The team that taught the tea farmers how to make hand crafted tea. From left to right, Paul Bain, Ian Bain, Grayson Bain, Buddha Dev, Brendan Waye. The photo was taken in a small tea field, 15 minutes outside of Chavakali.
One of Kenya’s numerous large scale tea gardens. In some areas, we noticed the fields went on for as far as the eye could see. The multinational tea conglomerates own 60% of the Kenyan Tea industry.
A very typical Kenyan Shamba, or as we once called them over here, a “homestead.” The typical ones we found in the tea growing regions supported great diversity. Tea plants, corn, root vegetables, fruit trees, livestock, hens of all sorts and no outside inputs, such as petro-based fertilizers. Here, outside Chavakali, are two shambas, side by side. Tea at the bottom, corn next, then bananas and fruit trees.
The gifts of excellent tea growing soil, humid, warm, year round climate, and an abundance of sun mean the bushes are plucked every 7-10 days. The annual yield is phenomenal in comparison to other growing areas of similar size.
The famed and rare Purple Tea bush! A genetic anomaly, some orthodox factories in Kenya are experimenting with processing this colorful leaf on a commercial scale. Here is the OP set in full purple red hue. Look close….perhaps purple ‘white’ tea?
Strolling the Kangaita Tea Gardens. This farm and factory is owned by the KTDA and is one of the few that produce an excellent quality orthodox black tea. Paul and Grayson walk with one of our guides.
Our first week long stay was in Sotik. Here we met Joseph (far right) who had 3.5 beautiful acres of prime camellia. His bushes were gorgeous! Standing behind Joseph is Pastor Albert, our bridge into the local community. He made sure we had everything we needed.
On Josephs farm, both men and women are employed to bring in the harvest. As I watched these two, I was amazed at how quick their hands would move across the picking table. It would take just a few minutes to snip off and fill each hand with up to 35 leaf sets each.
Every four to five hours, the leaves are transferred from basket to sack and carried off to a roadside weigh station. As I crouched down with my camera, none of the women would stop. Finally, after some pleading, this bright faced picker stopped and flashed me a smile. The other girl rushed by, giggling, with her hand covering her smile
The typical tea leaf basket carried by pickers the world over. In Kenya, because the leaves are large, these baskets hold between five and seven kilos of leaves. This translates to just about one kilo of made tea. It takes two to four hours to fill this basket, depending on the experience of the picker. Pickers will fill two to three of these baskets a day and receive between 15 to 20 cents per kilogram.
From the basket, we dumped the fresh plucked leaves onto the withering table as Paul clearly points out. We had just constructed it the day before, and it worked really well. The leaves sit on a cloth mesh allowing air to circulate around them. You can also see the fan in the lower right side, which provided the much needed air movement.
The most laborious step in the making of hand crafted tea is the hand rolling stage. We grab a handful of the withered leaves and start rolling them against a rough surfaced mat. We are using pieces of conveyor belt in this photo because the uneven surface sticks to the leaves and rolls them into tightly wound sticks.
After the rolling stage, the leaves are separated and spread out again under plastic to oxidize. They generate some heat during this phase and a miniature micro-environment is created under the plastic sheet expediting this crucial ‘flavor producing’ stage. Too much heat will cook the leaves, so turning the leaves every 30 minutes or so is a task that must be done like clockwork.
We took advantage of the daily hot sun and spread the oxidized tea leaves over a piece of sheet metal in full sunlight. The reflected rays dried the leaves in less than four hours. In this picture the leaves are about half-way through drying. The aroma emanating from the steel sheet was heavenly: sweet, fresh tea in its purest form.
The finished, hand-rolled, sun-dried, black tea. This small bundle of leaves is virtually unbroken, and when infused, the leaves re-open into the classic OP leaf set. The fresh tea aroma wafting off the leaves was palate-watering. We could not wait to start tasting what we had produced!
Buddha, our Indian tea processing expert, takes the first sip of the made tea. All eyes are focused on his face. Justice – the farmer in the red cap – looking at Buddha intently, has been growing tea for 35 years and had never tasted the flavor of his brewed leaves until this day.
The Great Rift Valley. As you know, if you buy Kenyan tea, one of the first questions you ask ‘is the tea from West of the Rift Valley?’ It is a common fact amongst tea buyers that once you cross this great divide, the tea growing gets better and the tea tastes better. We crossed the Rift Valley, and as we descended down into its depths, we stopped so I could get a shot of the incredible expanse that has divided central Africa into two distinct areas.
The photographs accompanying this post are the property of the contributor.
What an amazing photo journey. You’ve managed to capture the visual and emotional of this tea story. It’s fascinating to me that this climate is so well suited to tea growing. It feels different from high mountain grown teas of Asia. It especially appeals to me to have farms that grow many things, tea being one of them. I had tried the purple tea years ago at the World Tea Expo and really enjoyed it. I hadn’t realized it was a genetic variation or anomaly. Nature provides such interesting opportunities for us.
It is amazing that farmer Justice had never tasted his tea before. His focus had been exclusively on the growing of tea that he failed to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. Such strict division of labor. I am curious to hear how he felt about his processed tea. Do you suspect he’ll become a tea drinker?
It was a very fulfilling trip Michelle, and thank you kindly for the lovely words.
The thing is, Justice and most Kenyans consume a ton of tea, all day – just not their own. Most can only afford the dust & fannings left over from the mega-gardens throughout the country. That quite insipid blend I found to be unpleasant, unless doused with a ton of dairy.
It also has little to no export value, hence why it is kept and sold for domestic consumption.
When Joseph tried his handiwork for the first time, his excitement level was incredible.
I would not say there was failure on the part of Justice, just a lack of time and know how, and not to mention it’s illegal for the farmers to sell a finished product. They can only sell wet leaf to the highest bidder.
very unfair indeed.