WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. -- Down along the Charleston coast, two men are doing something people say can't be done in the United States: They're growing tea and are about to start putting the only made-in-America tea on grocery store shelves.
Hovering over tea plants on their 130-acre plantation, Mack Fleming and Bill Hall inspect the leaves that will be turned into American Classic tea, which they describe as a "light, bright gourmet tea."
"American Classic will hold its own among world teas," said Fleming, who is prepared to put his product up against any tea grown in China, India, Sri Lanka and the dozen other other countries that dominate the world tea industry.
The two men are taking the tea industry by surprise. Jane McCabe, editor of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, said, "It can't be done. It's too expensive to grow tea in America."
Don Wiederecht, executive director of the American Tea Council in New York, is no more supportive. "We don't have the soil and elevation to grow tea," he said.
But here on Wadmalaw Island in Charleston County, Fleming and Hall have 150,000 healthy tea plants. For the past four months they have been putting leaves harvested from their lush green fields into little yellow packages in the plantation's factory.
They will be launching the product in selected areas around Labor Day. "We'll start locally in stores in South Carolina, but we're aiming for the whole Eastern Seaboard over the next few months," said Hall. A box of 25 teabags will cost about $2.50, the equivalent of the popular British tea Earl Grey.
Fleming and Hall have pooled their talents and finances to produce the only home-grown tea in the United States, which imported 193 million pounds of tea in 1986, up from 170 million pounds in 1985.
Tea imports have been rising slowly since 1945, said the American Tea Council's Wiederecht, who added, "Tea will never go through the roof like hula hoops and microchips, but on the other hand there's been a steady increase in consumption." Tea hasn't been grown in the U.S. for commercial sales since the early 1900s when a small-scale tea plantation in Summerville, S.C., went out of business after its owner died.
Hall and Fleming think they have got a unique combination of skills to bring the U.S. tea industry back to life. Fleming is a horticulturist and researcher who has grown tea for eight years, and Hall is a professional tea taster.
"There are only about eight tea tasters in the whole United States," said Hall, standing amid test tubes and tea cups in his plantation lab.
He swirled samples of American Classic in his mouth and spit them out. "Excellent! Excellent tea."
Hall did a four-year apprenticeship with a British tea company, and as part of his training he had to sample 800 to 1,000 teas per day. That experience helped him select the blends used in American Classic.
"People ask us if growing tea in America is such a good idea how come no one else is doing it?" Fleming said.
It's not a matter of climate, he insisted. Tea plants require warm weather and about 60 inches of rainfall a year, which is what Charleston County usually gets.
Elevation is a more questionable factor. Wiederecht insists that high elevation is necessary to make a tasty tea. Northern India and Kenya produce excellent teas because of their high growing grounds, he said.
But Fleming said high elevation isn't necessary to grow good tea. And John Byrne of the Thomas J. Lipton Tea Co. agrees. Lipton, a British- and Dutch-owned company, experimented with tea growing for about 20 years in South Carolina. "We found that very fine tea could indeed be grown there," said Byrne.
The real obstacle to American tea growing has been labor costs, said Fleming, and he thinks he has eliminated that problem. His solution is a piece of equipment that makes harvesting economical. It's a simple machine that looks like a modified tractor and plucks tea plants at a rate of two miles per hour.
Fleming designed the harvester and had it made in South Carolina. It does the work of 500 people picking tea leaves, he said.
"Hand picking is done in India and Africa and developing countries where labor is cheap," said Hall. "People in developing countries may earn $10 a week picking tea, and America just can't compete with wages like that."
Labor costs have been the downfall of two centuries of efforts to make the United States self-sufficient in tea.
The cultivation of tea goes back to 1795 when French botanist Andre Michaux planted tea on a plantation outside Charleston. His plants fared well and their descendants survive to this day, but no one carried on his work after he died.
Throughout the 1850s and 1870s the Department of Agriculture subsidized tea growers in seven states. But production costs were very high and the government eventually withdrew support.
Then in 1888 Charles Shepard, a chemist at the South Carolina Medical College, purchased 600 acres of land in Summerville and launched Pinehurst Tea. His tea won first place at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, competing against the finest Oriental blends.
But when Shepard died in 1915 the tea farm died with him. Labor costs were just too high. Shepard's harvesting costs were eight times higher than those in the Orient.
Fleming and Hall aren't worried that the machine will be copied. "Millions of people would be out of work if developing countries turned to mechanization," said Hall. "Until those countries think they can replace those jobs, I don't think they'll turn to mechanical plucking."
Fleming acquired the plantation on Wadmalaw Island from the Lipton Co. in 1986, when that firm decided to end its effort to find a U.S. alternative to importing tea from Sri Lanka, Africa and India.
Byrne, a senior vice president at Lipton's U.S. headquarters, said, "We decided that we had an ample supply of tea that we could get from a variety of countries around the world."
Fleming, who worked for Lipton, decided to do the work the company had dropped. He and Hall teamed up, planted tea and renovated a factory. They also hired 12 employes.
No one knows what the future of American Classic tea will be, but Wiederecht of the American Tea Council thinks there's a market for a tea grown in the United States. "If you could grow a good tea here, people would buy it. I think it would have a lot of appeal."
However, the United States is far behind many other countries in tea consumption. In England the per-capita tea consumption is eight pounds a year, compared with seven-tenths of a pound here.
It wasn't always that way. Until the American Revolution, tea was the leading beverage here. It was so popular that England's three-penny-a-pound tax led to revolts and "tea parties" in Boston and Charleston in 1773. After the revolution, coffee replaced tea as the preferred beverage and it has remained more popular ever since.
Fleming doesn't think American Classic tea will change drinking habits in this country, but he is hoping that American tea drinkers will choose his product over imported teas.
Why should they pick American Classic? For one, the tea will be fresher than most imported teas, he said. Imported teas are usually a year old by the time they're harvested, packaged and shipped to the United States.
Some tea drinkers also may prefer to buy a tea made in the United States. Fleming and Hall are doing business in a state where "Buy America" and "Crafted With Pride" campaigns are going strong.
"Think of all the revenue going out of the country," said Fleming. "Before we came on the scene, tea drinkers didn't have a choice. You had to buy imported tea. Now, we're giving people another option."