WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. – Americans now guzzle more than 3.6 billion gallons of tea a year, most of it over ice (and often with a heaping helping of sugar that no doubt cancels out some of the health benefits).
And yet most people have never seen a tea plant, because they're notoriously hard to grow in this country.
The tidy rows of Camellia sinensis on Wadmalaw Island, S.C., are Chinese immigrants that endured nearly two centuries of fits and starts before getting firmly established at the Charleston Tea Plantation, which bills itself as the only commercial tea-growing operation in North America.
Tea bushes can survive for centuries. The ones on Wadmalaw Island, a sparsely populated strip of “low country” a few miles south of Charleston, first arrived in South Carolina in 1799 – apparently accidentally included in a large shipment of plants for a plantation owner intent on creating an ornamental European-style garden.
They've outlived many would-be masters, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a signer of the Confederate Secession papers. But it wasn't until 1888 that a local biochemist was able to do anything special with the plant stock, setting up a tea-growing operation in Summerville, now a Charleston suburb that claims to be the birthplace of sweet tea.
Dr. Charles Shepherd's oolong tea, the kind often served in Chinese restaurants, won first prize at the 1904 world's fair. But after his death in 1915, the plants went untended for decades.
In 1963 Shepherd's plants were transplanted to a potato farm on Wadmalaw Island, where researchers from the Lipton Tea company had a go at them. But it wasn't until 1987, when a third-generation, British-trained professional tea taster bought the property, that the Charleston Tea Plantation was born.
These days nine flavors of tea are produced here, including American Classic, the official White House tea for the last 30 years. Original owner William Barclay Hall now runs the operation for David and Eunice Bigelow of the Bigelow Tea Company, though Bigelow teas continue to be made elsewhere with imported leaves.
This isn't a “Gone With the Wind” plantation, though it has the same general look – a long stately driveway, lush gardens, impressive oaks. Visitors are free to wander the grounds, picnic or just soak up the ambience, ideally with a glass of tea purchased at the gift shop. Trolley rides are available for a small fee, but there's no charge to tour the processing plant.
Apparently Wadmalaw Island's sandy soil and sub-tropical weather agree with Camellia sinensis, though the videotaped tour stations don't explain about the lack-of-mountains problem. Globally, an awful lot of tea must be harvested by hand because of the vertical terrain.
Here, tea shoots are shorn off by the “Green Giant,” a customized harvester that resembles a combine. According to the tour video, it's the only one of its kind in America. (Though the U.S. tea boom has initiated other tea-growing attempts around the country, most are in their infancy and still rely on hand-picking.)
The leaves are processed in a pole barn operation that turns out green and black tea as well as oolong, the variety Shepherd was known for. Though scientists have assigned different health benefits to each, they all come from the same leaves. The only difference is how long they spend on the slow-moving oxidation bed.
Black tea, the most popular in this country, oxidizes for 50 minutes, which gives it a richer taste and darker color. Oolong tea, which is lighter both in taste and color, oxidizes for 15 minutes. Green tea, the most delicate – and the one with the most polyphenols – isn't oxidized at all.
Some of the tea grown and processed here wound up in the World's Largest Sweet Tea, mixed up last summer in nearby Summerville, where 1904 world's fair tea medalist Shepherd once held court.
Bet there were a lot of antioxidants in that 2,524-gallon drink, which was made with 210 pounds of loose-leaf tea. A replica of the ginormous container made for that event, in which the town of Summerville knocked off former Guinness record holder Lipton Tea, now towers over plantation visitors.
Too bad the recipe called for more than eight times that much sugar – 1,700 pounds – giving it a calorie count of well over 3 million.
Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.
*Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water.
*Though tea consumption in the United States is lower than in many other countries, the U.S. tea industry quadrupled since 1990 to $10.8 billion in sales in 2014.
*Ice tea dominates the U.S. tea market, making up 85 percent of all the tea consumed here.
*Eighty-seven percent of millennials are tea drinkers.
*Studies have linked the antioxidants and polyphenols in tea to cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as potentially offering protection against some cancers. Tea is also thought to have antimicrobial benefits that inhibit the growth of dental plaque.
– Source: The Tea Association of the USA
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