Inside America's Only Full-Scale Tea Plantation

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By Gillie Houston Posted August 24, 2016

"What could be a better than a life centered around tea? Nothing, absolutely nothing."

Tea has long been a staple of the Southern diet—but where exactly do those fragrant greens come from? And though most of America's tea is imported, some grows on a lush, leafy island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, where America's only large-scale tea plantation is thriving.

At the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation, third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall harvests rows of green Camellia sinesis plants, which were first brought to the area in the 1700s. In an interview with NPR, Hall takes the reader inside the plantation where he has devoted his life's work. Owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, the farming operation sits atop Wadmalaw Island—part of South Carolina's Sea Islands—which experiences about 50 inches of rainfall a year, offering the perfect subtropical climate for tea growth.

Hall, who lives on the island, is part of a long line of tea testers, dating back to his grandfather. The third-generation tea master was officially trained in the art of the leaves as a young man—tasting "as many as 800 teas a day, five days a week," Hall says. "The goal was to be able to blind taste 10 teas and identify each one's country and region of origin, and even the tea plant used." While the Camellia sinensis is the only tea plant, it contains thousands of varieties, which each has a unique character, flavor, and number.

Now, Hall puts that knowledge of the crop to work in creating the perfect sip. On the island, the tea plants are grown in close rows using no pesticide, herbicides, or fungicides. Helping with the harvest is a mechanical tea harvester called the "Green Giant," which can do the work of 500 people. After the plants are harvested, the greenery is laid out on screens for 18 hours until dry, at which point they are ground up and taste tested for quality. While American-grown tea has seen a boost in popularity in recent years, leading to an uptick in small, artisan tea farms and growers, Charleston Tea Plantation is one of a kind in terms of commercial scale.

Hall is so passionate about his life in tea he says he can't imagine a life doing anything else, anywhere else. "What could be a better than a life centered around tea? Nothing, absolutely nothing," he says. "Tea is the greatest crop in the world," he adds—and we're pretty positive many sweet tea loving South Carolinians would agree with him.

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