Sunday, May 22, 2011

Charleston Tea Plantation

On Sunday, May 15th I had the opportunity to visit the only tea plantation in the continental US which is located on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina near Charleston. This was also the day in which the Charleston Tea Plantation was hosting their 5th annual First Flush Festival.

The gates opened at 11am but we got there around 10:30am to get a good place in line which would insure a good seating spot. Armed with tickets in one hand, a blanket in the other, and my camera bag on my back I waited eagerly for the third party company who was hired to set up and handle parking and tickets to start checking in people.

Finally the time came to hand over my printed tickets to the young guy with the scanner. As he took my tickets I heard him utter “I hope this works” under his breath as he scanned the page. He let out a small sigh when the scanner beeped reassuringly in his hand. We were then ushered over to get paper bracelets so we could come and go as we pleased.

I wasn’t sure what to expect after this because my first complaint about this whole ordeal was that the Charleston Tea Plantation fails to say anything about the First Flush Festival other than when and where it is happening and how to get tickets. That frustrated me because it was only from one single picture of the last year’s event that I knew to bring a blanket (or chair) to sit on. I also had no idea if there was going to be any food or drinks sold at the festival other than them briefly mentioning free tea. It just really bothered me that this is only the 5th annual festival and it seemed like they expected you to know what to expect. It wouldn’t be that hard to give a description about their plans for this event on their website.

Anyways, as we walked away from the check-in booth we saw another ID verification booth off to the side of the path. I was confused about this at first until I realized they were checking ID’s for those over the age of 21 so they could strap a blue Budweiser bracelet around the wrists of beer drinkers. Fine, I thought. This IS a festival, have a beer stand along with the BBQ stand and the taco stand. That’s fine. It’s going to be all about the tea anyways… or so I thought.

I was wrong. The fact that this festival was held on a tea plantation was really the only thing “tea” about this. There were three beer vendors. Three! These were accompanied by only one tea stand which was the place to get free sweetened or unsweetened black iced tea. Further more, I saw a couple of comments on the Charleston Tea Plantation’s Facebook page that said they would like to see more beer vendors at next year’s festival. What? That is like saying, “I want to see more strawberry vendors at the blueberry festival.” It is called the First Flush Festival… it is supposed to be celebrating the first harvest of the year. If you want to drink beer, then go to a damn brewery.

So, we find a place to sit; a nice, cool, shady place amongst a few trees. Before too many people arrived I decide to walk around and take some pictures of the tea and the land. We end up making our way into the store and getting asked to join the factory tour that was about to start. I will have to say this was the best part of the whole visit. Through windows we saw the withering bed, oxidation bed, and sorting area. The aroma alone coming from the factory was worth it. This tour only took about 15 minutes then we exited through the store.

We headed back to our blanket to listen to bands that played on two stages – they switched every 30-45 minutes or so. One five dollar taco and two free cups of tea later, I was bored. The bands were okay… too soft for my kind of music and the plantation was getting crowded by the second. We ended up packing up and leaving around 4:00pm (the festival didn’t end until 8pm) and there wasn’t a bare spot on the lawn; we had to step over people as we were leaving. What’s more, there was still a line of people coming in… and three lines 20 people deep for the beer vendors.

Is the Charleston Tea Plantation worth seeing for a tea aficionado? Yes. Is it worth seeing during the First Flush Festival for a tea aficionado? No. They used the plantation tour bus to haul people from their cars to the check-in booth and, as a result, they were not giving field tours with it. I wasn’t too disappointed not to take a field tour because I’m sure they would just talk about tea information I already knew. Plus, they allowed people to walk anywhere on the plantation while at the festival anyways.

There were way too many people there. The atmosphere of the festival had nothing to do with tea; in fact I think they ruined what little it did have. Three beer vendors? I mean, come on! They could have done so much better. Instead of huge cups of one type of iced tea, why not slightly smaller cups of different types or flavors of tea? Not only would this help sales of the dry leaf stuff they sell in the store, but it would at least make the festival more about tea. For $25 a ticket (and that was the early ticket price) I was disappointed in the festivities… but at least I got a t-shirt.

Just so you know the Charleston Tea Plantation is NOT the only tea plantation in the whole United States… only the continental US. There is the Mauna Kea Tea Plantation on Hilo, Hawaii (the big island).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Making tea with a Keurig

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend invested in a Keurig (the Special Edition Brewing System) for a couple of good reasons. One, his love for coffee eclipses his love for tea and two, he noticed that the long term cost of buying a Keurig would be less than stopping at local coffee shops for the same quality beverage.

He has made several cups of coffee with it using the K-cups and so far he loves it. I am not much of a coffee drinker, but I tried a few different blends and I will say that this shiny little toy isn’t half bad.

Here is where I become skeptical: the Keurig also brews tea. I have watched it make a delicious cup of coffee in under a minute (minus the 3-4 minutes it takes the water to heat up). For coffee, that is pretty cool. However, for tea, there are strict times and temperatures to follow. Tea involves more of a patient steeping process… slightly different than that of coffee.

So, I pulled out the manual (the shopping guide that comes with the brewer is actually thicker than the user manual) and read what it had to say about tea… which isn’t much. The water temperature can be set between 187°F and 192°F in 5° increments. I want to point out that those temperatures aren’t low enough for green tea (should be around 160°F to 180°F) and aren’t high enough for black tea (should be around 195°F to 212°F)… at least for the ideal conditions anyway. However, that is the perfect range for oolongs.

The sample K-cup pack that comes with the brewer has a Celestial Seasonings English Breakfast black tea K-cup. I have been dying to try it out, but I wanted to wait until I had time to sit down and write up this review so I could note my initial thoughts and reactions.

Let’s do this!

So far I am impressed. It took less than a minute and I am holding a cup of black tea that looks and smells just like tea that has been steeped for five minutes. After eagerly taking a sip, I find the flavor severely lacking. I keep sipping, hoping to find something, anything, but all I really get is astringency. It’s flat, very flat. No body, no complexity, no life to this tea. I am sad.

Now I am not sure what to think. I am not very familiar with the Celestial Seasonings brand so I am not sure if the tea is to blame or the machine.

I went back to the machine and plucked the used black tea K-cup from the apparatuses. I ripped back the foil to confirm my suspicions… CTC grade tea leaves – what you would find in a tea bag. What was I expecting? Whole leaf goodness? No, of course not, but at least now I know that it is more plausible to blame the tea than the Keurig.

I am sure this grade of tea is what you will find in all of the tea K-cups because of the fast brewing time. Smaller leaves give you a quicker, but flavorless brew. This proves that you can’t cut corners when it comes to making good tea. The only automatic machine that I know of that makes a great cup of tea is the Breville One Touch Tea Maker.

I guess for now, when it comes to making tea, I will stick with my teapots, kyusus, and gaiwans (oh my!). That is, until I try out the “My K-Cup” accessory.

To be continued…

Image reference links: Keurig, K-cups