Craft tea is on the rise, bringing a fresh appreciation for the quintessential Southern beverage.
By Jessica Farthing
Tea is a tradition in the South, from the ubiquitous sweet iced tea to steaming cups of black tea, it’s a go-to beverage nearly any time of day and throughout the year. Not only do Southerners love their tea, today, they’re working to cultivate it. In fact, the only large-scale commercial tea plantation in the country, Charleston Tea Plantation, is located in South Carolina.
Now, as a renewed appreciation for small-batch and craft foods and beverages sweeps the country, consumers are more enticed by properly grown and harvested teas. “People are more inclined to understand what they are eating and drinking,” says Bill Hall, a professional tea taster and partner in Charleston Tea Plantation. “There’s much more interest in experiencing how teas are made. We get people from all over the world.” With a past as complex as its flavors and its significant role in American culture, it’s no wonder that interest in craft tea is on the rise.
History of Tea
Most gardens in the South have at least a few examples of colorful camellias, with layers of petals creating thick blooms of white, pink and red hues. Interestingly, the most popular types of teas—black, green and oolong—all come from a variety of this plant called Camellia sinensis.
Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shennong discovered tea in 2737 B.C., when leaves from a nearby tree fell into his pot of boiling water. He found the drink that was created with Camellia sinensis to be refreshing, and he began to consume it regularly. As the popularity spread, Chinese culture embraced the tradition of tea, using it as an antidote for poison and an aid for digestion. It was considered so valuable that it was even used as currency.
Tea is closely tied to American history as well, with it playing a significant role in our culture since Colonial times. America’s love for tea all started with Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam (which is present day Manhattan) and director of the Dutch East India Co., which was known for trading tea. “When he arrived as the new governor, he brought all of his apparatus for tea making,” says Bruce Richardson, a tea expert who has authored 14 books on the subject, including “The New Tea Companion,” a reference book used by tea professionals around the world, and serves as a contributing editor for TeaTime Magazine. “We don’t see the first advertisement for [tea in] London until 11 years later, 1658. So it’s possible we were drinking tea in the Colonies before they were drinking it in London.”
As for iconic Southern iced tea, Richardson says it wasn’t necessarily invented, it more so evolved. “Here in Kentucky, we were drinking iced tea in the [1860s],” he explains. “All across the South, where there was access to ice, they would make iced tea. That tea was as likely to be green tea as it was to be black tea.” Where iced tea in the South picked up its sweet companion is a matter of opinion. Sugar and milk have traditionally been popular additions to hot tea as a means of counteracting the bitterness of the brew. Although the town of Summerville, South Carolina, claims to have started the sweet tea phenomenon, evidence to shore up that claim has been sparse.
While people have been growing their own food, herbs and even teas for thousands of years, industrialization of agriculture drastically changed American cuisine during the 20th century.
Recently, there has been a marked trend of farm-to-table fare and craft production, which has inspired people to source their food from small farms or even their own backyards. Today’s popular culture reflects the desire to be more responsible for the environment while also focusing on health and wellness with nutritious food. Tea is no different.
The wide variety of teas available today are created by using different methods of oxidation and harvesting: For example, leaves that make black tea are macerated and allowed to become completely browned before processing, oolong is partially oxidized to give it that distinct floral flavor and green tea isn’t oxidized at all. In contrast, herbal teas are not considered “real” teas because they are not produced from the leaves of a single plant. Instead, they are composed of different combinations of herbs that can be prepared from steeping a variety of plant components, such as leaves, stems, flowers, roots and bark.
On the Charleston Tea Plantation, heirloom Camellia sinensis plants from the South’s first successful tea farm were propagated to continue growing the crop on Wadmalaw Island. “When you make a cutting of a tea plant and form a root system, that plant is the same age as the mother plant,” Hall explains. “All of the plants at Charleston Tea Plantation are historically from around the 1880s. It’s a bit of living history here.”
That living history called to Hall, who purchased the plantation more than 30 years ago from the Lipton Tea Co., which previously used the site for research and development. This project was a labor of love for Hall, who later entered his current partnership with The Bigelow Tea Co. Today, visitors can tour the factory and ride through the gardens on a trolley while receiving a tea education from Hall and his staff.
Another local expert is Debbie Odom, who serves as co-owner of Tsubaki Tea, a brand of tea plants sold at Gene’s Nursery, the oldest operating nursery in Savannah, Georgia, that specializes in Camellia sinensis. The store began as a retail business specializing in ornamental camellias, like the flowering Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua that grow profusely across Southern landscapes. Odom did have some demand for the decorative look of Camellia sinensis, but began to be interested in the other aspects of the plant variety.
“On a whim, I picked some leaves, processed them and I was pleasantly surprised with the brew that resulted,” she recalls.
Odom has seen more requests for tea plants from growers and, currently, she’s developing a crop for a customer in California for a specialty half-acre organic farm, as well as a farmer planting two acres of tea in the Brunswick/Darien area, in addition to other Georgia farms. She notes that many customers buy one or two plants for personal use at their homes.
“Tea can be grown in any landscape garden, with just a few plants tucked here or there,” Odom explains. “It can be grown in containers or, if you have a little space, you can grow a full tea garden. When you are growing your own tea, you are getting a product as safe as you can make it. You can grow it organically and you will know that you’re bringing a product to your table that’s good for a family.”
Sip and Savor
While sweet tea in the South can be a dessert-like treat, other quality teas can be enjoyed without the heavy use of sweetener. Richardson recommends cold steeping: “There doesn’t have to be heat involved when you are steeping tea, especially green tea. You’re not really supposed to put boiling water over it. Take a quality green tea, put it into a pitcher with filtered tap water and leave it overnight. It’s the softest and most refreshing thing … it rehydrates you and has that antioxidant power at the same time.”
At Sea Island, the River Bar & Lounge lead bartender, Megan Corrigan, uses cold steeping and other methods to craft creative cocktails at the restaurant. “Utilizing tea can add several layers to a cocktail like acidity, sweetness or spice, which, in turn, balances out the overall flavor profile,” she says. “It can be steeped, hot or cold, to achieve specific flavors. You can directly steep tea into a spirit, adding your desired flavors. Your ability to control tea as an ingredient is unparalleled, not to mention there are infinite tea flavors and combinations to choose from.” The Dutch Courage at the River Bar & Lounge incorporates Ron Abuelo rum that is steeped with the bar’s Spicy Chili Chai black tea to create a beverage stacked with a multitude of flavor—well-balanced but with a kick. This combination reflects the historical aspect of tea with the Indian masala chai (which translates to mixed-spice tea) that has gained a massive following in coffee shops around the world.
In the South, you can hardly visit a restaurant that doesn’t offer sweet tea as the first beverage choice. Even though the roots of this beverage are murky, the delicious amber liquid garnished with a slice of lemon is widely available and consumed on a regular basis. As Hall says, “Sweet tea is the table wine of the South.”
A Tot of Tea
Resort Lead Bartender Nic Wallace and Megan Corrigan, lead bartender at the River Bar & Lounge, share the recipes for single servings of two tea-infused cocktails at Sea Island.
Dutch Courage from the River Bar & Lounge
2 ounces Ron Abuelo 12-year rum infused with Spicy Chili Chai black tea
3/4 ounce orgeat syrup
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
2 dashes Bittermans Hellfire Habanero Shrub bitters
2 dashes Dale Degroff’s Pimento aromatic bitters
1 pinch salt
Fire-roasted peppers, for garnish
Combine all ingredients into a shaker tin with ice. Shake and double strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with fire-roasted peppers.
Kingpin Punch from Sea Strike & Pub
1 ounce Savage & Cooke Lip Service rye whiskey
1 ounce Saveiro Tinta Negra Madeira
1/4 ounce St. Elizabeth allspice dram
3/4 ounce honey syrup
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
2 ounces cold-brewed Palais des Thés Chai Impérial black tea
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 lemon wheel, for garnish
1 mint sprig, for garnish
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Combine all of the liquid ingredients in a shaker tin. Fill the shaker with ice and shake, then double strain into a large Collins glass over ice and garnish with a lemon wheel and mint sprig.