Visiting the “Soul” of our Business – A Tea Garden!
We consider the following key parameters in analyzing which farms to source our teas from:
- Innovation in loose leaf tea – is the farm growing new cultivars, trying out new techniques, investing in R&D, investing in skills training
- Labor practices – wage structure, treatment of workers, efforts to improve worker’s lives
- Farm structure – small holder farmers or medium sized farmers
- Supply availability – Ability to maintain constant and consistent supply of loose-leaf tea
With these factors in mind, I turned off the main road into the enchanting tea estates of Limuru with an air of expectation. So far, the teas in our Kenyan blends have been sourced from tea farms up country (Nandi, Kericho and environs) and I was excited by the prospect of sourcing teas so close to home and from the “birthplace” of tea in Kenya as the first tea bushes were planted in Kenya in 1903 by GWL Caine in Limuru.
A large majority of the tea estates in Limuru produce CTC (cut-tear-curl) teabag tea, so I was excited to visit a tea farm producing loose leaf tea. Although this was a sizable farm of 200 acres, a small portion of the farm was devoted to producing loose leaf teas, with the proprietors making investments to improve the quality of loose-leaf teas as well as their variety. The owners have also invested in training and education of their staff and pay the staff a significant premium relative to the average CTC leaf tea pickers. This is primarily due to the added skill and care required to pick the teas for loose leaf tea production, which translates into robust & complex flavor profiles – for eg. In Japan, white tea is picked at 5am in the morning, when the bud and leaves tightly seal themselves to protect them from the cold weather. When these bud & leaves are picked before they uncurl in the morning sun, the amazing nutrients that safeguard them against the elements remain intact within the leaves which translates to higher antioxidants and complex flavor profiles.
The farm I visited sits at an elevation of 2016 meters above sea level and the weather conditions of this high altitude coupled with the rich soil make Limuru an ideal place to grow tea. After having walked the farm and understood the proprietors’ vision - one which is value accretive to Kenya, as innovators grow new cultivars and introduce new techniques which result in better prices, which then incentivizes small holder farmers to produce those types of tea, generating better returns for farmers and better wages for workers – we get down to the business of tasting tea!!
There are a few elements that give each tea its unique flavor – the cultivar (or type of tea – Camelia Sinensis, Camelia Assamica), the terroir, the harvesting time/method, the processing (steamed, pan fried, hand rolled or roasted) and storage (temperature, exposure to light etc.). We evaluate the teas and rank them and then use the final evaluation tool – memory test – to see what memory the flavor evokes – to make the final decision on selecting a tea for the next MTC blend.
So, after this amazing farm visit, I have selected an interesting tea called “Dragon well tea” 😊 which will be used to create our next blend. This tea has been meticulously created using a Chinese technique that combines “de-enzyming/fixation” of the tea through pressurized steam and pan frying and hand-rolling it to produce the “dragon curls”. Along with a new tea, we hope this is also the start of a long and fruitful relationship with a tea farm that is pioneering new techniques and types of tea in the Limuru region.
Stay tuned for this blend which takes a Kenyan tea created in a Chinese style and blends it with ingredients that transport you to the other parts of this bountiful continent! 😊