That’s right, America’s only tea plantation can be found just outside Charleston, SC. I love tea, so I was really excited to check this out, to see some real, live tea bushes. The Charleston Tea Plantation is now owned by Bigelow (the maker of my favorite tea, the old standby Constant Comment), and it has an interesting history, which I am going to paraphrase here from Wikipedia (bolding is mine):
People started trying to grow tea in Savannah and Charleston in the 1700s, with mild success. In 1884, The US Government planted an experimental tea farm outside Summerville, SC, which operated until 1888. They concluded that South Carolina’s climate was too unstable to sustain the tea crop. The Department of Agriculture issued a report in 1897 that “estimates the minimum cost about eight times as much to pick one pound of tea in SC as that paid for the same service in Asia.”
In 1888 Dr. Charles Shepard established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation close to the government’s farm. Dr. Shepard secured 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. Pinehurst produced award winning teas until Dr. Shepard’s death in 1915. The garden closed after Shepard’s death and Pinehurst lay unattended until 1963.
In 1963, The Lipton Tea Company, worried about the instability of the third world countries that produce tea, paid to have the surviving tea plants at Pinehurst moved to a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island (about 20 miles from downtown Charleston). Lipton operated an experimental tea farm until it was sold in 1987 to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall, who converted the experimental farm into a working tea garden. The Charleston Tea Plantation utilized a converted tobacco harvester to mechanically harvest the tea and sold tea via mail order (American Classic Tea) and also produced Sam’s Choice Instant Tea, sold through Sam’s Clubs. American Classic Tea has been the official tea of the White House since 1987. Losing money and nearly bankrupt, in 2003 it was sold to Bigelow Tea Company at a court auction for $1.28 million and was temporarily closed for renovation it in order to attract tourists and boost its revenues. The garden reopened in January 2006 and gives free tours to the public.
I probably should have read all this before I visited. Even though we’d been told the tour was amazing, we decided to forgo it and instead buy a box of tea and wander around for awhile. The gift shop has samples of many of their teas, but most were already sweetened. I like my tea black — strong and uncontaminated. No sugar! Despite the sample being pretty weak, I decided to buy a box of Charleston Breakfast tea. Boxes of 12 tea bags go for $6.95. That’s pretty steep — more than fifty cents per cup. But this was my Ole Smoky Moonshine splurge equivalent – I had to have some American Classic Tea.
Maybe I got a bum box. It’s just not very good. Breakfast tea blends or straight up Assam teas are my favorites, but this breakfast tea has none of the brightness or subtle sweetness I was expecting. Instead it tastes sort of burnt and fishy, like some tea I accidentally left on our windowsill in our un-air-conditioned apartment in Chicago. I made it through three cups; I’m not sure how I’m going to manage to choke down the last nine. Maybe some sugar would help?