An Ode to Kenyan Tea: From Shambas to Teacups

Kenyan Tea Plantation

Greetings fellow tea lovers! Today I’m taking you on a journey to East Africa to explore the rich history and modern practices around one of the world’s most prized teas, Kenyan black tea.

Kenya has been a major tea producer for over 100 years, known for growing high-quality black tea in the African Great Rift Valley. Tea cultivation in Kenya began in 1903 when George Williamson brought seeds from India to start the first commercial tea farm near Kiambu.
Tea grows particularly well in the tropical climate around Mount Kenya, enriched by volcanic soil. The major tea growing regions are found in Kericho, Nandi Hills, Mount Kenya and the Aberdare ranges. Small-scale family tea farms called “shambas” blanket these mountainous areas.

Kenya produces mostly black tea from the cultivar Camellia sinensis. Popular varieties include TRFK (Tea Research Foundation of Kenya) developed clones like Clone 11A, which produces a bold, malty flavor. Pekoe and younger buds are harvested to make fine grades of tea.
Tea picking is traditionally done by hand to select prime leaves. Kenya pioneered an innovative payment system where pickers are compensated based on quality rather than quantity. This results in discerning plucking and exceptional tea leaf.

After harvest, leaves are taken to be processed on the day of picking. Withering, rolling, oxidation and drying transform the fresh leaves into made tea ready for tasting. The best factories use state-of-the-art equipment to create teas worthy of the prized Kenyan name.

Beyond the farm, tea is deeply woven into the social and cultural fabric across Kenya. Growing and selling tea provides income for over 10% of the population. Chai masala – spicy milk tea with cardamom and ginger – is a national staple enjoyed from countryside homes to bustling Nairobi cafés.

Chai Masala tea

Kenyan black teas are best brewed using slightly cooler water around 195°F, rather than boiling water. This helps preserve the delicate flavors of the tea.

Many Kenyans brew tea directly in the cup using loose leaf tea, then strain it straight into the cup when desired strength is reached. Typically 3-4 grams of tea per 6 oz cup is used.

Milk and sugar are commonly added to Kenyan tea to balance the brisk, tannic flavors. Honey is also a popular sweetener. Allowing the tea to brew for 3-5 minutes will bring out the boldest flavors.

With its perfect climate, dedicated growers and artisanal production methods, Kenya earns its reputation for being one of the world’s finest tea origins. As the Kenyan’s say “Chai na Kenya ni mali,” meaning “Tea and Kenya are one.” The next time you sip a bright and complex Kenyan black tea, you can taste the passion and craft of a country that pours its soul into every perfect cuppa.

Major Tea Regions

Chinese tea

Indian tea

Turkish tea

Vietnamese tea

Japanese tea

Sri Lankan tea