If you are an American, it is highly likely you have consumed Kenyan black tea and not even known it. Unilever, parent company to Lipton, is the largest single tea plantation owner in Kenya. Not to turn my nose up at Lipton, because sometimes that is all you can get your hands on in the country that runs on coffee, but what about the other 40% of tea plantations?
The Kenyan tea industry began in earnest in the 1930’s, almost thirty years after the first tea seeds were planted. There are two main areas in Kenya that produce teas located on the east and west of the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is a large trench first described by English explorer, John Walter Gregory, that stretches from Syria down to Mozambique. The rift in Kenya is now called the Gregory rift and lies along the edge of two tectonic plates that were once very active volcanic regions. These now dead volcanoes left a very valuable soil base that allows for agriculture to thrive in Kenya. Thanks in part to that soil, Kenya is now the third largest producer of tea on the globe and the largest exporter in Africa. Over 60% of the tea is grown on small farms and sent to one of 62 licensed manufactures that are overseen by the Kenyan Tea Board.
These manufacturing facilities are within 50 km (31 miles) of the farms they have an agreement with and the Kenyan Tea Board heavily regulates which manufacturers serve which farmers and only allow for a farm to do business with one manufacturer. The manufacturers combine all the delivered teas to produce their end product. So, unfortunately, if you want a single estate tea from Kenya you have to look to larger growers who also own the manufacturing process.
Even on the larger plantations, most of the tea is harvested by hand with the Kenyan Tea Board promoting the two leaves and a bud standard for plucking. This is not that surprising when put into context around Kenya’s overall economy, which is still very much agrarian. It has introduced a host of challenges for larger companies like Unilever, which faced a strike by its workers in 2007 concerning wages. Much to Unilever’s credit they have been very open with the public on the wages and benefits they provide their workers and how they have worked to improve these.
The majority of the Kenyan tea is manufactured using the Crush-Tear-Curl method or CTC. There are some teas produced with the more traditional methods but in much smaller quantities that are harder to find outside of the country. Even with the CTC method, Kenyan black tea carries a strong distinctive taste that holds up to milk and sugar or even just being drunk straight.
Have you had Kenyan tea? What is your favorite?