Bill Hall, co-owner of the Charleston Tea Plantation describes himself as a tea traditionalist.
“I’m not into all the different specialty teas. For me it’s green, oolong and black,” said Hall. But visitors to the plantation watching him stroll through the fields or pamper his fledgling cuttings in the greenhouse, might not jump to that conclusion. His long hair, relaxed good humor and easy camaraderie with guests don’t suggest a man with his British and Canadian background. First appearances make him look a bit more radical and rebellious. And, as a tea person, Hall is certainly both.
His traditionalism may be inherited from two previous generations of tea tasters, his father and grandfather. Hall’s own entry into the industry as an apprentice was with the British firm, Brooke Bond Tea and continued with the Dutch firm, Van Rees, point to the expected industry standards. But his more rebellious temperament was essential when he found his life’s work in tea at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina.
Hall was still a teenager when he made his decision to follow in the family business. “An apprenticeship in the tea industry is a four-year commitment starting with entry level jobs like removing the aluminum foil from chests for recycling. Then I moved up to dumping the tea chests for blending before I graduated to the tasting room. Then it was tasting eighty to a hundred cups a day, five days a week.”
Other aspects of his early training were driving the forklift and working in the mailroom. “But that’s where I learned to love tea and later discovered that being a tea taster was a great way to meet women,” he said.
The last two years of his traditional tea apprenticeship continued at Van Rees, which posted him to the Misiones area of Argentina where he established their offices and acquired tea farming experience. “An overseas posting was the way to rise higher in the company, but after World War II, when so many countries nationalized their tea fields, positions in many other countries became unavailable.”
Rounding out his traditional tea education, he returned to the United States to join his father’s business, William Hall Tea Holdings LLC, as a tea dealer and also as a to consult with Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P Supermarkets).
The Tea Farm
His radical and rebellious streak was ignited in the mid ‘80s while attending a Tea Association convention in Arizona. “I read in a tea and coffee magazine about the history of tea farming in the U.S. and heard the arguments that it couldn’t be done successfully.”
Accepting that gauntlet, Hall researched the history of the U.S. Government’s experimental tea farm and Dr. Charles Shepard’s Pinehurst Tea Plantation, both in Summerville, S.C. He uncovered a hush-hush research project on Wadmalaw Island, which Lipton was conducting with clones from Dr. Shepard’s original plants about 40 miles away. When he discovered that Lipton was about to abandon the project in 1987, he partnered with horticulturist, Mack Fleming, bought the hundred and twenty-seven acre farm and launched it as a commercial venture.
At that time, there were 320 different varietals in one main field. “Each of them had a different profile, a different growth cycle. So it was difficult to harvest the field.”
From these original plants, he was able to identify eight varietals that thrived and met Halls’ ideal production plan.
“Their rate of growth and maturity along with the flavor profile allow us to harvest by machine. Everything growing above our harvester’s cut line is tender new growth so we don’t have the problem of older, harder stems needing to be sorted out.”
It was in 2003 that the Bigelow Family assumed Fleming’s half of the partnership and allowed Bill Hall to realize two additional dimensions of his radical dream, tea education and tourism. Already Hall’s preparing for expansion into new fields.
“David and Eunice Bigelow share that goal for the tea farm,” he explains. “They’ve been supportive of every stage of development. We agree that it’s time to give back and we want to offer something important to our guests.”
The plantation’s trolley tour of the entire plantation includes an audio program narrated by Hall, which explains the history and farming techniques. Inside the factory, guests are welcomed by an audio-visual guided tour hosted by the Bigelow Family. From leaf to cup, tea lovers can experience the process first-hand, without leaving the continent.
Hall organizes his production with an emphasis on sustainability and is proud of the quality of his tea and of the way in which he’s grown the business of American Classic Tea. His farming methods and his customized harvester make it possible to keep his production crew down to a crew of four or five.
His tea is also widely promoted in the low-country area around Charleston. Gift shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts serve his American Classic flavors. A Wadmalaw Island distillery, Firefly, even uses some of his tea to infuse their tea-flavored vodka.
Halls consumer education outreach is working. “The number of people visiting the farm has increased every year. We’re now having about 60,000 people visit the farm each year and eighty percent of them are tourists who are seeing real tea plants for the first time of their lives.”
“Tea is a great product,” Hall says. “It’s good both hot and cold, great for health and wonderful for the environment. The most important thing is freshness. That’s the essential condition for good quality tea.”
On the outskirts of historic Charleston, William Hall’s rebellious nature brings the tradition of tea and it’s benefits home to the U.S. “This farm was love at first sight and I wanted to do something no one else could do.”
Bill Hall chose one of the most historic tea site in the U.S. to become part of our growing tea culture. If not for the challenge of “. . . doing something no one else could,” he admits that he might have joined the Navy. “Or sports. Formula One Race Car driving for sure.”