Once we were in South Carolina, we left it to my aunt and uncle to plan things out. And they did a fabulous job! In a million years, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to visit a tea plantation. I didn’t even know there was one.
We also all naively thought there wasn’t much to know about tea. We were very much mistaken. So hopefully you like tea, because this post is going to talk all about it!
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea plantation in North America. Tea was first grown at the present location on Wadmalaw Island, SC in 1963, and the plantation has been expanding ever since. Tea plants are very hearty and can live for hundreds of years, and new plants can be cultivated from pieces of existing plants. Thus, the plants growing here are the same ones that were originally brought to the United States in 1799!
One thing most people don’t know (us included, at the time) is that all types of tea are from the same plant. The plant is called Camellia sinensis, and it’s native to China and India. This plant requires regular precipitation but good drainage, which is why it’s usually grown on terraced hillsides.
The reason the tea plants are able to flourish on Wadmalaw Island is because the soil is sandy and porous, so the water is likewise able to drain. For periods without sufficient rain, the plantation has three irrigation ponds from which they can draw water.
The tea plant itself is a bush that can grow very tall, but the bushes at the plantation are kept just 3-4 feet high. Tea comes from the top few inches of the plant; this section is harvested using a specially-designed one-of-a-kind machine.
Unlike most crops, tea is very renewable and each plant can be harvested 7-8 times per year. The plantation is divided into 20 sections; they harvest one section each day, and by the time they make it back to the beginning on day 21 the plants in section 1 are ready to harvest again. Tea plants are also naturally resistant to insects, fungi, and other pests, so no pesticides are used at any time during tea production!
Once the tea is harvested, it’s brought inside and spread out atop large blowers to dry. Dried leaves are then minced into tiny pieces, breaking open the cells and exposing the internal contents to the air.
The next step is allowing these contents to oxidize. To make green tea, the oxidation step is skipped completely. To make oolong tea, the leaves are spread onto a conveyor belt and exposed to the air for about 25 minutes. To make black tea, the leaves are allowed to oxidize for about 1 hour. The chemical changes that occur within the leaves during this time are what give each type of tea its characteristic flavor.
I should note that white tea also comes from this same plant, but is produced only from the top 3 leaves of each stalk. These leaves must be hand-picked. This requires cheap labor (a sad but true reality), so white tea is not produced at Charleston Tea Plantation. Any white tea sold in the US comes from overseas.
Also, herbal teas, while marketed as tea, are not technically tea, as they come from different plants entirely. Only beverages made from Camellia sinensis leaves can truly be called “tea.”
Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation is owned by Bigelow and all tea produced here is sold as American Classic Tea. Tea from Charleston is never mixed with tea from elsewhere around the world, because minerals present in the soil contribute to the taste of the tea. Therefore, tea produced at Charleston tastes different than tea grown elsewhere.
American Classic Tea is delicious – it’s free all-you-can-drink tea while you visit – but I don’t have a refined enough palate to explain how it tasted different. All I can say is that it’s really good!
When you visit Charleston Tea Plantation, you can view a free informational video about the production process. You can also see the production equipment running from a vantage point above the production floor. When we were there, they were making black tea. The process is entirely automated, such that only one employee needs to be on the floor while the machines are running.
After the video, we refilled our tea and then hopped on the narrated trolley ride through the tea fields ($10 per person). The trolley ride is extremely bumpy, so in retrospect I recommend bringing just half a cup of tea! We spent the first part of the ride trying not to spill it all over ourselves.
The tour ended back at the store, where we sampled some more tea and browsed the store, which contains all things tea-related. They had a ‘buy 5 boxes get one free’ promotion going on when we were there, and let’s just say that between the 7 of us, we used about 3 of those promos.
Well, there you go – all you ever wanted to know about tea. If you’re ever a contestant on Jeopardy and “Tea” is one of the categories, it will be your lucky day!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the tea plantation is located off the Maybank Highway on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, about 30 mins south of Charleston
- Fees and passes: $10 per person for the narrated trolley tour through the plantation. Informational video, walking around the grounds, and all you can drink tea are free of charge
- Other: Plan to spend some money at the store – they sell many varieties of tea and lots of souvenirs. But mainly the tea. It’s so delicious!