Why is So Much Tea Grown in Kenya?

Why is So Much Tea Grown in Kenya?

I write a blog about tea.  The one that you’re reading, to be precise.  I have written this blog for a year.  I assumed that at this point, I understand most things about tea.  It’s all the same plant (except when it isn’t) whether it is black, white or green.  Different types of tea should steep at different temperatures.  It originated in China, and was brought by the British to India.  And those two nations continue to be the largest exporters more tea than anywhere else in the world.

However, I was completely wrong about one of those facts.  The largest exporter of tea in the world isn’t India.  It isn’t China, either.  It’s Kenya.

kenya loose tea black teaTea was introduced to Kenya in 1903, but it wasn’t grown commercially until the 1920’s.  It has long, sunny days, and rich, red, volcanic soils, which are excellent for growing tea.  Currently, about 60% of it’s tea is processed by hand, by small farmers, which 40% is grown on large-scale industrial farms.  Because most of Kenya’s tea is grown by small, local farmers, and sold internationally, it is all coordinated by the Kenya Tea Development Authority, whose entire job is to solve that logistical nightmare.  Most of what is exported is Pekoe Fannings or of a lower grade (you can find out what those grades mean here), but 12%-14% is exported as Broken Pekoe, which is about the grade of a high-quality tea which you can have for breakfast every morning without feeling too indulgent, such as our Blue Sapphire.  

Why, though, is Kenya the largest exporter of tea, when we always talk about tea in the context of Britain, and Japan, and India, and China?  I think it has to do with how the economies of these nations work.  When China was agricultural, it grew enough tea for it’s entire population, and had plenty leftover to export.  Now, it’s a major industrial power.  It’s population is too busy working industrial jobs to go back to the fields and pick tea.

japanese tea loose teaThe same thing is true for Japan, but to a much greater extent.  Japan is a small, island nation.  It’s climate and especially its soil is excellent for growing tea, but it doesn’t actually have much land to spare for the rather picky plant.  Therefore, Japan grows very little tea, all of which is very high-quality.

india industrialization loose tea India was colonized by the British because they didn’t have the right climate for growing tea, and didn’t have the space.  They stole plants from the Chinese, and grew them there.  It was also partially because cotton could be grown in India, which was a great replacement for only wearing wool all the time in the summer, but really, it was mostly about tea.  After they gained independence, the people of India continued to drink tea more than almost anywhere else in the world.  However, they have also had explosive population growth, and have recently industrialized.  People are busy working other jobs in the city, instead of being out in the fields, hand-picking tea.  

hand picked tea loose teaKenya, therefore, is exporting more tea than anywhere else in the world, because it is still agricultural.  Unlike almost any other plant, good tea has to be picked by hand.  Any machine would ruin the leaves.  Therefore, the next time you drink a cup of tea, feel thankful to the person who carefully picked every leaf, rolled them, and tended them while they dried.  This drink was crafted by human hands, rather than by some impersonal machine.

Curious about what Kenyan teas taste like?  Try Blue Sapphire, a simple, unflavored Estate Black tea.  Is it different than your usual cup?  Are you the sort of tea connoisseur who can taste the difference between Blue Sapphire and other black teas, such as Assam and Ceylon?  Tell us in the comments below.   

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