Reading the tea leaves: This brand made in America
American Classic Tea challenges the imports
May 1, 1999
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- In the hot, humid "low country" outside Charleston, the only commercial tea plantation in the United States produces a classic sipping tea that growers say rivals the best tea blends in the world, in a warm cup or a tall tumbler of ice.
Two entrepreneurs started their Charleston Tea Plantation company 12 years ago and invented a mechanical harvester that makes tea-growing economically feasible in the United States. The harvester does the work of 500 people when tender, new leaves are ready to be picked. Nations with very cheap wages, primarily India and China, produce most tea because the leaves must be hand-picked.
Horticulturist and co-owner Mack Fleming explained they harvest two leaves and a bud at the top of each plant. "Nothing else would be suitable for making tea, so it is only the new succulent growth."
Fleming's partner is William Barclay Hall, a third-generation tea taster. Hall claims American Classic's tea is fresher and tastes better than many imports.
"The older the tea, the more harsh and bitter it becomes. And imported teas can be many, many months old before the consumer gets a chance to buy it off the shelf," said Hall. "Our advantage is that we can get our tea from the field to the customer within a month."
As one of only eight tea tasters in the United States, Hall daily tastes teas brewed from many different lots and harvests, and then allocates each batch to one of 15 storage bins. When the factory is ready to blend the leaves, Hall decides how much comes from each bin. "So I maintain the constant quality throughout the year," he said.
Fleming has bred a tea plant that is naturally insect-repellent, so pesticides are not used.
Despite the owners' hard work and discriminating taste buds, American Classic Tea is not well-known in the United States. Hall and Fleming said a lack of marketing expertise and funds have hampered the company's growth, and they're looking for investors.
American Classic Tea is sold in 2,000 Southern supermarkets, by mail order and as the Wal-Mart company's house brand. It is even exported to Japan.
CNNfn Correspondent Charles Molineaux contributed to this report
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