The 9th Annual First Flush Festival is coming to Wadmalaw Island this Sunday at the Charleston Tea Plantation. An estimated 10,000 people are anticipated to attend this special event, located just 20 minutes outside of Charleston. The Plantation is an absolutely gorgeous venue with huge green lawns, fields of leafy green tea plants, and beautiful trees framing the event. A winding oak-lined road takes you through several large tea gardens into the center where all the fun begins.
The Plantation itself has undergone several changes over the years. Originally owned and developed by Lipton Tea in 1963 into a research facility. It was later sold to Mack Fleming, a horticultural professor at Trident Tech who had been working for Lipton, and Bill Hall, an English tea tester. They reorganized the experimental tea Plantation into a working facility. Soon, they developed the American Classic Tea, which has been served in the White House since 1987 and is currently drunk by the Obama administration and family. The fresh and decadent leaves have also been found in Sam’s Clubs under the monikor Sam’s Choice Instant Tea.
After having spent an extraordinary amount of time, money and effort to develop the property, Fleming and Hall began to disagree on how the Plantation should be run. They were eventually forced into bankruptcy, where the Bigelow Tea Company then bought the company for $1.28 million dollars in 2003. Bill Hall rejoined the Plantation, and Bigelow renovated and re-opened it to the public in 2006. Maintaining the American Classic brand, Bigelow has expanded and grown the company with varieties of oolong, green and black tea mixes.
American Classic Tea may now be found throughout the United States. It is available through WalMart under the American Choice label. The company offers daily tours of the facilities, so that visitors may see the process of harvesting, drying, and baking each variety. Starting with the Camellia sinensis plant, the leaves are harvested by the Green Giant, created by Lipton, to gather just the fresh top leaves. They are then oxidized, baked, sorted and sent for packaging.
Bigelow, along with Bill Hall, decided to organize a celebration for the first flush of leaves that come out every spring. Thus, the First Flush Festival was born. The idea began from the inspiration of those first leaves that grow above the old, and thus offer a different flavor than those growing later in the season. During the festival, visitors may take the opportunity to tour the facilities and taste the fresh flavors that have been developed from the plant’s new beginnings. The event also celebrates the Plantation’s new beginnings as well and has become a huge success.
First Flush began fairly small with just a few popular local bands playing on the stage. Headliners in the early years included Shawn Mullins, Need to Breathe, Mark Bryan (from Hootie and the Blowfish),among others. The original sponsor, The Bridge 105.5, brought together artists throughout the area and created a huge buzz. Eventually, the team chose to partner with MF productions. Having these musical and promotional powerhouses involved increased the visibility of the festival to larger and bigger acts, such as the Avett Brothers and this year’s headliner, Sheryl Crowe.
When the guest list grew to thousands of attendees, the production crew had to rethink their organization of the festival. Staging, vendors, food, and alcohol sales had to be placed for the most optimal experience. Overall, the layout has been changed four times to allow for the exponentially large crowds who come out to hear great music, eat delicious food, and indulge in a day of leisure. This year’s current plan will have VIP tents offering the best views, most delicious culinary treats, and bars offering a variety of options. A wide open green lawn allows general ticket holders to also get great views, and there is an excellent sound system in place for the location.
All types of food, from food trucks to brick-and-mortar restaurants, will be scattered throughout the festival. Thirty unique vendors will provide a variety of delicious treats for all tastes. Ethnic, American, and kid-friendly, patrons will find most things fairly priced for $10 or less. Smoky Oak Taproom, who is sponsoring the event, will offer tasty morsels of their most popular cuisine in several conveniently located areas. Four liquor bars, beer tents, and nonalcoholic drinks will also be available for reasonable prices.
As with the Plantation, the Festival has also gone through some growing pains. Each year grows in attendance, and parking has been one of the largest issues for organizers. This year, they have taken a new approach in an attempt to alleviate some of the problems that plagued previous year’s festivals. Parking onsite for 2015 will be available only to staff and VIP ticket holders. A parking lot, located about a city block away, will be available for general ticket holders. Shuttles will run frequently taking people to and from the event.