Four-Eyed No-Horned Flightless Purple Tea Drinker

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tea is a major cash crop in Kenya. Some of that is owed to Lipton. Thanks to Big L – and others like it – the entire country could be looked upon as one big tea garden dotted with a few cities and wildlife preserves. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but – truthfully – Kenya produces a lot of tea. Unfortunately, most of it shows up in cheap-o blends for mass consumption.

Lately, though, there’s been a push to highlight the single estate offerings Kenya provides. Almost as if the country collectively said, “Hey! Over here! There’s more to us than Lipton!” I can proudly say I’ve tried three or four – a Kenyan white matcha (bizarre but beautiful), a whole leaf black (meh), and an English Breakfast variant (tres yum). But the real stand out – at least in the last year or so – has been the development of a new leaf cultivar dubbed “Purple Tea”.

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

The new clonal strain – dubbed TRFK 306/1 – was developed for its health properties as well as its potential resistance to pests. Its most noteworthy molecular component is a flavonoid called anthocyanin – the component directly responsible for giving the leaf its purplish hue. Anthocyanin was purported to be an antioxidant powerhouse (a topic still debated), but the actual food value was questionable. By itself, the flavonoid was considered odorless and flavorless.

Science-y talk aside, I was hooked on sipping the damn leaf six months ago. It was instantly added to my “Tea WANT!” list. Problem was no one carried it. Part of that was its recent introduction. Most tea vendors weren’t aware of it until the World Tea Expo this year. Some that I talked to that were intrigued by it chose not to pick it up. Of all the ones I encountered, there were only two: The Royal Tea of Kenya (the parent group providing it, a wholesaler) and Butiki Teas. I chose to go through the latter in acquiring it. Would it taste good? Hell, I’d be the judge of that.

The leaves – or rather, leaf fragments – had the appearance of black tea fannings. They weren’t quite CTC-cut small, but were definitely flirting with the granular grade. There wasn’t much of a purple sheen to them, not that I was expecting one. In fact, I found it odd that there was a sharp contrast between green and black, no in-betweens. I figured these would be fully oxidized when I got ‘em. As for scent, I was reminded of sweetened trail mix and Japanese (or Guatamalan)-grown black tea – floral, somewhat dry, and lightly sweet.

Brewing instructions called for a ½ teaspoon of leaves in 8oz. of 160F water infused for three-to-five minutes. That was as sencha-like an approach as I’d ever heard of. Those instructions came from the Royal Tea of Kenya page itself, but I was in the mood to experiment. Heck, Butiki’s site encouraged experiment. So, I decided to try three different infusions – one at the recommended 160F, one at 180F, and one at boiling. All at the three-minute mark, save for the last one where I’d do the full five.

First try (160F, three minutes): The liquor brewed up clear with a tinged droplet of green giving a slight impression of “tea”. The aroma had a roasted nutty impression, again supporting the sencha comparison. That was dispelled on taste when I was greeted with a grape front, a creamy-textured top note and a faintly vegetal finish. It had a lot in common with a Mao Jian.

Second try (180F, three minutes): The hotter temp yielded a pale, foggy amber brew reminiscent of steeped nettle leaf or guayusa. The aroma was sweet and almond-like with a trail of artichoke. As for the flavor, this was a tough one to discern. The front was fruit sweet and crescendoed on an even greater grape note than the prior attempt. Whereas the trail-off had none of the former’s vegetal lean; the nearest comparison I could find would be a Taiwanese (Formosa) oolong. Not surprising since this was an oolong-ish approach.

Last try (boiled to awesomeness, five minutes of EXTREME!): The liquor took on a bronze-ish lean for this last bit o’ crazy. Oddly enough, it was difficult to pinpoint an exact aroma, though. The only word that came to mind was, “TOAST!” But maybe that was because I was hungry. Butiki was right that the brew took on a bit more astringency with the more brazen temp, but I didn’t find it off-putting. The foretaste possessed a roasted fruit feeling on tongue-down, which transitioned in the weirdest of ways.

Usually, when I sense the…uh…”movement” of flavor from one note to the next, it’s a subtle feeling – not so, here. There was a faint echo of – and I know this sounds weird – cream-covered strawberries on interim, like I was riding a yogurtine go-cart from one taster note to the next. This alternated from roastiness…to “yogurt-cart”…to fruit…to “yogurt-cart” again …to finish. Unorthodox? Just a tad. But obviously my favorite of the three infusions.

In closing, I have no clue if this would make me run as fast as Kenyans – or even get me out of my chair – but what it did do was deliver on taste. At the end of the day, when all the health benefits and science-y technobabble’s been spouted, that’s all you need. Butiki’s founder also mentioned in passing that there existed a white tea version of this experimental leaf.

And I’ll be the first in line to guinea pig for it.

To purchase Butiki Teas Purple Tea of Kenya, go HERE.

11 Comments

  1. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

    Tea: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Lazy Literatus. His mission: to explore strange new teas, to seek out new countries and new estates, to boldly drink what no man did before.

    1. @xavier – I love you. That was brilliantly timed.

      1. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

        @lazylitteratus – it was a pleasure.

        1. Pleasure’s all mine.

  2. jopj says:

    Thank you, I’ve read much about it but it’s on my teawish list

    1. It is definitely worth your valuable time.

  3. Fascinating insight into this little known tea. Thanks @lazyliteratus, your writing continues to entertain and educate. Thanks again.

    1. As always, May King, I’m glad you chime in when I post. Love hearing from ya. :-)

  4. Avatar of jackie jackie says:

    Another interesting post & another tea to try! I haven’t been a huge fan of Kenyan teas in the past since I’ve only had them CTC’d into my cup. Would be nice to try something a little different.
    Here’s a link to the Tea board of Kenya, I thought it might of interest to anyone who’s curious about teas from this country. There’s quite a lot to look at there.
    http://www.teaboard.or.ke/

    1. Thanks for the linkies @jackie . Very fascinating stuff that Kenya’s doing to get out there into the specialty tea game.

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