s teas, and explore its extensive gift shop.
You might be tempted to start with the factory tour, but I suggest starting with the trolley tour in order to learn about the tea growing and harvesting operations first. Then take the factory to see how the tea is processed once it leaves the field. While it may be hard to resist, I also recommend waiting until after your tours to sample the tea garden’s products; you’ll have a greater appreciation once you know more about the work that goes into creating the finished product.
The trolley tour takes you through fields filled with more than 300,000 Camellia sinensis bushes as your guide describes the workings of the 127-acre farm. I was particularly interested to learn more about the layout of the fields. The tea bushes are planted in rows, and as they mature, the plants merge into dense hedgerows that are maintained at 72 inches wide and 38 inches high. Each spring, the bushes are pruned to remove the old leaves. The growth of new leaves that sprouts up after this pruning is called a flush, which is what’s harvested to make tea.
Charleston Tea Garden’s fields are divided into 20 sections. During harvest season (which typically runs from May through October), the new growth – or flush – is harvested in at least one of these sections each day. New flushes will continue to grow up after each harvesting until the end of the growing season. Each bush is typically harvested seven or eight times over the course of the season.
While every flush produces quality tea, the first flush of new growth each season is a special cause for celebration. This first-growth is described as having a particularly “unique, fresh flavor,” and the leaves are used to produce Charleston Tea Garden’s First Flush tea. It’s eagerly anticipated and usually sells out quickly.
Charleston Tea uses a specially designed machine to harvest the flushes. At the start of every row, the harvester is positioned so that it’s straddling the 72-inch-wide hedge. As it proceeds down the row, a 72-inch sickle bar gently shears the new growth from the tops of the bushes, and a powerful fan pushes them into the harvester’s collection bin. If you visit between May and October, there’s a good chance you’ll see the harvester working in the fields.
The tour also stops at the greenhouse, where thousands of new tea bushes are propagated each year. While it may look like an ordinary greenhouse, it’s equipped with high-tech temperature and humidity controls, shade panels, and watering systems to create the ideal growing conditions for the fledgling plants. Once the plants are moved to the fields, it will be another four years before they reach maturity.
After the trolley tour, your next stop is the factory, where the harvested tea leaves are processed into green and black tea. You’ll see every part of the tea production process as you walk along with the elevated viewing gallery. Windows overlooking the factory floor give you a bird’s eye view of the equipment, while TV screens show videos that explain each step of the process.
You’ll see the withering bed where the newly harvested leaves sit for about 18 hours; the rotovane, which breaks the tender leaves into small pieces; the oxidization bed, which is used to bring out the flavor in the leaves; and the drying room, where this flavor is sealed in so that it’s preserved until it’s released by the boiling water used to make a cup of tea. Typically, it takes about five pounds of fresh leaves to produce a pound of the finished product. If you visit during harvesting season, you may get to see some of the equipment in use.
Once the processing is complete, the tea is shipped to the Bigelow factory in Connecticut, where it’s packaged under the Charleston Tea Garden brand for sale at the farm or under the American Classic Tea brand for sale in other retail outlets.
SAMPLE THE GOODNESS
By the time you’ve finished your tours, you’ll be eager to try the finished product. On my visit, I sampled six hot teas (Earl Grey, green tea, green tea with mint, cinnamon spice, breakfast tea, and the special First Flush) and six iced teas (sweetened and unsweetened versions of the garden’s original blend, along with sweetened peach, raspberry, mint, and green teas). You can purchase your favorites to take home.
The large gift shop also stocks an extensive assortment of teapots, mugs, child-sized china tea sets in wicker baskets, tea towels, honey, hand lotions and candles infused with tea, and many other tea-related products.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
The Charleston Tea Garden is open to the public year-round. Check the website or call for the latest information on operating hours and tour times. At the time of this writing, the factory tour and gift shop are open, with COVID precautions in place, but the trolley tours are still on hold for the moment. The picnic tables that are usually located near the main building have temporarily been removed, but visitors are welcome to bring their own chairs and blankets to enjoy a picnic on the grounds.
After a visit to the Charleston Tea Garden, you’ll have a new appreciation for the work that goes into creating this truly special beverage. You’ll never look at a cup of tea the same way again.