How Kenyan tea culture grew in England
By Peter Muiruri

Forty kilometres north of the city of Southampton, UK, lies a small settlement known as Andover. In a country with big cities, it is easy to overlook Andover, at least that is what I felt when I visited the region for the first time. That was until I saw the Kenyan flag fluttering in the wind in front of a local firm. My curiosity was awakened since this was not one of our foreign missions abroad.

Image [Courtesy]

Welcome to Twinings, the UK factory that blends tea consumed in much of England. As the presence of the flag indicates, this factory should matter to Kenyans. Here, I met Mike, a tea buyer and blender who shared the strong Kenyan connection. Kenyan tea, he said, is a key ingredient in the blending process at the factory.

Image [Courtesy]

 

High mineral content

 

“Thanks to your country, there would be little tea-drinking culture here,” said Mike.

True to his word, Kenya’s presence in the factory was there for the world to see – as one comes across bags of tea from key factories in Kericho, Tinderet, and Nandi. Even the good old Ketepa was represented.

I was still eager to know exactly why our tea, a beverage that most of us may take for granted, is so dear to the UK population. First, the manner in which it is cultivated puts the Kenyan tea at a higher status than others. Kenya’s highlands with the red soils are the perfect platforms for tea propagation. The high altitude contains soils rich in minerals, thereby producing tea with higher antioxidant content than teas grown in lower altitudes. These conditions make Kenyan tea a key ingredient in the blending of teas from other parts of the world.

“Kenyan tea has lots of colour that gives strength and a boost to many blends. And unlike other seasonal tea producing countries, Kenya’s mild weather is conducive to tea growing all year round,” Mike explained.

There is yet another reason why our tea is a world-beater. Kenya has so far resisted the urge to use machines for harvesting tea. This, according to Mike is a boon for tea lovers.

“Hand plucking ensures that only the required two leaves and a bud are harvested,” said Mike. 

Mike Gale tasting tea [Courtesy]

Creating new blends

Interestingly, Kenya’s climatic conditions, topography and the factory processes influence the flavour and appearance of tea, knowledge that is vital in the blending process. Kenya tea has been combined with teas from Assam, India and Sri Lanka to create a new blend used to make the over 35 million cups of tea consumed annually aboard British Airways flights around the world. This blend took to the skies in 2013.

By the way, did you know that Kenyan tea is among the few teas that taste the same on the ground as in the sky? Let me try to explain. To make a good cup of tea, water, as we know should boil at 100 degrees. However, due to altitude, reduced air pressure and humidity, water on board an aircraft boils at 89 degrees. This reduces your taste by 30 per cent and that is why familiar foods taste differently up there. Therefore, the airline wanted a blend of tea that would taste as good at 35,000 feet as it does on the ground.

Talking of tea tasting, I got a chance to observe what tea tasters at Twinings do on a typical day – sampling different blends, or should we say 600 cups a day?

Neatly arranged on a table were different blends with corresponding nametags. Mike went on to describe the fundamentals of a tea taster. 

“The appearance, aroma, flavour and your mouth feel right,” said Mike. 

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In what some of you might describe as bad table manners, Mike used a tablespoon and noisily slurped the tea into his mouth, going from cup to cup and describing in detail the characteristics of each blend. Contrary to what many think 90 per cent of tea flavour can be perceived through smell. Our tongue gives the basic elements of taste – sweet, salty, acidic, and bitter. A small organ behind the back of your eyes and nose known as the olfactory gland has fine hairs on its surface that capture molecules of what a tea taster smells. That is why these tea tasters loudly slurp so that both the tea and the oxygen can spread evenly through all the taste buds for a perfect profile. The tea is then spat back in a sink before moving on to the next flavour. Phew! Now you know.

Well, I tried to taste the “professional way” in vain as my taste buds got confused after the third slurp. After all, it just tasted like tea to me. In England though, sipping is believing.

Have you ever wondered...?

How did the Britons come to be heavy tea drinkers though they don’t grow tea? Actually, coffee, gin and ale were the favourite drinks for breakfast before Thomas Twining turned tea into a national drink over 300 years ago.

Tired of drinking ale, Thomas started serving tea in his coffee shop in London. His newfound love for the new beverage brought him problems from bar owners who even lobbied for tax increases on tea imports. Undeterred, Thomas soldiered on and won more converts from the working class.

During Victorian times, tea had already become a well-established beverage with a combination of foods such as sandwiches, cakes and scones. Teatime provided an avenue to share the latest gossip and show off one’s teapots and Chinaware. It had become a fad.

Today, tea is more than a drink but a way of life and a tradition handed down several generations. From Everyday Tea to English Breakfast, from the commoner to the queen, this British habit shows no signs of tapering. In fact, it was Queen Victoria (after whom our Lake Victoria is named), who decreed that Twinings be the official supplier of tea to the monarchy, a tradition that continues to date.