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Kenya will be growing Purple Tea

KenyaAccording to Business Daily in Africa, farmers in Kenya have been given permission to start growing purple tea, a varietal they’ve been developing for the last 25 years. The new varietal, called TRFK306/1, was developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK), and is expected to provide dramatically higher profits for farmers than existing tea plants.

Unlike white, green, and black tea — which all refer to different ways of processing tea leaves — purple tea is actually a variant of the plant. It can be processed in different ways to yield “black purple tea” or “green purple tea,” as confusing as that terminology might be (kind of like the “green red rooibos” I wrote about recently.

Purple Tea

On the left, regular tea plants. On the right, the purple tea varietal.

All “true” tea is produced from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are two main variants of the plant, known as var. sinensis (Chinese) and var. assamica (Assam), and hundreds of sub-varieties. The new purple tea cultivar is what’s known as a “clonal” cultivar, meaning it is propagated by cutting and grafting rather than seed.

It is called “purple” because of high amounts of anthocyanin. The anthocyanin gives the leaves a purplish color in the fall, and contributes more astringency (what Lipton calls “briskness”) to the taste than standard varieties. People who drink tea for its healthy properties will be more interested, however, in the powerful antioxidant properties of anthocyanin.

According to New Agriculturalist, the strain is also higher yielding than existing Kenya teas, and is drought-resistant and frost-resistant. (Hmmm. Drought and frost resistant tea plants. I wonder how they would do here in Montana?) The TRFK told Reuters that the seeds “produce oil suitable for cooking, cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industries.” Kenya is the world’s third-largest producer of tea, after China and India, but it is the largest exporter of tea, according to FAO statistics.

How will this affect us in the U.S.?

Fans of black teas typically prize astringency (the “puckeriness” provided by the tannins in the tea, also found in wines like merlot), which purple tea processed like oolong will provide more of. People looking for a healthier beverage often seek out the teas with the highest antioxidant content, which lead them to white and green teas. Green purple tea should provide more of the antioxidants (although the jury is still out on the affect of anthocyanin on free radicals) while filling a new taste niche. I’ve only found one review of the flavor (apparently it’s “earthy and rustic”), so I’m holding off on expressing an opinion there until I get some myself.

It will probably be next year or the following before any significant quantity of purple tea shows up in the United States. I’m not going to jump on the health bandwagon, but I’ll certainly be one of the first to give it a taste and bring some in for the tea bar when the price becomes a bit more reasonable.

[UPDATE Nov 2011: I ended up getting my hands on purple tea much sooner than expected (see tasting notes here). It’s now available at Red Lodge Books & Tea Bar.]

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