Steeped in the past

Owner Kyle Brown pulls out green hysong tea leaves that are part of the stock at Oliver Pluff & Company.

Bohea, Congou, Singlo, Hyson, Souchong. One could be forgiven for guessing these to be “far away places with strange-sounding names” of the kind alluded to in the classic Bing Crosby song.

In truth, they are the names of teas once popular in early America that have faded into relative obscurity. But those teas and the stories behind them may yet be rescued from the dusty pages of history if Kyle Brown, the founder and owner of local tea purveyor Oliver Pluff & Company, has his way.

When Brown started Oliver Pluff in 2009, he had little inkling of the unusual path the company would soon take. After six years of overseas relief work, he had developed an appreciation of tea culture around the world, and those experiences inspired him to start a company focused on selling a product specifically tailored for Southern-style iced tea. But it was a chance meeting a couple of years later that opened his eyes to the niche market of historical teas.

Representatives of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation approached Brown at a trade show and ordered some of his iced tea product. About six weeks later, they contacted him again to ask if Oliver Pluff would be interested in supplying the Colonial teas they sold, as their previous vendor had gone out of business. Brown jumped at the chance, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And lots of it. Brown has spent many long hours over the years researching the tea trade in early America. He has primarily relied upon Google Books and other online resources that often provide direct access to original source material such as East India Company correspondences.

Not surprisingly, Brown has found a strong connection between the early tea trade and Charleston. The Holy City, New York, Boston and Philadelphia represented the four major ports of entry for Colonial tea imports. Little wonder then that Charleston staged its first revolutionary “tea party” even before Boston's more famous one. The tea seized on Charleston's docks in 1773 in response to the British Tea Act was stored in the Old Exchange and then sold a couple of years later to help fund the Revolution. Subsequent protests in Charleston simply dumped the tea into the harbor.

Despite the setbacks imposed on the tea trade by the Revolutionary War, Americans' thirst for tea continued to grow.

According to Dave Wang in an article for the 2011 Virginia Review of Asian Studies about China's cultural influence on the United States, “The Chinese-American tea trade increased steadily after 1785. With the increase of population and wealth, the American people demanded larger and larger quantities of tea.”

By the turn of the 20th century, however, interest in traditional teas had waned along with the practice of taking afternoon tea, a long and dearly held custom in Charleston. University of South Carolina professor and food historian David Shields believes this decline resulted from the increasing popularity of iced tea and “the alteration of female sociability from a home-based gathering to women's clubs meeting in semi-public venues.”

Now there are growing signs of revived interest in historical teas and tea-ways, and Brown's radar is finely tuned to them.

Oliver Pluff's teas are currently carried at more than 200 historic sites across the country, from Monticello to Yosemite National Park. “Tea marries really well with history,” he says, “and that's really what we're about.”

Oliver Pluff's historical approach to tea perhaps finds its greatest expression in the Bohea it sells. The word Bohea (BOO-hee) is itself a moving target, having at various times referred to a specific variety of Chinese tea, early America's favorite tea blend, or just tea in general.

Brown focused on Bohea as a tea blend when he developed his product. His research led him to a combination of Pekoe, Orange Pekoe, and Souchong leaves, blended by hand at the company's Charleston warehouse.

The result is a smooth, full-bodied infusion with a slight smokiness. It's perhaps the perfect gateway tea for a devoted coffee drinker. As such, it eschews tea's reputation as a contemplative drink and serves as a further reminder of a bygone age when the South Carolina Gazette, reporting on a cargo seized by revolutionaries in Charleston in 1774, called tea a “mischievous drug.”

Customers buying Bohea or other Oliver Pluff teas from the company's website might be surprised to discover they've been invoiced for a “King George III tea tax.” Each order also includes an information sheet with a depiction of the original tea tax stamp and a short excerpt from the Tea Act itself. Brown notes some of the Act's language is offensive even today and brings home the experience of Colonists chafing beneath the rule of a tyrant an ocean away.

“The surprising thing is how many people enjoy paying it,” he says. The “tax” amounts to only a few pennies per order. “But at some point, we may decide to remit the revenues that we collect to the U.K.”