Food & Drinks

Tea sommelier finds niche in luxury flavours

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Tehmeena Manji, founder of Muthaiga Tea Company. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • Eager to showcase the bounty of African heritage through the lens of beautifully hand-crafted tea blends, she launched the Muthaiga Tea Company in August 2020.
  • She makes flavours such as Rwanda Noir and Swahili Oolong. Swahili Oolong is a hand-rolled tea that has a natural malt taste.

While living in the UK and the US for about 14 years, tea sommelier Tehmeena Manji, realised that it was difficult to find African loose leaf teas in some of the finest tea rooms and supermarkets in the two countries.

“This seemed like a bit of a disconnect with my knowledge of the existence of beautiful tea gardens all over Africa,” she told BDLife.

Eager to showcase the bounty of African heritage through the lens of beautifully hand-crafted tea blends, she launched the Muthaiga Tea Company in August 2020.

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She makes flavours such as Rwanda Noir and Swahili Oolong. Swahili Oolong is a hand-rolled tea that has a natural malt taste.

“We add spices to the delicate malt taste. I first taste the tea to ensure the consistency of quality and then I taste each of the spices in hot water to ensure their consistency as well,” she says.

“We then cut the spices into sizes and blend them with the tea and then cup/taste the blended tea and grade it to ensure consistency of quality.”

She did not want to replicate the tried and tested tea blends such as mint tea, masala chai and the like.

“We want to create unique teas using natural ingredients that you are not likely to find anywhere else,” Ms Manji says.

The UK Tea Academy-trained sommelier sources the teas from smallholder farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, with a pipeline of ingredients from other African countries— herbs, dried fruits and flowers —creating a unified blend specific to the artisanal teas.

One such blend is the Resurrection d’Amour (The Resurrection of Love), where they used the Resurrection Leaf from Zimbabwe, popular among herbalists for its healing properties.

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“This was one of the first known instances of the Resurrection Leaf to be used with a green tea from Kenya,” she says.

Just like wine, good quality, loose leaf tea has different notes depending on the terroir and location where the leaf is grown.

High altitudes and slightly acidic soil give the leaf a specific flavour profile, perfect for diverse food pairings.

Training as a tea sommelier enables one to pick up notes in the tea leaf as well as other complementary ingredients.

Once the aromatic notes have been identified, she then determines how these notes can mingle with different flavour profiles in food. “For example, if you are having sushi or sashimi, you want to retain the flavour of fish in your mouth and slightly cool down the bolder flavour of the soya sauce and wasabi, so I would pair that with our white tea blend—Moonlight Needle,” she says.

The savannah grass and apricot notes of the tea enhance the flavour of the fish, the slightly sweet peach notes mellowing the wasabi and soya flavour down a notch.

“You will be left with a lingering bouquet of balanced notes in your mouth,” she says.

For Ms Manji, her perfection comes from experimenting with the teas.

As the current “chief everything officer” of Muthaiga Tea Company, she employs her vast background in Japanese and British tea-making techniques.

“ For instance, I wanted to see how our Purple Haze tea (Kenyan purple tea blend) would taste while cold, so I brewed and kept it overnight and added a dash of lemon and honey the next day and since it was a beautiful, sunny day, I decided to add a little gin to it and it tasted amazing,” she says.

After refining the recipe with mixologists at restaurants where she supplies the tea, it grew to be a fan favourite.

“Now we have a new Purple Haze G & Tea which gives you a boost of antioxidants while you are enjoying your gin. Field evidence indicates that it reduces the guilt from drinking gin too,” she says.

Price range

Nearly a year after its inception, the company has already found a niche in the tea market.

“We did a six-month pilot study to understand how the market would receive innovative, artisanal teas blends and to our delight, we found that there is a healthy market for premium teas from people that have refined taste and are willing to spend for their health and wellbeing,” Ms Manji notes.

The teas range from Sh585 to Sh1,500 and are currently being sold at select stores in Nairobi and online.

With favourable response from both expatriates and locals after their pilot phase, they upgraded their packaging to a definitive “tea caddies” inspired by the Japanese love for all things tea.

Though they have yet to begin exporting, a following abroad has already been established.

“People are regularly requesting us to create gift hampers with our tea boxes and some have sent our gifts to their families and friends abroad,” she says.

Quick facts

-According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shennong was the first to travel this journey, recognising loose leaf tea for its unique taste and healing properties.

While sheltering in the shade of a tea tree circa 2737 BC, a breeze blew a few dry leaves into a pot of water he was boiling to drink. The rich flavour of the water pleased him, he christened it "cha", and so the worldwide travels of quality loose leaf tea began.

-Kenyan soil first hosted tea trees in 1903, planted by the Caine brothers in present-day Limuru town, and has since produced some of the most prestigious and renowned varieties of black tea in the world.