By Jonathan Shipley
Some might say tea is in Bill Hall’s blood. He is a professional tea taster. His father and grandfather were professional tea tasters.
“As an apprentice in London I drank 800 to 1,000 cups of tea a day, five days a week,” says Bill, who was an apprentice there for four years.
Bill now oversees Charleston Tea Garden. It is the only large-scale commercially grown tea garden in the United States. Asked why there aren’t others in the country, Bill laughs and says, “There is no one crazy enough to do it. It’s a lot of work.”
It takes five years for tea plants to grow into maturity, and the process is expensive.
“Tea is one of the cheapest beverages in the world,” Bill says. “There’s not a lot of return unless you’re clever and smart.”
Bill figured out how to keep the business profitable. Eighty thousand visitors come to the garden every year, and his teas are sold onsite, online, and in local boutiques.
Bill began the undertaking in 1987. The property he bought on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina’s Lowcountry included some old tea plants—Camellia Sinensis— that had been growing there since 1963. Before that, the plants were on a farm in Summerville as part of the Pinehurst Tea Plantation.
In the late 1700s, Camellia Sinensis bushes first arrived on American shores from China. Several attempts were made to propagate them in South Carolina, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that they finally took root.
Going back even further than that, Peter Stuyvesant brought tea to America in 1650, and New World settlers liked it. They were avid tea drinkers who drank more tea than all of England put together. Tea gardens sprouted. The tea trade began.
In 1888, Charles Shepard founded Pinehurst Tea Plantation. His oolong tea won first prize at the 1904 World’s Fair. He was a prosperous tea grower until his death in 1915. His beloved plantation closed, and the tea plants grew wild.
Cuttings of those very plants are the bulk of Charleston Tea Garden. History is, literally, alive at the garden.
One of Bill’s teas is named “American Classic.” It became the first tea made with tea grown 100% in the U.S.
He says his journey has been a dream.
“No one else has done this,” Bill says. “To build this garden up took a lot of work. I’m proud of it.”
He’s proud of it all, including first flush, when there is the new growth of leaves on tea plants in the spring after awakening from winter’s dormancy. The leaves offer a unique flavor.
“It’s the freshest you’ll get,” Bill says. “It has great character. Smooth, mellow, sharp flavor.”
Charleston Tea Garden’s first flush is so popular there’s generally a waiting list each year.
Bill says he can’t wait to expand the business.
“There’s no downside to tea,” he says. “It’s healthy. It’s good hot or cold. It’s good winter or in summer. It’s sustainable. I just want to keep growing.”