If you are like me, you probably don’t give much thought to where the tea comes from that gives us our lift, our summertime chill, or our afternoon delight. Tea was “discovered” by the Europeans in China, Japan, and India centuries ago. It was first used as a medicine. People around the world still consume it for health reasons. For myself, I just love the flavor of iced tea, and Southern sweet tea is my favorite.
November in the South means camellia blooming season is beginning. Sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua) provide the early camellia color in the garden followed by the large flowered camellias, (Camellia japonica) throughout much of the winter. Another camellia also blooms in November. It’s small flowers can be white or pinkish. Blossoms are the end, not the beginning of this camellia’s garden usefulness. When it blooms, it is the conclusion of the season for the growers.
This camellia is the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. That’s right. Those tiny little tea leaves come from a camellia bush. This is not just any camellia. It is the variety grown for its tasty leaves. These tea camellias have been grown for more than a hundred years on a plantation along the South Carolina coast, near Charleston. Tea camellias thrive in this area in sandy soil and sunshine with mild winters and hot, humid summers.
There are no pesticides or fungicides used in growing these camellias. Since the water table is so high here, no more than 5 feet down, only the young plants need any kind of irrigation. Once they are fully rooted, they find their own water. It takes these young tea camellias five years before they will be producing enough tea leaves to harvest.
The tea leaves are never collected from the sides of the shrubs as these are growing on older woody stems and are bitter. Only the topmost 3-5 inches of tender new growth is harvested. Seven cuttings a year are possible, which translates into 5,000 lbs of tea leaves from this plantation where more than 150,000 tea bushes are growing, with more being set out every year. The tea season runs from the first week in May until November. Once the tea camellias blossom, they go dormant and the time for harvesting is over.
A machine put together with parts from cotton and tobacco harvesters completes the whole picking process. Nicknamed the Green Giant, it and three men replace what used to take 500 field workers to accomplish.
This is the home of Bigelow Tea’s American Classic Tea. Until I was treated to this tour, I had no idea that the way the tea leaves are processed determines what kind of tea they will become. Tea leaves consist of 20% solids and 80% liquid. It takes approximately 5 lbs of tea leaves to make 1 lb of processed tea. Three kinds of tea are developed at the Charleston Tea Plantation: Black, oolong, and green.
When the tea leaves come in from the fields, they are crushed and chopped by a Rotovane machine. Then conveyor belts take them to the withering machine, a dryer, where the oxidation takes place slowly. The oxidation level determines the kind of tea that will develop.
Black tea takes the longest at 50 minutes. Next is the oolong, which is a Chinese tea usually served in Chinese restaurants. It only takes 15 minutes. Green tea isn’t sent through the oxidation process at all. It comes straight from the field and is then steamed to stop oxidation. It then goes through a chopping and drying procedure.
After the leaves are processed, they are ruffled. They pass through two sieves and finally a static electric section. These methods winnow out any leftover stems and debris.
Bob Giesy was our tour director of the fields and the driver of our trolley-bus named Man o’ War. On our excursion to the tea camellia fields, we stopped by the irrigation pond where bass, blue gills, and turtles live. A new resident has moved in, finding the hunting in the waters very good. He is a six foot long alligator they have named Wally. He’s quite secretive, according to Bob, but he did stick around long enough for some picture taking from the safety of the trolley.
Although tea is consumed all over the world, (it is the most drunk beverage after water) ice tea is only popular in the U.S. Here, 85% of the tea we consume is ice tea. Folks at the Charleston Tea Plantation have advice on how to make the best cup or pot of tea. Use clear, fresh, cold water and bring it to a rolling boil. Steep a tea bag in your cup for one minute. Steep the tea in a pot of boiling water for 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you want your drink.