If you live in the south, then I am pretty sure then you know that sweet tea is a staple at every restaurant. I drink a lot of sweet tea, but how many of you know where sweet tea comes from?
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea garden in North America. Due to Charleston’s summer heat, high humidity and rainfall, it is the perfect environment for tea to thrive. The heat and humidity is also the perfect weather to appreciate a nice cold glass of iced tea.
The tea garden is located on 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island ( about half an hour from downtown Charleston). They have a trolley that takes you on a tour on the 127 acres. It is an enormous place with tons of tea growing there!
Prior to my trip to the Charleston Tea Plantation, I did not know that the sweet tea I so often drink is just black tea with ice it. Also, black, green, and oolong tea all come from the same plant.The camellia sinensis.
So you are probably wondering how this green leaved plant is turned into a tasty beverage? Well is starts with growing the leaves. I was at the tea garden at the end of April and the tea bushes were just “waking” up from their winter’s hibernation.
The harvesting season runs from May until September. The the top of the tea bush will grow new shoots. When these shoots are 3-5 inches in length they are harvested by a unique harvester nicknamed the Green Giant. The Green Giant has a scissor like cutting bar that cuts the new shoots. These shoots are sent by way of an air blower into a large holding basket at the back of the machine.
2-3 weeks later the process is repeated. This will happen 7-10 times during the season. Tea is very resistant to bugs and disease so there are no chemicals used on the plants. These harvested leaves are then turned into tea. Tea plants can produce quality tea for centuries. New plants are created by snipping of shoots of current tea plants and replanting them. In 3-4 years the small sapling will grow into a tea bush ready to produce tea.
Here is how black tea is created.
The freshly harvested tea leaves are first placed on withering beds. The leaves are on a large bed up to 12 inches deep. Blowers below the bed circulate air to keep the leaves fresh and remove moisture. In about 18 hours, the leaves will have 12% of its moisture removed.
After the withering bed, the tea leaves are taken to a device called the rotovane. The rotaovane has teeth which tear the tea leaves into tiny pieces. The tearing of the tea leaves causes the water and juices inside the leaves (tea leaves are 80% water ) to react with oxygen in the air. This oxidation is what creates the different flavors of black, green and oolong teas.
I will focus on oolong and green tea later. For black tea the torn up tea leaves are laid evenly on a large oxidation bed. After 50 minutes, the tea leaves have turned from a lush green to a rich brown. This oxidation period has allowed for chemical reactions inside the leaves to occur and the flavor characteristics of the tea to develop.
The oxidation process is stopped by the tea leaves slowly drying in a 250 degree oven. The stems are then sifted out and the tea is packaged! Just to give you an idea of how many leaves it takes to make tea, 5 pounds of tea leaves will produce 1 pound of finished tea. 1 pound of tea can make 200 cups of iced tea. That is a lot of leaves!
My favorite way to drink black tea is the iced variety.
To make this you will need
-enough tea bags for 1/2 gallon of tea (depends on your brand and size of bags)
1/2 gallon of water
1 cups of sugar
Boil the water and then drop in the tea bags. Allow for the tea bags to sit for a few minutes. In the container that you will be serving the tea in, add the cup of sugar. Pour the hot tea into the container and stir until the sugar is dissolved. The key here is that you must add the hot tea to the sugar. You can not dissolve the sugar in the tea when it is chilled.
Once the tea has cooled, add ice and refrigerate until ready to be served. This is a very basic recipe, if you like it sweeter add more sugar. If it is too sweet then add less. You will have to experiment to see what you like best. There are many variations to this that I will bring to you later this summer.
After my experience at the Charleston Tea Plantation I have a new appreciation for the Tea I drink every day. If you are ever in the Charleston area I definitely suggest you take a trip to Wadmalaw Island and check it out for your self.