Nation's only working tea farm is small but growing
WADMALAW ISLAND — This whole operation boils down to something sweetly simple. More basic than the golden-brown nectar that drips from restaurant-sized taps inside the gift shop or even the lulling tree-lined drive down Maybank Highway to arrive here.
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"Two leaves and a bud," says Bill Hall, no doubt for the umpteenth time, as he plucks a sprig from the edge of the green 127-acre expanse that is the Charleston Tea Plantation.
The idyllic farm, the only one of its kind in the U.S., reopened in 2006 after a four-year hiatus. In 2002, the gift shop doors closed, the visitor tours ceased and American Classic Tea abruptly disappeared from local grocery store shelves.
"We just cut it and left it," Hall remembers.
What happened off the fields during that time involved legal filings, a court-ordered sale of the property and the biggest name in specialty teas. But since then, Hall says, just about everything around here has doubled, from the amount of tea produced to the number of visitors touring the fields.
Asked how this place measures up to other operations around the world, Hall pinches his thumb and forefinger together.
"We're small potatoes," he says. "But we make an excellent tea."
'T' is for tradition
Hall, a 60-year-old Canada native, can hear the factory grinders from his red-walled office in a nearby building.
Tea has always played prominently his life. Both his father and his grandfather worked as professional tea tasters.
"It's not something where you wake up one morning and say, 'I wanna be a tea taster,' " he says, pinching from an American Spirit can the precise amount of tobacco to roll into a cigarette.
Looking for an excuse from school, Hall decided to follow the family tradition and moved to London when he was 18 to begin a four-year apprenticeship. There, he tasted nearly 1,000 cups of tea a day, five days a week.
Because leaf flavors fluctuate with daily growth, tea demands a more complex assessment than wine or coffee, according to Hall. Holding up his chocolate brown cigarette case, he says that's what his mouth looked like by lunchtime during his training.
From London he "traveled the world of tea" and eventually formed an importing company with his father. Attending an industry convention in the mid-1980s, he read an article about the impossibility of growing tea in the U.S.
"I thought the article was incorrect," he says.
So he booked a flight to Charleston because, as Hall explains, "all the other attempts had been here."
He visited the Pinehurst Tea Plantation near Summerville and took clippings from plants Dr. Charles Shepard grew between 1888 and 1915. A variety of the camellia, tea plants require no tilling once they've rooted, just regular trimming.
"Dr. Shepard died, but tea plants don't die," Hall says. "They keep growing."
Hall learned about a research and development site that tea giant Lipton operated somewhere nearby and, first through library records and then through pleading with the company, toured the Wadmalaw tract. He and Lipton's local manager, horticulturist Mack Fleming, bought the property in 1987 and launched American Classic.
Hall classifies himself and Fleming as "entrepreneurs" when explaining why their operation ultimately failed.
"Entrepreneurs will only build it to a certain level," he says. "Then you need a business to move you ahead."
As the partnership deteriorated, the plantation went into foreclosure. The word "developer" hung heavy in rumors as a court-supervised auction of the property approached about six years ago.
Through his importing company, Hall had become friends with the daughter of arguably the biggest couple in tea, David and Eunice Bigelow, and he approached them with his cause. The Bigelows answered in April 2003, bidding $1.28 million at the auction to beat Fleming's top offer.
"We ended up winning it," Hall says. "Or losing it, depending on how you see it, because we wound up with the farm."
David Bigelow says he sees this place as "a show-and-tell, if you will."
He admits his decision to invest in the Wadmalaw land had little to do with economics.
"The plantation is a real gem and a one of a kind, and we were concerned if we didn't step in that this may become another real estate development, and those precious tea bushes would go away," he said by phone from Connecticut. "That's just irreplaceable."
The Bigelows built a new factory where visitors can watch tea-making from behind a glass wall as Bigelow and his wife explain the process from three flat-screen televisions overhead. During the May to October harvest, 5,000 pounds of green leaf come in every day to be dried, ground and separated from fiber and stems.
Looking at last year's financial report Bigelow says he hopes, eventually, to break even on the Wadmalaw venture.
The number of visitors to the plantation has doubled each year since the Bigelows became involved. But just as before, tourists can check out the grounds and the factory for free because, as Hall explains, nearly every guest feels obligated to buy some tea.
Though American Classic returned to local grocery store shelves, the flavored varieties, such as Rockville Raspberry and Plantation Peach, only sell in the gift shop and a few other specialty stores within the Carolinas.
The plantation does charge for trolley rides at $10 per guest. Hall found one of his two-vehicle fleet on eBay and bought the second from a Kentucky attraction.
"It says 'Man of War Horse Park,' " he says with a chuckle.
The trolley matches his attitude about the tourism side of the operation.
"Although we're interested in visitors, we don't want to be considered a Middleton, a Drayton," Hall says, referring to two of the storied plantation attractions along S.C. Highway 61. "We're strictly about tea, and we want to show you about tea."
And they want to grow this place at a safe pace. Another 20 to 30 acres remain open for new plants before the farm would have to seek more land elsewhere.
"We have to be aware of how much tea we make," Hall says. Then, without waiting for the question, he adds: "I can't tell you how much. Or I'd have to kill you."