Let’s Start With Some Tea Basics: My visit to Limuru, Kenya
What better way to introduce tea to you is then to show you. I had the tremendous opportunity a few weeks ago to visit the Limuru region just north of Nairobi, Kenya. My goal was to visit the Maraba tea factory, which specialized in CTC (Crush Tear Curl) Black Tea production. It’s basically what you find in tea bags and blends.
Even though tea bag tea is not my favorite, I got inspired by tea legend Mr. James Norwood Pratt, who said that we cannot snub tea bags and tea bag drinkers as a large number of people around the world use tea bags. They like it and it is convenient. I believe that describing this type of tea processing is a good starting point many of you are familiar with and we can only go up from here. In the coming months I will show you WHY loose leaf tea is better and tastier.
So the first surprising thing you learn once you dive into the world of tea – it all actually comes from the same ONE plant, regardless of what type you are having. There are varieties – but it is all coming from the famous plant Camellia sinensis. There are three main varieties (var Chinese (sinensis), var Assam (assamica) and var Cambodia (Cambodia).
Here I am in the middle of a tea plant field in Limuru. An amazing experience, wherever you look – Camellia sinensis. As you can see the tea plant is reaching to my hips – the plucking table. This makes it easier for the worker to pluck the tea leaves at a high speed. Depending on the weather, tea leaves grow very fast. Every 5-7 days a new batch is ready to be plucked.
There are different plucking types and descriptions of leaves. The bud is on the top… the next one in line, still unopened and ready to become the next leaf. Normally 3-4 leaves below that can be plucked. You can really see the difference. The leaves which are never plucked and part of the maintenance team underneath the pluck table are much tougher and feel almost like leather, while the fresh ones are much softer and brighter in green. In the tea world the standard pluck is one bud and two leaves but it can vary depending on the type and style of tea one wants to produce. In this picture I am holding the traditional pluck – one bud and two leaves. You will find this pluck in the quality symbol of Darjeeling!
There are six main tea types all coming from this plant: White tea, Green Tea, Yellow Tea, Oolong tea, Black Tea and Dark Tea. The difference between these types comes mainly from the way the tea is processed and what will happen to the leaves once they are plucked. The main driver will be the level of oxidation, which is essentially the reaction of the components in the tea leaf with the air. I will make an extra blog just on that as it is quite a complex topic. Essentially each leaf starts off with a set of components. There can be over 600 different components in a tea leaf! The longer it interacts with the air and certain enzymes, the more the tea will be oxidized –turning the leaf from green to brown and changing the flavor of the tea.
Tea plants are normally green and can vary in size and shape. Kenya is experimenting with a new type of tea plant and it is purple! The tea manufactures explained to me that this type of plant is producing a brisker flavor in the processed tea and a better consistency when processing the tea leaves.
Crush-Tear-Curl or CTC is a relative quick way to turn the leaf into a black tea with a strong flavor. I will quickly show you the different steps. Once the leaves are plucked and transported to the factory, they need to be withered on a withering table. Warm air will be blown by loud fans into the table and they will stay there for about 16 to 18 hours. They need to be constantly fluffed to reach an even consistency. They start off quite leathery and after the withering process they are very soft and bendy. Over the course of the tea making process the leaves will lose a lot of moisture. From 100 kilograms (220 pounds) original leaf, the final tea will be only 23 kilograms (50 pounds) containing only about 3 % moisture!
The next step will be the crushing part, a quite brutal way for someone like me who likes high quality loose leaf tea, but it gets the job done. There are 4 cutting machines to end up with a very fine cut leaf. They are transported from one cutter to the next through conveyor belts. Actually the entire factory is one big conveyor belt from start to finish. The leaf pieces are now ready to get oxidized. They will end up as black tea, so they are fully oxidized.
The next machine they will land on is the fermenter, which will oxidize the leaves. You can see already that the leaf pieces are turning brown. Once the tea is oxidized, it will enter the dryer and the remaining moisture will be removed. The tea will be then transported into the sorting and grading process. You see here the different quality types of the finished product. All is very granular and the grade levels are between dust and fannings and little CTC granular tea pieces.
The interesting thought is that most of us have had Kenyan tea as part of a blend (like English Breakfast) but the blend does not reveal the origin of the tea. The Kenyan tea board is trying to change that and is trying to better market their tea as original. This also includes higher quality loose leaf tea. While a CTC factory can process large quantities of tea, the quality is still a big issue.
Other tea export countries such as Sri Lanka have started this way and produced large quantities of CTC but realized that they are more successful with high quality tea production (in the tea world we call this the orthodox method of making tea, but that is also a separate blog entry).
Many people around the globe drink CTC. It brews very quickly and produces a strong flavor which many people than combine with milk and sugar. To be honest I am a tea purist and I rarely add anything to my teas as I like to experience the pure tea flavor. But if there is demand, there will be supply. Hopefully you and I will be able to show tea lovers more alternatives to CTC tea and that is also what this tea blog will be all about.
The one thing I enjoyed during my visit was my time at the tasting room. Ms. Tea can confirm that it looks a lot like our kitchen on the weekends, when I complete my school assignments which involve tasting of different teas and writing down the look, feel, aroma and feel of the tea. The staff at the factory could not have been nicer and took a lot of pride in their tea making.
Final end note from Ms. Tea: Michael was in Kenya leading a gender equality workshop for several UN organizations in January. Before his week was up, he got a chance to visit the tea fields and tea factory. Dare I say, he was VERY excited and it proved to be one of the highlights of his trip.