Bigelow Tea’s Charleston Tea Plantation: America’s Largest Working Tea Garden

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Founder Bill Hall shares his knowledge of one of America's favorite beverages.

“Our tea’s distinct flavor is found nowhere else,” Hall says with pride.

Ninety-nine percent of all tea grown in the world comes from some thirty-four countries in Asia, Africa and South America. That’s what makes it so remarkable that nestled among ancient oaks on Wadmalaw Island, one of the many sea islands of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, is a hidden garden: the Charleston Tea Plantation. It’s very much a working plantation that has been growing and producing tea since the early ‘80’s. Last year some 60,000 visitors traveled here to learn firsthand how tea is made. It’s truly America’s Tea Garden. Founder Bill Hall and his partners, Eunice and David Bigelow, the owners of Bigelow Tea, have dedicated themselves to producing fine tea as well as creating one of the most unique destinations for visitors to the Lowcountry.

Bill Hall, the Plantation’s founder has truly been the creative force that has kept this wonderful place humming. A good part of his dedication comes from his life-long love of tea. It turns out that in his youth he became the third generation in his family to be trained as a professional tea taster. This is a very rare profession that less than a hundred people in the world can lay claim to. It requires a very sophisticated palate that can identify the origins and the value of a tea grown anywhere in the world. Bill has just such a palate and brings his skills to every batch of tea that is produced at the plantation.

“In my time, all tea tasters had to be trained in London, England, the center of the tea world,” Bill says. Tea from all over the world arrived for sale at the London tea auction on a weekly basis. This is when an apprentice’s tea tasting skills are trained, developed and refined. The apprentice will taste approximately 800 – 1,000 cups of tea per day, five days a week for four years before completing his apprenticeship.

“Tea is much more complicated than, say, wine,” Hall explained. “Grapes all ripen at the same time, but tea is harvested every 15 days and the quality changes with each harvest. While all tea comes from the same plant, where the tea is grown changes the taste and quality dramatically.”

The tea grown on the Charleston Tea Plantation is different from any grown in the world. “Our tea’s distinct flavor is found nowhere else,” Hall says with pride. “Our weather conditions, soil and growing season are nearly perfect for tea.” Tea needs high humidity, rainfall, and good soil that drains easily. Wadmalaw’s sandy soil, hot, humid summers and frequent rain combine to form the delicious tea so loved by tea drinkers throughout the Carolinas and the world.

Growing tea is a science and an art; one that Hall and his partners at Bigelow Tea continue to refine. As soon as the new growth flushes on the plants in the spring, the new harvest begins, running through early November. A special harvester clips the new tea leaves from the top of the plants every 15 days, but the first harvest is the most sought after. In the world of tea it’s known as the First Flush. Interestingly, the fields, with their carefully groomed tea plants, look very orderly, almost like a field of landscaped ornamental shrubs. “It takes two to three years for a new plant to begin producing and plants mature at about five years.” New tea fields are added each year. Cuttings are taken from existing tea plans and grown in a state-of-the-art greenhouse.

A factory tour allows visitors to see all of the machinery required for making tea and large TV screens explain the entire tea making process. This up-close look at the unique process of growing and making tea is a one-of-a-kind experience. An open tea bar in the gift shop allows for tastings of all the various teas that are offered by the Plantation. There is also a trolley that, for a small charge, can take those interested on a great half-hour ride. Visitors get a behind the scenes glimpse at the greenhouse where thousands of tiny tea bushes are just getting started in life.

Education is an important part of the mission at Charleston Tea Plantation. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred people have no idea that tea is grown in the United States,” Hall stated. “We want people to come here and have a good time while they are learning about tea.” The plantation also hosts weddings and events throughout the year. The First Flush Festival in the spring is probably the most well-known and is attended by thousands who enjoy a day of live music, food and, of course, tea!

As you might imagine, Bill Hall is a pretty busy guy. In addition to his numerous duties on the plantation he also has many speaking engagements in the local community. And for groups of 30 or more, Bill is available to give an up-close and personal tour of the plantation.

Hall, together with his partners, Eunice and David Bigelow, are working hard to expand the knowledge and love for tea.

About Bigelow Tea’s Charleston Tea Plantation

In South Carolina, near Charleston, there’s a historic island called Wadmalaw Island. It’s ten miles long and six miles wide with sandy soils and a sub-tropical climate--the perfect conditions to grow the Camiillia Sinesis plant (otherwise known as tea)! That’s where you’ll find Bigelow Tea’s Charleston Tea Plantation, America’s largest working tea garden.

Because Wadmalaw island cannot be commercially developed, it’s a natural oasis and a step back in time. Bigelow Tea purchased the plantation in 2003 and now grows and produces American Classic Tea. Guests are invited to the grounds for weddings, tours and a variety of music festivals creating the perfect way to experience historic, Southern culture and a living piece of American history.

The Charleston Tea Plantation is open seven days a week and includes tours, trolly rides and a Plantation Gift shop where visitors can help themselves to all the iced American Classic Tea they can drink.

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Denise Blackburn-Gay, APR
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