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Brewing more interest in tea

CHARLESTON, S.C. — CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Growing up in Baltimore County, William Barclay Hall so detested school that at 16 he secretly signed up to join the Navy. He would have gone, he says, but his father refused to sign the permission form.

Instead, the senior Hall, a tea taster at McCormick & Co., agreed to allow his son to quit Dulaney High School on the condition that he try to make something of himself. He helped his son get a job at a tea factory in Toronto. A year later, the 17-year-old Hall was enrolled as a tea apprentice in London, tasting between 800 and 1,000 cups of tea a day.

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"I would have done anything to get out of high school," Hall says. But what turned out to be a means of escape became the path to a career few Americans have mastered -- that of a tea taster.

Today Hall, 55, oversees the country's only commercial tea plantation, Charleston Tea Gardens, on Wadmalaw Island, 20 miles south of Charleston.

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Sporting shoulder-length graying hair, Hall chain-smokes cigarettes in an office that looks out onto a driveway lined with moss-draped live oaks and rows of tea bushes that resemble neat, green hedges.

Hall has spent 17 years tending to these plants and blending American Classic Tea, a black tea that he describes as a "light, bright" tea, suitable for drinking either hot or cold.

These days he works with R.C. Bigelow, the Fairfield, Conn., tea maker, which is helping him expand the factory and farm.

A different destiny

Although his father and grandfather were tea tasters, Hall did not see the family business as his destiny when he was young. Of course, tea was served at home, but he hardly paid attention. "I'd say, 'Got any Coca-Cola?' "

But during his four-year London apprenticeship, he came to appreciate the challenges of being a tea taster.

On the first day, an instructor sat two cups of tea in front of him and told him one was good and one was bad. Hall was skeptical. But even to his untrained palate the difference was obvious. By the end of his apprenticeship, he would be able to discern not only from which country a tea had come, but from which plantation and be able to determine the tea's value to within a quarter-cent a pound.

When he finished his training, he was passionate about tea. Not only was he among a small number of tea tasters in the world (leading to impressive party conversation), but the profession opened doors to travel in exotic places in Asia, Europe and South America.

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Hall estimates there are fewer than 10 tea tasters in the country, but he doesn't claim to possess any extraordinary abilities.

"Anyone who has taste of any sort can be a tea taster," he says. "It's the education and the training."

He likens tea tasting to wine tasting, but says it can be even more complex. All true teas come from the plant camellia sinesis, but there are more than 2,000 varieties of tea plants. From them come the three basic teas -- black, green and oolong.

And while grapes are harvested once a year, tea leaves are harvested every 10 to 15 days in a growing season that lasts from May to October. Each harvest is influenced by temperature, precipitation and the time of year.

After completing his apprenticeship, Hall went to Argentina to open an office for the giant Dutch tea dealer Van Rees. He stayed five years, but didn't want to be known only as an Argentine tea trader. A job back in the Netherlands was out of the question ("They are workaholics," he says), so he headed back to Baltimore.

He teamed up with his father to create William H. Hall Co., a company that bought and sold tea. Among their clients was A&P;, and he still buys tea for A&P;'s successor, SuperFresh.

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Tale of a tea farm

Around 1985, Hall was busy overseeing a New York office of William H. Hall when he happened to pick up a magazine while on a flight to a tea convention. In it, he read about an experimental tea farm Lipton was running in South Carolina.

The story noted that America had never had a successful commercial tea operation because labor costs were prohibitively high (tea leaves are usually picked by hand) and because the country lacked the proper elevation to grow tea.

"I didn't agree with the article," Hall says.

In Argentina, he had seen machines successfully harvest tea leaves. And the sandy soil of the South Carolina low country would assure proper drainage even though it lacked elevation, he reasoned.

Before long, he was in a South Carolina public library poring through articles about the experimental farm that was then known as Charleston Tea Plantation.

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It turned out that Lipton wasn't the first to try to grow tea commercially in the state. Two attempts in the mid-19th century ended when the farms' owners died violently. A third effort early in the 20th century was more successful, but still didn't live past its sponsor.

Hall didn't let the odds bother him. He joined up with the manager of the Lipton farm, horticulturist Mack Fleming, and bought the 127-acre operation in 1987.

Fleming oversaw the cultivation of the plants; Hall was in charge of the factory and the tea blending. They eventually found a market for their American Classic Tea in grocery stores throughout the South.

But the two had different styles and different philosophies about the business. After 15 years, they decided to dissolve the partnership, but they couldn't agree on who would get the farm.

So last year they put the farm up for auction. Each enlisted support from new partners. Hall teamed up with Bigelow to make the winning bid.

"Tea has been my family's whole life," says Lori Bigelow, vice president and chief operating officer the company. "We didn't want to see the only tea plantation in America go under."

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The Bigelows also wanted the chance to show Americans how tea is made. Tours of the plantation, which were discontinued a couple years ago, may resume next summer. "It's very rare to see tea being made," Bigelow says.

'Totally loves tea'

Bigelow leaves the day-to-day operations of the farm and its five employees up to Hall. "He totally loves tea," says Bigelow, who has known Hall for many years. "He knows tea like the back of his hand."

Hall, a divorced father of two grown daughters, lives on the farm and recently brought his 87-year-old father there to live with him.

Most days, his work extends far beyond the tasting room. On one recent sweltering day, he was gripping a blow torch and attacking a piece of metal equipment that refused to stand level. The previous day, he had stopped the tea harvest when he spied hydraulic fluid leaking from the leaf picker into the bin of tea leaves. That entire day's harvest was lost.

While some days he is a mechanic and farmer, other days he is a spokesman for America's fledgling tea industry, speaking to tourists and food-industry groups about the prospects of American-grown tea.

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Although American Classic Tea now is only available over the Internet, Hall expects it to be in South Carolina grocery stores by the end of the year. He and Bigelow are preparing to plant more tea bushes and build a new factory in time for next season.

Hall believes the time may have finally come for the county's home-grown tea industry. Americans are drinking more tea, thanks to reports of its health benefits. And other countries can't match the freshness of American-grown tea, he says.

While Charleston Tea Gardens is the only commercial tea farm in the United States, two experimental farms operate in Oregon and Hawaii.

Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the USA Inc., an industry trade group, acknowledges that U.S. farms offer the advantage of freshness, but he is dubious about the prospects of a large American tea industry.

Tea connoisseurs prefer their tea picked by hand because humans can be more selective than machines, he says. Such manual labor is prohibitively expensive in the United States. And geography remains a deterrent, he adds. The best tea is grown at high altitudes because the tea bushes grow more slowly, resulting in leaves that are more flavorful.

Nevertheless, he credits Hall with working to make at least one small farm a success.

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"He wanted to try something different. He wanted to try growing it," says Simrany, marveling. "It's hard work -- very very different from what he's used to doing .... He's been working really hard at making it happen."

Where to find

American Classic Tea is available at online at www.bigelowtea.com or by calling 800-443-5987. The price is $17.75 for a case of six boxes. Each box contains 24 individually wrapped tea bags.


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