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Two for Tea

America's only commercial tea crop is grown on an island with plants more than a century old

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Then, in 1985, a tea taster and buyer for an American supermarket chain paid a visit. Bill Hall had read an article in a trade magazine that said tea couldn't be successfully grown for commercial use in America. The farm on Wadmalaw Island convinced him otherwise. The sandy soil drained well, the climate was humid enough. It looked like a perfect place to grow tea.

Hall had apprenticed as a taster for four years in London, historic center of the world's tea trade, before working as a dealer in England, Argentina and the Netherlands. During his apprenticeship, he tasted hundreds of cups a day, every day. "The idea was for me not to make value judgments on which tea I liked, but to learn what made each different brand's flavor of tea unique."

Growing tea in the United States was a dream Hall had long cherished. Soon after he and Fleming met, they purchased Lipton's operation and set about making a commercial crop. American Classic was launched that year, and its sales have climbed steadily ever since.

Fleming grows the tea and Hall processes and blends it to his taste. "Americans drink most of their tea as iced tea," Hall says. "It accounts for 80 percent of the 200 million pounds of tea sold here each year. Americans also like their iced tea to have a bright, light flavor. So that's what we blend our tea for."

Hall has now led me through a few sets of swinging doors inside the offices, and we've emerged in the plantation's manufacturing warehouse. Straight ahead, whirring machines pack hundreds of tea bags per minute; just beyond, we enter the actual processing area.

To Hall, one of the most striking things about tea is its simplicity. "There are only three types in the world: green, oolong and black," he says. "After that, it's all blending and flavoring. And simplifying things even further, all three types of tea come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. It's the way each type of tea is processed that makes the difference. For green tea, you steam it before grinding and drying it, which destroys an enzyme in the leaf that turns it brown. For oolong tea, you allow it to oxidize for a shorter period than for black tea. And for black tea, which is the type we make, the process goes like this ..."

He walks me to several 5-foot-tall, 15-foot-long boxes edged by electric fans and topped by screens. These, he tells me, are the "withering boxes." The plantation's harvesting machine clips the new growth on top of each tea bush every 15 to 18 days during the May-to-October growing season. The harvested leaves are spread across the withering box screens and dried for 18 hours. Then they're transported to a grinder for "macerating," a sort of chewing that exposes the tea juices. Hall reaches into a pile of macerated leaves to show me how the processing oxidizes them, turning them a lustrous coppery-orange color. After maceration, the leaves are dried some more before stems and other undesirable fibers are removed.

Once the finished batches of a clipping have been dumped into large, deep boxes lined with plastic bags, Hall goes to work steeping, sipping and mixing the different strains until he gets the flavor he wants. "Sometimes mixing the tea is easy, sometimes it's not," he says. "Depending on the growing conditions, each batch is different." His job is to maintain a uniform taste to the tea.

It's time for lunch. Hall and I walk to his pickup truck and head for a down-home shrimp restaurant just up the island. As he talks and drives, Hall taps the steering wheel with the butt of his right hand for emphasis. "Tea is the greatest crop in the world," he says. "You don't have to till it, so you're not creating erosion. The plants live forever, and you can put 5,200 of them on just one acre. People all over the world start and end their day with a cup of tea. They take comfort from a cup of tea." Passing row after row of the plantation's flat-topped plants, Hall waits a beat, then adds: "Yep, if every crop on earth were as good as tea, the world would be a far better place."

By Donovan Webster

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