Two for Tea

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

Early on a sunny morning, Mack Fleming and I relax in two patio chairs under a phalanx of live-oak trees and enjoy a couple of glasses of sweet, smooth iced tea. It's not Darjeeling from India or Lapsang souchong from China. It's Fleming's baby, the only tea produced commercially in North America, and it's cultivated right here at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, off the coast of South Carolina.

Fleming is a shrewd, slow-talking, shiny-pated South Carolina native who once served as the head of a college horticulture department but has long since become a tea expert. He's a man at home on this island, 20 miles south of Charleston's seaport; indeed, he seems as rooted here as the oaks looming above us. His partner, William Barclay Hall, has a gleaming mane of long hair, rides horses and drives a red Lotus. He's Canadian by birth, British by tea-taster training and South Carolinian by choice. Along with their families and a staff of about 40, Fleming and Hall manage the 127 acres of Lowcountry land and 320 varieties of plant that produce the robust blend called American Classic.

"Tea is fascinating," Fleming muses. "The plants here are at least 112 years old. Some tea plants in China and India are 800 years old, and they're still healthy and producing."

He gestures across the driveway, where acres of green, square-trimmed tea bushes stretch almost to the horizon. "These plants," Fleming says, "are descendants of the first tea plants ever brought to the United States.

And because they're hearty and grow so thick, we don't have to use insecticides or fungicides. Each plant is also grown from original cuttings, not from seeds fertilized by different parents. We want the same plants every time, so we take cuttings from existing plants and grow direct clones. It's more work, but it keeps quality consistent."

Fleming and Hall bought the plantation in 1987 from the Lipton company, which had used it as an experimental plot for decades. But the story of tea-growing in the United States actually begins in 1799. According to Fleming, that's when the first tea bushes arrived in this country—probably by mistake. "They came with a large shipment of other plants for the French botanist André Micheaux, who was putting together what is today the Middleton Place Gardens near Charleston."

In 1848, a planter named Junius Smith took some Micheaux tea cuttings from Middleton Place, along with others from overseas, and nurtured them into the first commercial tea crop at his Golden Grove Plantation, some 20 miles from Wadmalaw Island. "Smith's tea business was a success for five years," Fleming says, "right up until the time he was shot and killed."

In 1874, a landed gentleman named Dr. Alexis Forster tried tea farming, this time in the South Carolina burg of Georgetown. The venture thrived for five years — again, right up until its proprietor's untimely death. "Dr. Forster is said to have been traveling home in his buggy and was set upon by 'rascals,'" Fleming tells me. "While he was being chased, his buggy hit a rock in the road and flipped. He was killed."

Next came the biochemist Dr. Charles Shepard, who in 1888 set up the 100-acre Pinehurst Tea Plantation. Within a few years, Pinehurst's tea became a national favorite. But after Shepard's death in 1915 — "of natural causes," Fleming notes — the plantation went to pot.

Lipton established its research station on Wadmalaw Island in 1963. Taking cuttings from the plants at Pinehurst, the company set about seeing if high-quality tea could still be grown with them. The results were promising, and in 1978 Mack Fleming joined Lipton as the farm's director of tea horticulture.

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."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.