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Tea plants as props? Thanks, #TeaAcrossAmerica!


When we first joined #TeaAcrossAmerica, I had visions of a big bushy tea plant in the front window at the shop. I still think we can build a neat window display around it at some point. When our tea plant, Tea H. White, arrived, the temperature outside was well below zero Fahrenheit. Even the windowsill seemed awfully cold for a little cutting that had just been shipped halfway across the country. So we set him on the tea bar instead.

Tea H White - Mar2014

Tea H. White today, about two months after his arrival in Montana.

Tea H. started out as a decoration and a passive tool for raising awareness of American-grown tea. Every now and then, I’d point at him and say, “that’s a tea plant.” Perhaps I’d explain what the significance is of Camellia sinensis and talk about Tea Across America. Perhaps not. But that slowly began to change.

I found myself saying things like, “we could make black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong, and pu-erh, all from this plant here.” I was pointing at the plant a lot.

Then it got more specific. I’d point at the bud and leaf at the end of a branch and say, “this right here is where the plant concentrates its caffeine.” I’d point at a smaller, brighter-colored leaf and say, “this leaf would find its way into something like this oolong tea we’re drinking, but this big leaf down the stem would probably be broken into dust and stuffed in a Lipton teabag.”

In the last week, I’ve referred to little Tea H. White every day.

I brewed up some taiguanyin, and showed a customer the dried, rolled-up, tadpole-shaped leaves. Then I pulled an unraveled leaf from the infuser and held it next to a similar-sized leaf on the tea plant to show that it really is a whole tea leaf.

I showed someone the soil in the plant’s pot and explained that Camellia sinensis can grow on steep hillsides at high altitudes where other crops can’t thrive, and talked about what that’s done for the economy in places like Kenya’s Rift Valley.

I was talking about the ancient tea forests near Mannong and Manmai in the Yunnan province of China, and I walked over to Tea H. White and said, “little tea plants like this one can grow into 30-foot trees and live for a thousand years or more.”

Just today, someone asked what variety of tea Orange Pekoe is. I started to explain that it’s not a variety, it’s a grade. Then I went over to the tea plant and showed them what a pekoe is.

My tea plant has become an educational tool.

As I’ve said many times before, the primary job of a tea vendor today is education. Learn everything you can about tea, and then pass it on to your customers. It pays back in spades when you can find the perfect tea for somebody and they turn into a tea fan (and a loyal customer)! I live for the aha moment, when somebody really “gets” what tea is all about. Having a real, live tea plant sitting on the tea bar makes for more of those moments.

Someday, that plant will grow into a tea bush, and we’re going to produce a batch of tea from it. Between now and then, however, the plant will help to educate hundreds of people about the world of tea.

Deepest Africa – The Tea of Kenya: Stop 5 on the World Tea Tasting Tour


When you think of tea, Africa probably isn’t the first place to pop into your mind, but Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Tea has revitalized their economy, and tea lovers everywhere became winners. Red Lodge Books & Tea works with family owned plantations in Kenya, and was the first tea bar in the United States to serve Kenya’s unique purple tea.
Kenya Title Slide
Kenya is known for its black tea, but with their expanding tea economy, the country has expanded into other styles. We tasted some green and white tea from Kenya, along with traditional estate-grown Kenyan black teas and with some fun and different tea you just can’t get anywhere else.

The teas we tasted were:

  •  White Whisper
  •  Rift Valley Green Tea
  •  Golden Safari (black)
  •  Lelsa Estate FBOP (black)
  •  Royal Tajiri (black)
  •  Purple Tea

A quick bit of background on Kenyan tea before we go any farther. As I mentioned earlier, Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world, and the third largest producer (after China and India). Largely because of the population difference, Kenya doesn’t consume as much of its product as China and India do. Kenya produces about 345,000 tons of tea per year, but consumes only about 32,000 tons of that. About 9.6% of the world’s total tea production comes from Kenya.

Those are fascinating statistics, but let’s put some human faces on them. When I wrote my first blog post about purple tea in 2011, I was contacted shortly afterwards by a Kenyan woman by the name of Joy W’Njuguna. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2012 at the World Tea Expo, as you can see in the picture below. She’s not actually that short — it’s just that I’m six-foot-five and I’m wearing a cowboy hat, so she does look like a tiny little thing.

CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya or Joy W’Njuguna, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!

Kenya-Slide07

I’ve learned a lot from Joy about Kenya and its tea industry. One telling tidbit is that about half of Kenya’s tea is produced by corporate farms, and the other half by independent growers. I have a soft spot in my heart for the independents, since I own a (very) independent bookstore and tea bar. Joy, in addition to representing her own family business, is involved in a collaborative export business that represents a coalition of independent family farms in Kenya. The big producers there are focused on producing very high volumes of CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) tea that ends up in grocery store teabags. The independent growers are focused instead on producing high-quality handmade tea that will catch the attention of the rest of the world.

I like being able to put a face to the products I buy. I like being able to show my customers a picture and say, “See these people? These people hand-picked the tea you’re drinking. Not machines. We know where the tea came from and we know what we’re buying.”

Kenya-Slide08

Some of the people who picked the tea we tasted at this class.

Well, that’s probably enough of a soapbox for the day — or maybe even the month. Let’s move on to the teas that we tasted. If you’re like most of my customers, you didn’t even know Kenya produced a white tea. Heck, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t know either. So let’s start there:

White Whisper

Kenya-Slide10

Silver Needle is one of the flagship teas of China. White Whisper is not a clone, but a Kenyan tea made with the same process. The vast differences in terroir make show from the first sniff. It’s richer and earthier than Silver Needle. Even at the 5:00 steep time we used, it’s less delicate. Personally, though, I love the complexity of this tea. Just pay close attention to that water temperature. You pour boiling water over these leaves and you’re going to ruin it.

Rift Valley Green Tea

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The first time I tried this green tea, I wasn’t really impressed. Since it’s a pan-fired tea, I followed the general guidelines for Chinese greens and steeped it for three minutes. Next pass, I read the tasting notes from Royal Tea of Kenya, which recommend a thirty-second steep. Really? Thirty seconds? Yep. That’s all this tea needs.

I love the fact that this tea comes from the slopes of Mount Kenya. Some of my best memories of my trip to Kenya when I was in high school center around that area and the day and night we spent at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. What a wonderful place!

Royal Golden Safari

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I’ve written about this tea before. It’s one of my favorite black teas. In this session, as in most of my tastings, I got raised eyebrows from people when I poured this and told them it was a black tea. It brews up pale red with just a touch of astringency and appeals to many oolong drinkers. Unlike most black teas, I regularly get four or five infusions out of Golden Safari.

Lelsa Estate FBOP

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Next, we moved on to a much more traditional Kenyan black. This FBOP is one of the ingredients I use in Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (my Scottish breakfast blend). The estate in Kericho participates in the Ethical Tea Partnership program, which I appreciate, and the tea has a deep red color and characteristic Kenyan “jammy” notes. The maltiness blends well with Assam tea, and those who take their tea English-style will appreciate how well it takes milk.

Royal Tajiri

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“Tajiri” is the Swahili word for “rich,” and this tea lives up to its name. The finely broken leaves mean an intense extraction. If you’re a black tea lover, this one will give you everything you’re looking for — assertive astringency, deep red (almost black) color, and a very complex flavor profile.

Royal Purple Tea

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I’ve written so much about purple tea on this blog (here, here, and here) that I’ll skip the background data — although the picture on that slide is new: the tea on the left is a traditional Camellia sinensis, and the one on the right is the purple tea varietal TRFK306/1. The molecular structure in the background of the slide is the anthocyanin. I didn’t have my shipment of handcrafted purple tea yet (and the sample didn’t last long!), so we were unable to compare the orthodox to the handcrafted. I will put up separate tasting notes on that when my main shipment arrives.

I will note that we brewed the orthodox purple tea for this tasting with 170 degree (F) water instead of boiling, as I’ve done in the past. The cooler water brought out more of the complex undertones of the tea and backed the astringency down, making it more to my liking. We tasted this side by side with and without milk. If you haven’t had this tea with milk before, add a bit just to see the fascinating lavender color that the tea turns!

Nandi Chai

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I confess. I was bummed that we didn’t get our handcrafted purple tea in time for this event. I kind of unloaded on Joy about it, and she was good enough to find me something else fascinating and unique for this event: an African chai. The tea (a blend of purple and traditional black) is from Kenya and the spices are all from Ethiopia.

We closed the tasting with this unique chai, and it went over very well. Instead of taking up half of this post talking about it, I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to Nandi chai in the near future.


This was the fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.

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