15 – The Land of Tea ☕

15 – The Land of Tea ☕

We recommend you read this article with a cup of tea at hand. No coffee allowed. This is a tea appreciation post.

On Sunday morning, as we were driving out of Nairobi, we heard worship music coming from nearby churches. We knew we were approaching our next destination (the Tea Hotel, Kericho), when we could see a patchwork blanket of tea plantations for miles around.

Workers’ houses amongst the tea plantations

Tea is a big deal for Kenyans. Kenya is Africa’s largest tea producer and the leading global exporter of black tea. Tea accounts for 28% of Kenya’s export income. Fun fact: 47,302,158kg of tea was exported to the UK from Kenya in 2018. Only 9,998kg was exported to France!

Most of the country’s large-scale plantations are found in the Kericho area. In fact, the world’s largest is even there. They date back to the mid-1900s when Tom Rutter of Brooke Bond Tea Ltd (now Unilever), had realised during a hunting safari, that the region was ideal for tea growing. This is down to it being two thousand metres above sea and close to the equator, thus humid.

We spent a week in the “land of tea”. We slept near it, we smelt it, we walked in it, we saw it being produced and of course, we drank it!

For the first time since beginning our travels, we felt like we were on holiday. For six nights we camped in the beautiful grounds of the Tea Hotel. The Tea Hotel was built in the 1950s by Brooke Bond Tea Ltd (BBT) as accommodation for its senior management, mainly British expatriates. The building itself has seen better days, but it is still impressive. At one point it was even fit for a queen; the Queen and Prince Edward visited in 1952. The ceilings are very high and the interior design reminiscent of the Victorian era. The wooden floors and vintage furniture, huge fire places and exquisite chandeliers have not changed for decades.

We enjoyed spending our evenings sat in front of the cosy fireplaces eating masala chips and our days basking in the sunroom, drinking tea. The staff were very friendly and at the end of the week we were sad to say goodbye to them. We shared our last minutes with them watching Eliud Kipchoge complete the marathon in under two hours. What a way to end on a high!

Masala chips in front of the fire 😍
The 🌞 room

A lot of Kenyan marathon runners come from the Kericho region, we met the brother of one of them (Kiplagat) when strolling in the tea fields behind the hotel. We chatted for ages with Kiplagat (a farmer and pastor) about how Kenya was a beautiful country, with talented athletes and friendly people. He did, however, express his frustration over the corruption in his country. He even said one needs to offer a bribe to get a job. Hopefully this will improve in the coming years. We have not really experienced this as tourists. Once, a soldier at a checkpoint asked us for money but we refused, and he let us go without insisting. So far, the positives of this beautiful country have definitely outweighed the negatives!

The plantations behind the Tea Hotel

Whilst in Kericho, we decided to visit a tea factory. We would need a golden ticket from within a tea bag to go and see the tea being made by giant squirrels and Oompa Loompas. Just kidding! The area is not very touristy, so we had to ask around before finding a lady, Lilian Biegon, who was happy to take us to Kabianga Tea Factory Ltd. It was fascinating to see how tea is made, especially as one of us comes from a big tea drinking family in a big tea drinking nation!

Lilian, the lovely lady who organised our visit

Kabianga Tea Factory Ltd is about twelve miles from Kericho town centre. We hitched a lift there with Moto-taxis (Piki-Pikis). Fortunately they had umbrellas because it was tipping it down with rain. The short-rainy season in Kenya has arrived early this year, it rains briefly but heavily at least once a day.

Once arrived, we passed the colourful gates plastered with rainforest alliance principles and were kitted out with very fetching outfits: long white jackets and funny looking hats.

First, we were shown the tea trees in the garden. These ones are mainly for decoration as the tea leaves processed by the factory come from private farmers. Farmers generally provide their leaf pickers with housing, schools, hospitals and a very low salary (roughly ten Kenyan shillings per kilo of leaves picked). To give you an idea of the exchange rate; one pound is one hundred and thirty-three Kenyan shillings. Tea plantations that do not belong to private farmers, belong to big companies like Unilever (Lipton) or Finlay’s.

Heather and tee trees in the factory garden 👋

The pickers very quickly remove two leaves and a bud from the trees (the very tips of the trees). The good pickers can collect their own body weight in leaves each day. The picked leaves are gathered in big sacks on their backs. The sacks are then transported in big open caged trucks to the factory, allowing the leaves to aerate.

Two leaves and a bud
The open caged trucks that bring tea leaves to the factory

When the trucks arrive at the factory they go on a weighbridge. The leaves are then sorted so that anything that is not two leaves and a bud can be removed. The trucks then return on the weighbridge with the remaining leaves so the factory can calculate how much they owe the farmers. We were told the farmers are paid sixteen shillings per kilo. A big chalk board at the entrance marks the daily figures: which farmers delivered leaves, how many kilos of leaves they delivered and what percentage of the leaves were kept.

Weighbridge
Daily figures

Next, the leaves get pulled up a conveyor-belt and dumped onto long panels. They are left here to dry for eight to ten hours.

The leaves drying out
Four kilos of leaves = one kilo of tea

After that they are transported upstairs by another conveyor-belt (yes, you are going to hear the word “conveyor-belt” a lot in this article!). Here, they are dried out further by enormous fans. The leaves are taking especially long to dry at the moment because the rain is wet. We touched the leaves, they were warm. This stage of the tea-making process is called “Withering of leaf”.

The fans drying the leaves

Once dry, the leaves go back downstairs to the main factory room through a pipe. The pipe pushes them through a machine which chops the leaves into tiny pieces.

The bits of leaves then go back onto another conveyer-belt. This time vapour is added. The bits of leaves now look like spinach or algae. The conveyer-belt drops down a level, the green mush is chopped up further. Our nostrils are filled with the smell of tea. Not your standard cuppa tea smell, but a wet grassy plant smell.  This stage of the tea-making process is called “Cutting, tearing and curling”.

The green mush then gets transported (yep, you guessed it – on a conveyer-belt) where it gets fermented. Here it is heated for forty-five minutes at thirty-two degrees Celsius, then forty-five minutes at twenty-seven degrees Celsius. Rotating metal shards ensure that all the mush is reached by the heat. After this, the mush is brown in colour. This stage is called “Fermentation”.

From green mush…
…to brown mush

A lady is stood at the end of the conveyor-belt to spade the brown mush into a gigantic furnace, heated at fifty-five degrees Celcius by a huge boiler.

The boiler is fed eucalyptus logs that local farmers sell to the factory. It is never switched off as the factory never shuts; running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

The eucalyptus logs that fuel the boiler

When the mush comes out of the furnace, it is no longer mush. It is soil-like in texture. There are bigger bits, smaller bits, lighter bits and darker bits.

Next up, the “tea soil” goes through a choogling machine. It was fun to watch! The bigger bits (with fibres) are deposited into a bucket. The bits without fibres continue along to another choogling machine. This time it is sorted into five buckets according to the size of the grains: from big (BDI) to tiny (Dust). These five buckets represent top-grade tea. This last stage of the tea-making process is called “Fibre extraction”.

The choogling machine
The different sized grains sorted by the choogling machine

The tea with fibres that was removed by the first choogling machine is secondary grade tea. It goes through a cleaning process before being sold (for a cheaper price) to countries like Sudan and Somalia.

Second grade tea

The top-grade tea then passes a quality control check before being bagged, sold and dispatched.

The quality control check (i.e tasting!)

The tea produced at Kabianga Factory is simply tea. It is not flavoured. Nothing else has been added. The factory does sell a small amount of its tea to local villagers, who drink it as it is. The rest of it is bought by companies who will do with it what they will (e.g. blend it and put it in tea bags).

Voilà ! We now know a lot more about the second most popular drink in the world (we hope you do too!). This experience has made us appreciate all the time and effort that goes into making the tea we drink. Though one of us is still more of a coffee drinker than a tea drinker. We will let you guess which one! 😉

In case you have not finished drinking your cup of tea, here are some jokes for you:

What do teapots wear to a tea party? A T-shirt.

How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.

What drink do goalies hate? Penal-tea.

Why did the teapot get in trouble? Because he was Naught-Tea.

Why did the hipster burn his tongue? Because he drank his tea before it was cool. 😂

7 Replies to “15 – The Land of Tea ☕”

  1. Amazing how accommodating they are in Africa… loving your updates of your journey ! Enjoy… it’s freezing here

  2. New perspective on my cup of tea this morning… 🤗 Tea riffic ! Much love can’t wait to hear the next chapter. Lxxx

  3. This is awsome.you are welcomed to come again to kericho .incase of anyone who one to visit again you can contact me through phone number:0720226484/0777226484
    Facebook: lilian biegon. Thank you

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