Emeric Harney in Africa 2012
September 18, 2012
Today I had the pleasure of riding a chartered plane from Nairobi to Kapscembewa, an estate owned by EPK (Eastern Produce Kenya), a large holder of tea estates in all of Eastern Africa. Flying over the Great Rift and all the way west to Lake Victoria really gave me the opportunity to appreciate the varieties of landscapes and terrains in this part of Africa; Everything from bone dry deserts to lush rainforests exist here. My final destination after landing was Tinderet Tea Estate, sitting higher than most Darjeeling estates at 2100 meters above sea level. Part of the Williamson Tea group, Tinderet focuses on production of CTC teas, and rightfully so. Producing more than 100,000 tonnes annually (to put this in perspective, our company sells about 400 tonnes a year), not only is there strong market for their CTCs, they are also producing world class quality. Because of their temperature and altitude, Kenya estates are able to grow a delicate, succulent leaf, full of flavor, briskness and a bright cup.
With their cool nights and low humidity, Tinderet is able to wither a large amount of moisture from their leaves before processing continues, which will help to keep more flavor in once the cutting begins. This paired with a longer oxidation period of 85-110 minutes, the cup of Kenya tea has very little green, or immature, astringent quality to it. The Tinderet garden itself is picturesque, a landscape of bright green rolling hills. Every hundred meters, tea plants are unpruned, allowing them to grow into windbreaks to help prevent frost damage. The estate encourage their workers to diversify in their knowledge of agriculture. Eucalyptus Gum trees make up 1/3 of the estate, which are used as firewood for the furnaces at the factory. Vegetable gardens throughout the estate can be found, primarily comprised of kale, corn, sweet potatoes, beans, papaya and bananas. After our gracious host Charles (the managing director of the estate) bud us farewell, we looked onward to crossing the equator and experiencing Kenyan Orthodox production at another Williamson Tea estate.
Fortunately, we spent two days at Kaimosi which really allowed me to breathe in the African passion and pride of tea. Kaimosi is another of the Williamson Tea group’s estates, but what makes it really distinct aside from it’s top notch quality is the fact that it is one only 4 orthodox producing estates in Kenya! With large, twisted leaves, the teas being produced had a great, malty flavor and a bold liquor. Kaimosi rolls their orthodox tea 4 times, for 30 minutes each, increasing the pressure each time, but removing tips after the first rolling, leaving them relatively unbruised and still sweet. What’s also unique about Kaimosi tea is their of the cambodensis laseodalyx varietal, which lies in between the Chinese camellia and the assamica in both size and plant quality, and consequently in cup strength and briskness. Chinese camellias tend to be more tree like with a large trunk base with smaller, more delicate leaves. Assamica is more shrub like with small branches, covered in large, dark leaves. Cambodensis is a nice blend of the tea. While touring the estate, our host Sospeter led us into a secret part of the garden. For the last 40 years they’ve allowed a section of tea clones to grow unpruned, creating a tea forest! Truly austere, the tea tress reached to well over ten meters in height, and reminded me very much of the forests in Yunnan, China.
The tea estates in Rwanda not only produce unique, enjoyable cups of tea but they were also deeply involved in the country’s recent genocide. Rukeri estate is situated just about 75 kilometers outside of Kigali, the nation’s capital. Rukeri provided safe haven to refugees of the genocide, protecting them against the military forces. Rukeri estate is situated at 2100 meters. Even so, because of soil erosion in the area, the farmers were actually forced to plant the gardens in the valleys, where swamps used to lie. Draining the swamps was no easy feat, but what remains are beautifully tendered, flat fields of vibrant tea bushes, accented by canals, giving the garden a sort of Venetian quality. Unique to African tea estates is the fact that they have no necessity to use pesticides. Because of their high altitude and cool evenings, their insect population is fairly minute. As such, estates like Rukeri are making the change to organic production and I had the pleasure of trying one of their first batches! They have still a ways to go but the bright finish on the cup was very promising! Interesting fact: Tea production in Rwanda was actually started by Americans in the early 1960s.
Traveling 400 kilometers to the opposite side of Rwanda, I found myself on a tea estate named Gisovu, one of the sixty estates owned by the McLeod company, lying on the hills overlooking the beautiful Lake Kivu. In most tea producing countries, gardens tend to rely primarily on their own crop of green leaf to produce tea. At African estates like Gisovu it was interesting to learn that more than 65% of their processed green leaf was purchased from local small holders or cooperatives nearby but not on the estate. What makes this a point to think about is it puts a lot of responsibility on the estate to educate and help manage the co-ops so that the level of quality does not drop. This also encourages African estates to create community outreach programs, not limited to tea production, but also to overall health, education and sustainability.
Seven Fontein – Rooibos
After having taken an afternoon to climb the picturesque Table Mountain in Cape Town, I set out to drive the five hours from the city center to where Rooibos is produced. Rooibos production occurs in a very small section of South Africa, just on the border of the Northern Cape province. All of the Rooibos that we purchase comes from a small farm called Seven Fontein. Situated atop a mesa, Seven Fontein was full of breathtaking vistas. With the rain that morning, mist was rolling over the sides of the plateaus, revealing the rows of red barked, green needled rooibos plants. Seven Fontein is a story of dedication; farmed on soil that was supposed to be too rocky and unmanageable to produce great Rooibos 20 years ago now produces some of the highest quality in the country and of course we are privileged enough to be able to supply it to you. While chatting with the owner, I learned that what makes our Rooibos that we purchase from him so delicious is the composition of bark and needles blended together. Bark adds body and briskness to Rooibos, whereas the needles bring the necessary sweetness to make the brew enjoyable.