Hall later began working with the tea company R.C. Bigelow Inc., which now sells the tea grown at the plantation under the label American Classic Tea. The plantation has developed a reputation among tea connoisseurs as a place that carefully guards the flavor of its products, our guide informed us.
Soon after giving us an overview of the plantation’s history, our guide let us know that we were about to encounter its tea-taster founder. “That looks like Bill’s golf cart parked by the greenhouse right now,” he announced, steering the trolley over. Feeling jumpy with excitement (or possibly from all the caffeine I’d consumed sampling tea before the tour), I bounded out of the trolley and nearly bumped into an older couple as I headed a bit too eagerly into the greenhouse. Slow down, I reminded myself.
Slow seemed to be the key word here. Our group looked through a long glass window into the greenhouse, watching Hall, whose long gray hair hung down over the top of his T-shirt, as he carefully examined tea plants waiting to be transplanted to the fields outside to see if they were ready. He slowly ran his fingers over the plants’ tiny leaves with the concentration of a surgeon conducting a post-op examination. Whatever he saw seemed to utterly fascinate him, and I became fascinated watching his fascination. Our group watched Hall intently as our guide explained the wonders of the Camellia sinensis plant that produces tea, but Hall barely looked up from the plants other than to smile shyly and wave at us.
Patience is crucial when growing tea, our guide told us, since tea bushes take several years to mature after they’re planted. Restraint is also important, since the best tea flavor comes only from the youngest, tenderest leaves at the top of the bush each season — so producers need to be careful to use only those few leaves when making tea, or they could ruin the flavor they’ve cultivated. I felt a twinge of regret as I thought of how many times in the past I’d rushed through the process of simply drinking tea — gulping it down in the morning for a jolt of caffeine — when I could have been savoring its flavor more.
After leaving the greenhouse, we rode past empty fields that sat patiently waiting for the moment when the company would decide that it was time to plant them with tea bushes. “We could have expanded the plantation quicker, but we wanted to take our time,” our guide explained, as he listed the eight blends of tea cultivated on-site and informed us that the company has no plans to offer any others in the foreseeable future.
Touring the plantation factory was less engaging than the trolley tour; it was just a few minutes of watching timed videos on screens in a hallway overlooking the factory floor. There was lots of helpful information about tea production, but I found myself wanting to go back to the greenhouse and just stare at Hall staring at the tea plants in wonder.
Afterward, I poured myself a sample cup of Island Green iced tea. But I didn’t just knock it back quickly; I sipped it slowly, letting the golden brown liquid linger in my mouth the way a Southern afternoon gently lingers on Wadmalaw Island, until evening melts it away.
Hopler is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax who blogs at www.whitneyhopler.