Barely ten miles long and six miles wide, Wadmalaw Island is a picturesque and beautiful place just a short drive from Historic Charleston and only accessible by a small bridge over Church Creek. Even though it is close to elegant and sophisticated Charleston, this small island feels remote and somehow removed from modern life. Dotted with small farms well known for their delicious tomatoes, stately plantations and residential homes, Wadmalaw also claims ownership of one of America’s treasures—Charleston Tea Plantation, the nation’s only working tea farm.
Thousands visit Charleston Tea Plantation each year to bask in its majestic beauty, and those who take the factory tour during harvest season can watch Tea Maker, Mike Kennerly, work his magic, creating the delicious drink known as American Classic Tea. Through large glass viewing windows, Mike can be seen moving quickly from one phase of tea making to another. Stopping often to touch or smell the tea, he knows intuitively when it is perfectly dried and ready for packaging.
“I grew up on Wadmalaw,” Mike began. “My father, an officer with the S.C. Highway Patrol, is from Orangeburg. After he finished the academy, he asked to be stationed anywhere but Charleston!” Of course, the senior Kennerly was sent directly to Charleston where he met and fell in love with a local girl.
Mike and his sister had an idyllic childhood, free to roam the island, but there was always a watchful adult eye on the island children. “We were good kids, and we knew if we got in trouble our parents would know about it before we got home!,” laughed Mike. One of young Mike’s favorite pastimes was riding dirt bikes, and he and his friends would zoom through the rows of tea plants on Charleston Tea Plantation, a place that fascinated Mike even as a child.
After finishing school, Mike did a variety of jobs, trying to find his niche, including a few years with the S.C. Ports Authority, where, little did he know, he was gaining skills for his work at the tea plantation. Deeply devoted to his family, he was able to take a sabbatical and help his parents care for his ailing grandmother until her death. When a job as a trolley driver at Charleston Tea Plantation became available, Mike jumped on the opportunity.
“I cut my teeth in the tea industry while driving a trolley,” Mike told me seriously. “At that time Charleston Tea Plantation was growing and soon I was offered the position of shipping and warehouse manager. I loved it, and my experience with the Ports Authority came in handy. I guess I’m just a child at heart, because I always got excited sending people packages containing something they would enjoy.”
Today, Charleston Tea Plantation has a separate warehouse facility, but before the new addition, everyone worked in the same building. Mike worked side by side with the plantation founder, Bill Hall, asking questions and learning the intricacies of what makes American Classic Tea one of the most sought after teas in the country. Passionate about tea, Mike would also sit in on tea tastings with Bill Hall, a third generation tea taster, his expertise as a tea taster is well known throughout the tea industry worldwide.
When Mike was offered the position of Tea Maker he was overjoyed and leapt at the opportunity. “It was one of the best days of my life. But, once I took over, it was a little frightening! I know the value of this tea and was so worried I’d ruin an expensive batch!”
Of course, this never happened—Mike has the rare and unique combination of knowledge and intuition that is absolutely necessary for making American Classic Tea. Passionate and professional about his work, Mike just “knows” how the tea is supposed to smell and feel at different stages of drying and oxidation. Walking across the factory floor, Mike stops and takes a handful of tea in his hand, slowly smelling and feeling the tea, determining its moisture content accurately to a tenth of a percent. Freshly harvested tea leaves will have about a 80% moisture content, but the finished American Classic Tea must meet exacting standards with only a 1 ½ to 2 ½ % level.
Like any farm, Charleston Tea Plantation requires year round dedication to keep it at its best Mike stays busy in the off season, often helping collect soil and tissue samples, always interested in learning more about the science behind growing tea. When he does have some down time, he spends it with his family and 10 year old dog; his parents, now in their 70s, live two doors down from him on Wadmalaw. But, tea making is his passion. “I love knowing people are getting a true taste of the Lowcountry when they drink American Classic Tea. Tea plants take on the flavor of the soil they’re grown in—our customers are getting a taste of Wadmalaw, my home. I’m a simple man; I just want people to have good tea.”
Visit Mike and Charleston Tea Plantation seven days a week with the exception of holidays. Factory tours, with videos describing the tea making process are available, as well as trolley tours through the tea fields. Their unique Plantation Gift Shop features beautiful tea-related items, as well as all the American Classic Tea you can drink! Call 843-559-0383 or visit www.charlestonteaplantation.com for more information.
SOURCE: Charleston Tea Plantation