Charleston Tea Plantation boasts of being "America's only tea garden" with over 100 acres of tea bushes. Tea is not a hardy plant, and the South Carolina low country provides the right combination of heat, rain, and soil the plant needs to thrive. Now, a Googling will reveal that amateur (and at least one other commerical) growers outside of South Carolina have had some success with growing tea, but while visiting the Tea Plantation it is nice to think that it is the one magical location in North America where tea can grow.
My family and I visited the plantation on a recent vacation to Charleston. The driveway to the gift shop was perfect South Carolina with sprawling live oaks covered in Spanish moss, but the fields of tea bushes were themselves pedestrian. Even up close, the tea bush looks like an ordinary hedge bush for a cottage.
The gift shop fronts the tea factory, and there is a free self-guided tour where one views videos at several stops describing the tea production process. The process is surprisingly complex and involves custom harvesting equipment to clip the tops of the tea bushes. The gift shop offers free iced tea and is a nice place to shuffle around for a while. My ultimate purchase was a tin of their signature American Classic Charleston Breakfast tea.
The first thing to notice with the American Classic tea is that it is cut more finely than most loose leaf teas. It feels fluffy and lacks stems or veins. It also tastes more mild than other black teas. For a typical cup of black tea, I brew one rounded teaspoon for 3 minutes. With American Classic, I found this to produce an overly mild cup, and I have since settled upon two teaspoons of tea at 5 minutes of brew time. Even with the additional brew time, there is no bitterness in the tea. The tea flavor is fairly straighforward but tastes on the "green" side, as if you just picked the tea leaves yesterday. There might be a slight nuttiness to the tea, but otherwise it is uncomplicated.
Overall: delicate for a black tea, but fresh-tasting and without bitterness. Score: 85 (B).