A proper Englishman likes his tea served from a pre-heated teapot, preferably in delicate porcelain cups and saucers with a little cloud of milk. The Moroccans prefer to consume this hot beverage in pretty little glasses crammed full of mint leaves, sweetened to the point that the onset of diabetes seems all but inevitable. In the United States of America, people are more prone to drinking coffee and generally prefer their tea iced. The Chinese drink many different types of green, unfermented tea and in traditional Japanese society, there are strict rituals that surround this important moment of the day. The Tibetans like their brew mixed with salt and yak butter, ostensibly to keep them fortified for the freezing Himalayan temperatures, and where possible the Indians, the world’s largest tea consuming nation, brew their tea with milk and no water, a selection of ‘Masala” spices and serve it out of disposable earthenware cups.
In Kenya, tea cultivation and consumption was initially introduced by the British before being transformed into a popular national staple. Kenyan brewing techniques are closer to the Indian ones than those of their former colonial administrators and involve boiling the tea, water and milk together to form a strong, invigorating brew. Tea may also consumed without milk and is known as Strungi, a play off the term “Strong Tea”.
In decreasing order, China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey are together responsible for producing roughly 75% of the world’s tea. “When it comes to tea there are few climates around the world that can compare to ours” smiles Moses Changwony, Group Managing Director at Kenya’s Sasini Tea and Coffee production company. By his accounts, Kenya’s domestic consumption alone stands at 27 million kg each year. Despite growing on rather sizeable bushes, it is only the tips of the Camelia sinensis plants that get collected. “Here in Kenya, all of our tea harvesting is done by hand” says Changwony. When machines are used, he explains, they pick the tougher stalks lower down on the bush and the leaves inevitably get scorched. The best quality tea derives from the light green leaves that sprout at the top of the tea plant.
Once collected, tea leaves must first undergo a process of withering: they are placed in cool, airy rooms and wilted, so that excess water is removed. After withering comes rolling, which ensures that all the remaining juices are squeezed out, often by hand, to ensure maximum taste. The next step is oxidation, a process that naturally starts during rolling but which is speeded up when the leaves are spread out on large boards where they are alternatively sprinkled with water and slightly warmed, in order to ferment and develop their complex individual sets of flavours. Oxidation is only relevant to black teas and is avoided with green teas in order to preserve their antioxidant properties. The final step is of course, drying, after which the tea is ready for auction.
About 0.5% of the tea Sasini produces is destined for the local market. The bulk of its produce is transported to Mombasa where it is sold at auction. Before the sale, expert cuppers, tea sommeliers if you will, will drink cup after cup, assessing each batch for aroma, body and pungency through a series of different tests. Changwony underlines that the quantity of tea produced for the local market is undoubtedly increasing. Speciality strains like the increasingly-popular purple tea, grown in Kenya but exclusively for international consumption are on the rise, but how long it will take for them to appear on the shelves of our supermarkets remains to be seen.