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Brewing Up American Pride: Charleston Tea

by Martha Bowes






Specialty tea businesses in the United States have mushroomed recently, catering to both veteran tea drinkers and trying to mint new ones. In this culinary niche dominated by imports, few people are familiar with the Charleston Tea Plantation. Located minutes from Charleston, South Carolina, the Plantation is America's only black tea producer, capitalizing on what are believed to be the only conditions available on our vast continent that are amenable to growing tea for profit. In fact, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a distant relative of the giant magnolia trees that grow along the Southeast Coastal Plains.

Tea plants thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, rooted in sandy soil and bathed in heat, humidity, and rain. There are vast acreages of ideal tea-growing land in countries that have traditionally provided the world's tea-China, Japan, and India. As luck would have it, South Carolina enjoys a small pocket of similar conditions. When the Charleston Tea Plantation opened its Wadmalaw Island fields in 1987, it was a culmination of nearly a century-and-a-half of efforts to produce and market tea grown in the United States.

Tea cultivation in America had a haphazard start in the 19th Century. The first two serious attempts were aborted by the untimely deaths of the horticultural pioneers who tried to give Camellia sinensis a home in the United States. Junius Smith was the first with the Golden Grove Plantation, and succeeded in growing tea in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1848 until his death in 1853. Dr. Alexis Forster oversaw the next short-lived attempt in Georgetown, South Carolina, from 1874 until his death in 1879.

Curiously, around this time, a New York Times article dated 26 October, 1863 reported on the discovery of tea plants growing natively in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. According to a Boston Bulletin report reprinted in the Times:

The American Tea Company, an association chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, have [sic] employed Dr. Spencer Bonsall, a man of experience and character, to examine the American tea plant... He declares that the tea plant exists in Pennsylvania and Western Maryland beyond all doubt. "It grows indigenously," he states, "in the greatest luxuriance and abundance in the places that I have visited, limited, however, to those localities which afford the peculiar soil indispensable to it, as is the case in China, Assam, and Japan. "...The leaf is almost identical with some of the varieties from which the best tea is made in Assam; and Dr. Bonsall expresses his belief that tea equal to any that is brought from China could be made from this plant.

In 1884, almost ten years after Forster's effort, the federal government became interested in the thus far elusive experiment down south. Its fast clipper ships and an ability to settle debts in gold have made America the world's largest importer of tea. Could it now profit by producing it's own? Commissioner of Agriculture William G. Le Duc wanted to find out. He planted an experimental farm outside Summerville, South Carolina.

Four years later, however, the government gave up the effort, having concluded that the area's climate was too unstable to sustain the tea crop. Fortunately, the Holy Grail of a prosperous tea plantation on home soil still shimmered in the imagination of a wealthy and scientific philanthropist named Dr. Charles Shepard. In 1888 he established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation not far from the government's farm, again in Summerville, South Carolina.

Two kinds of challenges made an obstacle course of this agricultural pursuit-apart from early visits by the Grim Reaper. One was labor problems. As covered by the New York Times on 6 July 1897, the Department of Agriculture report issued in 1897 "estimates the minimum cost about eight times as much to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina as that paid for the same service in Asia." Even if labor was affordable, the optimal climate for growing tea-very hot and damp-wasn't healthy for field workers.

The second challenge, and the reason for a lengthy and complex scientific approach to tea production in the United States, was the need to produce the highest quality tea. As long as the hand labor required to pick the leaves was so much more costly in the United States than abroad, the expense had to be made up for by the production of the freshest, top quality tea. Low and medium grades were not a viable economic option.

Bolstering the economic necessity to produce high quality tea was the fact that, at the time, the best teas grown abroad were rarely shipped outside their country of origin because the journey would take too great a toll on the delicate premium leaves. Dr. Shepard was confident that South Carolina would fill the void. In an interview quoted in an 1898 issue of Cosmopolitan, he assured that "[i]n this field the American grower need fear no competition from the Orient. Such teas demand a high price; but if no better can be otherwise obtained, there will be no scarcity of buyers."

Dr. Shepard addressed the problem of securing laborers for the fields by opening a school and making tea-picking part of its curriculum, essentially ensuring a force of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise obtain. Dr. Shepard's horticultural persistence also proved fruitful when he won the tea-drinking public's esteem at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair where his oolong tea took first prize.

Dr. Shepard's plantation thrived until his death in 1915, after which it lay unattended for decades until 1960. That was when the corporate compass pointed Charleston-ward and the Thomas J. Lipton company bought the property. Lipton rescued the remaining plants and used them to open a research facility on Wadmalaw Island.

Enter Mack Fleming, future co-owner of the Charleston Tea Plantation, as manager of the operation. Fleming is credited with a more modern solution to the labor hurdle than Dr. Shepard's. He invented a mechanical harvester-a hybrid cotton picker and tobacco reaper-that could do the work of 500 workers. Even so, Lipton concluded, as the federal government had almost 150 years earlier, that the unstable climate and high costs of labor in South Carolina made American tea production unfeasible.

Finally, in 1987, Fleming with his tea horticulturist skills (being the only American who can boast the specialty) and William B. Hall, an expert, third generation tea taster trained in London, purchased the farm from Lipton to establish the 127 acre Charleston Tea Plantation.

The Charleston plantation's marketing materials proudly proclaim that their tea-grown, withered, cured, manufactured, prepared, and packaged in America-is the freshest available to American consumers, contains no pesticides or fungicides, is inspected by the FDA and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, and provides jobs for American workers. Along with being designated the Hospitality Beverage of South Carolina, Wadmalaw Island's Camellia sinensis in 1987 earned the badge of an official White House tea.

How does the future look? If you are the Charleston Tea Plantation, vying for shelf space in grocery store chains as a specialty tea producer, you hope that your partnership with Wal-Mart fulfills some promise. Wal-Mart packages the Charleston Tea Plantation's "American Classic Tea" under its American Choice premium label. Open a box of Wal-Mart's American Choice tea bags for a wake-up rush of surprisingly strong and fresh tea aroma.

If you, like many of the company's customers in the South, are an iced tea drinker, you might graciously support your local, organic tea farmers who custom blend their tea for optimal iced tea preparation to serve your special interests. And you could expect such a fresh tasting, local delicacy will be around for you and tourists in a hundred years. The plantation's tea bags make a decent iced tea alternative to using more expensive tea leaves or what are often bland tea bags from larger producers.

If you are used to sipping hot tea made from loose teas from afar-Assam, Ceylon, Taiwan-you might use a shorter steep time for the plantation's loose leaf offering (unless you have an uncommon taste for slightly sour tea) to relish this American treasure and to read prosperity in the leaves at the bottom of your cup. The First Flush and Governor Gray (the traditional bergamot-laced tea absent the English ties of Earl Gray) make tea as good as any from Asia-rich and round, while slightly dry.

A September 13, 2000, Wall Street Journal article titled "U.S. Tea Grower Is in Hot Water" spun a somewhat dire story. It suggested that in spite of fourteen years of continued business, with its mail order catalogue, a line of bottled iced teas, a new green tea offering, the Wal-Mart contract, and other boutique products, the Charleston Tea Plantation has a tenuous hold in the marketplace. In fact, the article did quote Mr. Fleming's own regret about the detrimental effect of the company's inadequate advertising budget-"Call it entrepreneurial stupidity"-and Mr. Hall's appraisal at that time-"We're just trying to hold our heads above water."

I spoke with Mr. Hall recently, almost a year after the Wall Street Journal article appeared, for an update on America's long, commercial tea cultivation journey. Mr. Hall assured me that all is fine, though "it's not easy," with the Charleston Tea Plantation. Reading between the lines gives the impression that the plantation is not without economic concern and might well use some extra wind behind its sails. To the extent American tea drinkers do not know about the plantation's products, it may be time to brew up wider recognition. To the extent they do and are opting exclusively for foreign imports without trying the Charleston's tea, call that globalcentrism.

While Fleming and Hall navigate the issues challenging all small businesses, along with those facing specialty tea vendors in particular, customers who have stoked their success so far will continue to praise Lowcountry tea.