Tea (Camellia sinensis) is a psychoactive shrub originally native to China. Its effects are said to have been discovered by the legendary third millennium BC Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who was apparently taking a cup of hot water in the shade of a shrub when one of the buds fell into it, making him an invigorating drink. For centuries the Chinese had a monopoly on tea, but with its rise in popularity at home, the British were keen for an independent source of supply, and eventually managed to smuggle some cuttings to India. In Kenya, tea was first grown in 1903, though it was nearly twenty years before commercial production got under way. Kenyan teas are known for their strength and full flavour, and are a major component of most commercial blends sold in the UK and Ireland. Kenya’s other main customers are Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Tea production, though not complicated, is very labour-intensive. Picking continues throughout the year, and you’ll see the pickers moving through the bushes in their brilliant yellow-and-green (KETEPA/Kenya Tea Packers) plastic aprons, nipping off the top two leaves and bud of each bush (nothing more is taken) and tossing them into baskets. Working fast, a picker can collect up to 70kg in a day, though half that is a more typical figure; the piece-rate is set at around eight shillings per kilo picked. After withering, mashing, a couple of hours’ fermentation and a final drying in hot air, the tea leaves are ready for packing and export. The whole process can take as little as 24 hours.
Tea can be harvested three years after planting, and in the first year of production it must be picked every eight days, then every fourteen days in the second year and every seventeen in the fourth, after which the bush must be pruned to keep it at the right height for picking, which can begin again after three months. Weeding is not necessary as the foliage is sufficiently dense to prevent other plants from growing under it.
The stimulating effects of tea are due to the presence of caffeine, and a cup of strong tea can contain as much caffeine as a cup of medium-strength coffee. The effect feels different because it is moderated by other alkaloids such as thebaine, which is a relaxant. Because the human body requires fluid to process caffeine and thebaine, tea depletes the body of water, even though it appears to quench your thirst. Like beer, therefore, strong tea should not be taken as a fluid against dehydration.