Tea in Kenya: an age-old history of excellent taste

Tea in Kenya: an age-old history of excellent taste


Kenya began growing tea on a commercial scale fairly recently, less than one hundred years ago. But the unique climate and the special rich flavour of the tea has meant that the country has quickly become a world leader in tea production.

Kenya is one of the largest tea producers in the world. According to Reuters, with reference to the Tea Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of Kenya, the country produced 439,000 tons of tea in 2017. In terms of production, Kenya is second only to China and India. However, in terms of exports, it is the world leader: around 92% of the tea produced in Kenya is exported to other countries. In 2017, according to statistics from the Tea Directorate, the country exported 415,000 tons of tea. Kenyans themselves always drink tea several times a day. They usually make it “English style”, with milk and sugar – and in large saucepans so that there is enough for a whole family and guests. Some prefer strungi – a strong black tea with no additives, others prefer tangawizi – a tea with fresh ginger root.

The round-the-world tour of tea

Before reaching the African continent in the mid-19th century, tea had travelled the world for centuries. There are all kinds of different versions of how and under what circumstances people first came to know about the beverage. According to Chinese legends, in 2737 BC, the emperor Shen Nung was relaxing underneath a tree and boiling medicinal herbs in water. All of a sudden, the wind blew a few leaves into his pot. The emperor liked the taste and he later discovered its healing and restorative properties. In another legend, a tea tree was sent to the Zen Buddhist preacher Bodhidharma in the 5th-6th century AD. The monk was meditating in a cave and he accidentally fell asleep. When he awoke he was so ashamed of his own weakness that in a fit of rage he tore off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground. They magically took root and grew into a green bush. Bodhidharma plucked a few of the leaves and chewed them, suddenly feeling a surge of vigour and energy. He pulled up the wonderful plant and gave the shoots to Chinese preachers on his travels.

It is thought that tea tree leaves first began to be used in food in Southeast Asia, at the border of China, modern-day Myanmar, and India. From there, this practice spread to the neighbouring regions. In 2016, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence of the Chinese origin of tea – a small box with the leaves of the plant was lying in the tomb of an emperor of the Han dynasty. The burial date was 141 BC, so cultivated tea is certainly more than 2150 years old. The first written mention dates back to the 1st century AD: it was then that tea was given its own Chinese character “cha”.

In ancient times, tea was drunk rather for therapeutic purposes, than for pleasure. And it was not prepared in the same way as it is today: freshly picked leaves were infused in boiling water, which produced a very bitter drink. The Chinese began selling this “medicine” with a tonic effect in the 5th century to the nomadic Turkic tribes and peoples of Tibet. And by the 9th century, tea had become the national drink of Japan. In the Middle Ages, during the Ming dynasty, tea began to be produced in a different way: the leaves were steamed and fully dried out, and only then were they brewed. This was where green tea came from that was subject to minimal amounts of fermentation (oxidation). It was not very suitable for sale however, as it quickly began to spoil in bales. Merchants began to fry the leaves on a low heat and left them to dry longer in the air. The deeper fermentation resulted in black tea (or red tea as it is called in China), which was easy to carry on long journeys in trade caravans. It was this tea that became the most popular outside of Asia.

In Europe, the first tea drinkers were the Dutch. In 1610, they imported trial batches of the “Chinese herb” to the Old World, and in 1650 they began to supply the exotic plant to the royal court of Great Britain. Tea quickly conquered the Foggy Albion. After the nobility, the middle and poorer classes sampled the beverage, tea houses gained popularity in London and other cities, and soon the world-famous afternoon tea at five o’clock tradition was born. At the behest of the Brits, the tea plant began to be cultivated in the colonial states: the Indian province of Assam, in Ceylon, Java, Vietnam and other countries.

Tea takes root in Africa

The first tea plant was planted on the African continent in 1687 by the Dutch in the province of East Cape on the south-eastern tip of the continent. However, the culture did not take root right up until the late 19th century. The first commercial tea plantation was established in the continent in 1877 in the town of Stanger (now known as Kwadukuza) in South Africa. But that too did not bring much success to its owners. The tea business only really began to take off in Kenya in the 1920s – since that time, the continent has enjoyed a strong position in the history of tea production.

As history says, the tea bush first came to Kenya in 1903 – the Englishman G.W.L. Caine planted the bush outside his home for decorative purposes. That is where the details of his efforts come to an end. It was an entirely different person who became the main figure in the “African adventures” of tea – the Scotsman Arnold Butler McDonell. It is a known fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, he purchased a plot of land in Kenya from the British government. The land was close to the town of Limuru and he used it for farming. However, the land was mountainous and nothing that he tried to plant was able to grow. For ten years, McDonell experimented with coffee, corn, flax and experienced failure after failure. A miracle happened in 1918, when a friend brought him a gift from India – Camellia Sinensis assamica seedlings; a tea bush. He planted the bush in a little less than a hectare of the land and almost all of the bushes began to grow! The abundant sunshine and the mountainous terrain proved to be the perfect conditions for growing this culture. In 1926, the entrepreneur built the first tea processing factory in the country and began to supply it commercially.

McDonell was known for his hardworking attitude and ingenuity. He invented equipment to dry and chop tea leaves, gained a full understanding of the science of tea fermenting, and personally transported batches of his product over 30 kilometres to a bazaar in Nairobi where wholesale merchants came to purchase goods. At first, like any pioneer, he had to continually prove that Kenyan tea was just as good as Indian and Chinese tea. Gradually, however, African tea became highly valued on the market. McDonell had four daughters who inherited and continued to expand the business after he died. McDonell’s Farm still exists to this day and welcomes tourists who are told about the origins of Kenyan tea. They are also shown how the leaves are harvested, and they learn about the production process.

Fresh, rich, invigorating

The taste of tea, as with wine for example, is very much dependent on the place where the raw material that it is produced from is grown. In Kenya, tea trees grow at an altitude of 1500-2700 metres above sea level. The high-altitude plantations are situated on both sides of the Great Rift Valley. It is there, at the equator, where there are the best conditions for cultivating the plant. The tropical climate, the red clay volcanic soil, and the high level of humidity mean that tea trees are able to grow all year round. However, the best period for harvesting the leaves is thought to be between the months of March and June, and October to December, during the rainy season. This is when the tea leaves draw in the most useful substances and give the product the fullest flavour. Interestingly, the natural conditions in Kenya, which favour the growth of tea trees, are not at all good for pests. They are virtually non-existent at that altitude, and this means that pesticides are generally not used. This is why Kenyan tea is often labelled as “environmentally friendly” and “organic”.

Kenya mostly produces black tea – green tea production is far less common. The tea leaves are hand-picked. To make a premium quality tea, such as Orange Pekoe for example, only the two uppermost buds are suitable. Picking these buds in particular, without taking the coarser lower leaves and branches, is very difficult to do using a machine. One bush can be harvested about once every seven days: it takes a week for new, tender buds to grow on the bush. The raw materials collected undergo thorough processing. The leaves are most often processed using the CTC (cut, tear, curl) technique that was developed in the 1930s. A tea leaf is wilted, crushed, and sent off to ferment; it is then rolled and fried. The resulting product is passed through a sieve with different sized holes to sort it into grades, and then it is packaged. It is then sent to tea auctions, where the quality of the tea is verified by special appraisers, and the wholesale buyers name their price. The raw material then goes to tea-packing factories, where it is packaged in boxes as is, or mixed with additives (fruits, spices, herbs, and flowers) and sent to distributors.

Most of the tea in Kenya – around 60% – is produced by small farms; there are more than 560,000 of them in the country. Their activities are regulated and coordinated by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). This helps to preserve the traditional manual methods of harvesting tea and the high quality of production.

According to tea sommeliers – experts who taste various different varieties and types of tea – Kenyan tea is distinguished by its rich, fresh and spicy taste. Its infusion has a full amber-copper colour. It goes very well with milk and spices, and is also great for making iced tea. In Kenya, the refreshing cold drink is made without boiling water: a pinch of dry tea is added to a litre of chilled water and left overnight in the refrigerator. Without the heat treatment, the tannins (contained in the tea) do not pass from the tea leaves into the water and give it a bitter taste. This means that no further sweetening is required.

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