Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

Tastiest Tea in North America

The Charleston Tea Plantation

by Aïda Rogers

 

The Charleston Tea Plantation is more than its name. It's a dream, it's a nightmare, it's a commercial enterprise, a historic undertaking and a lifetime's risk. It's also the home of nine cats, three dogs, two horses, three ponds, numerous cicadas, a vegetable garden, a haphazard office, a red truck, a silver Jaguar, an American flag and a couple of guys named Mack and Bill.

Mack and Bill aren't much alike, and much has been made of their differences. Mack Fleming is affable and relaxed, a Manning native who loves to talk about tea. Bill Hall is more on the flashy side, a Canadian who might have been a race car driver had his family not been entrenched in the tea trade.

But most obviously, Mack is balding and Bill is not. Bill has long honey-colored hair that falls past his shoulders, and the sight of him between the flat-top hedge rows of tea stays with you long after you're gone. Ask about the hair - everybody does - and Bill will tell you straight and plain. He likes long hair. He doesn't like how he looks with it short. It doesn't bother him that he's different from the typical tea buyer - usually someone more staid-looking - because the Charleston Tea Plantation is different, too. It's the only tea farm in America, and its product, American Classic, is the freshest you can buy. Put that in your bag and brew it.

"Let me tell you what we're really doing here," Bill said between stops in the Ford pickup. "We're starting a new industry for America. That's really important to me. And obviously I want to become immensely wealthy from it."

Bill laughs when he says that, but he and Mack do a lot of laughing. Maybe they have to, because it hasn't been as easy as they thought. When they bought the farm six year ago, they thought they had a foolproof combination. Mack, the only practicing tea horticulturist in the country, had been director of research for the Thomas J. Lipton Inc. before becoming partners with Bill. Bill is one of America's few professional tea tasters; after a four-year apprenticeship in London where he sampled 800 to 1,000 cups a day, five days a week, he can identify tea by country, region, and sometimes by farm. He became an international tea buyer, living in Europe and Argentina. Between them, they had more than 40 years experience in tea. They figured every base was covered, but as Bill puts it, "marketing was the nightmare."

"We thought all we had to do was put it on the shelf and everyone would buy it; they'd walk in and say 'American Tea! Why should I drink anything else?' " Bill recalled, laughing at how they thought they'd make a profit the first year. "In reality, most people don't realize tea is imported. A lot of them think it's grown in America."

The countries that export most tea to America are China and Argentina, but as Mack and Bill point out, it takes nine to 12 months for that tea to reach the grocery store. American Classic takes about a month, something to consider when you realize tea deteriorates with age. Besides its freshness, other plus points are its comparable price (between $2.50 and $3 per 70-teabag package) and that no insecticides or fungicides are used to produce it. Also, it provides rural employment for 25 people on Wadmalaw Island, where the plantation is located.

"There's nothing we're doing that's not good," Mack said. "We're even politically correct, other than being white men."

Mack is just as fast as Bill to say he wants to make a buck, but both talk about their dreams for the future. Mack, 50, envisions a huge lake with ducks, two-story packaging and tea-making buildings and an air-conditioned, plexiglass walkway for visitors who want to see the tea as it's harvested and processed. Bill, 44, would like to build a swimming pool for employees, something bound to be appreciated on subtropical Wadmalaw Island, 18 miles south of Charleston.

As it is now, Charleston Tea Plantation won't make the cover of HOUSE BEAUTIFUL. It's more like any working farm in the country - an assortment of scattered outbuildings, old trucks, big trees and lots of grass. The only hint that something unusual might be going on is the gazebo, with its white latticed walls and American flag flying in front. That's where Mack and Bill treat visitors to a glass of American Classic and Benne Wafers when they have open house.

Maybe people thought they were crazy to start a commercial tea farm, but its owners are too busy to worry about that.

"It's a lot like the wine industry in California," Bill said. "Years ago, people said 'They can't grow wine in California, only good wine comes from France.' And now look at the wine industry in California - it's enormous, it's huge - and it all started somewhere. It started with a few plants like this."

 

THE CHARLESTON TEA Plantation started in 1987, when Mack and Bill bought the property from Thomas J. Lipton Inc. Lipton had bought the land in 1963 to start an experimental tea farm for research. Worried about the instability of the third world countries that produce tea, Lipton officials thought it wise to find a quieter place to grow its own. They found Summerville, where Dr. Charles Shepard, a biochemist at South Carolina Medical College in Charleston, had grown tea successfully for 27 years at his Pinehurst Tea Farm.

But that was from 1889 to 1915, and since then, Pinehurst had been divided and sold. Lipton paid to evaluate the tea shrubs still growing there and eventually transferred the best of them to a former potato farm on Wadmalaw. With its humid weather, South Carolina's Low Country proved more than suitable for the cultivation of tea.

Though the Pinehurst Tea Farm was famous - its oolong tea won first prize at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis - it was not South Carolina's first. Dr. Junius Smith, a retired London physician, started growing tea at his Golden Grove Plantation in Greenville in 1848. But he died four years later, and his experiment with him. In 1874, Dr. Alexius Forster grew tea at Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown. He, too, died before the crop could become profitable.

But the first time tea came to America was in 1799, when French botanist Andre Michaux planted roots at Middleton Plantation near Charleston. So it would seem South Carolina is fated to grow tea, even though it hasn't been produced commercially here since 1915. "In the big picture of the thing, we'll just be one of the cogs in its development," Mack said. "We're coming in after many, many years to reinvent this wheel."

What the Charleston Tea Plantation has that its predecessors didn't is a tea harvester, a machine Mack designed to make tea gathering faster. A cross between a cotton and tobacco harvester, the tea harvester accomplishes in a few hours what hundreds of workers do by hand in several days in other countries. It's this labor-saving device that keeps American Classic fresh and competitively priced. Indeed, it was labor costs that proved most difficult for earlier American tea growers; Shepard built a free school for his employees on his plantation-style Summerville farm, teaching them basic academics as well as how to pick tea. At the Charleston Tea Plantation, people drink tea that was growing there a week before.

The farm is 127 acres, with half of it currently in production. By the end of the year, three-fourths of it will be in production. Harvesting season is from May to October, and free walking tours are given the first Saturday of those months. The tea's growing, harvesting, drying, grading and packaging all take place on the plantation.

One of the more memorable parts of the tour is Bill's tea tasting, a practice that involves slurping and spitting. "There are never any women tea tasters," he said. "Women find it hard to spit in public a thousand times a day."

 

MAKING THE Charleston Tea Plantation work was harder than they expected, but Mack and Bill say they're about to "turn the corner." It's taken this long to eke a profit, but some of the positives are pretty positive. Consider this:

 

* Sales have doubled every year.

* American Classic has moved into the ready-to-drink market and is available in 16 or 64-ounce jars. The tea is bottled in Greenville, and again, no additives, preservatives or coloring is used. Ready-to-drink tea, Mack believes, is the fastest-growing segment of the industry. Unsweetened and reduced-caffeine teas also are being developed.

* The Charleston Tea Plantation has produced an instant tea for Walmart, called Sam's American Choice Iced Tea Mix.

* American Classic is being sold in Japan, where its westernizing citizens have begun to embrace iced tea. In Japan, you can find American Classic in vending machines, hot or cold. American Classic is also exported to Spain, Bermuda and England.

* American Classic has been served in the White House during the past three administrations, including the current one.

 

Still, Mack is ready for a presidential visit. Theodore Roosevelt visited Charles Shepard's farm in Summerville, and Mack thinks they deserve no less. "We feel we're doing something pretty important in the historical picture, and governmentwise, there's not been a recognition of that."

But most significantly, American Classic has reached the American public. It can be found in all 50 states - in grocery stores throughout the Southeast and in gourmet/specialty shops everywhere else. That, says Mack, is something to be proud of.

"If you see a product on the shelf in your favorite supermarket, you need to pay tribute to somebody. Because somebody's worked one hell of a lot of time and spent a lot of money to get on that shelf."

Like Bill, Mack laughs at his earlier naivete. "I'll tell you an actual thought process I had. I actually thought that once we got this tea in 1987 and put it in our cute little box, I could call Tom Smith at Food Lion and say, 'Tom, I'm a good old Clemson graduate and we have this new tea, the only tea grown in America, and it's so much fresher, we want you to sell it and make us rich.' That was my kind of marketing concept. You know I tried to call him? Obviously I didn't get through."

Regardless, tea drinkers got the message, and they've written Mack and Bill to praise their product and wish them well in their work. "They say our tea is far superior and they don't need as much sugar with it, that it's smoother and that's because it is," Bill said. "It IS different, it IS a better quality tea."

While the owners realize tea has two images - one of ladies and china teacups, the other of hot weather and construction workers -Mack and Bill are aiming for the everyday tea drinker. "Tea is really sort of a hard-working beverage," Mack said, noting that tea is the most common beverage after water. "Sophisticated? Well, just the people who drink it."

 

Charleston Tea Plantation's last open house of the season is in early October, with tours every half hour from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tours are free and wheelchair-friendly; reservations aren't necessary. In case of rain, open house is canceled. The plantation is located at 6617 Maybank Highway on Wadmalaw Island. For more information, call (843) 559-0383. Open house tours resume in May.

 

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