The lime green lushness literally covers the hills.
Nothing better than a perfect ‘cup of chai’. Served on a ‘stoep’. Perhaps with a rusk. South African traditions rock… There’s something exotic about tea. The word “chai” hails from India, a Hindi word for tea which is derived from “cha”, the Chinese word for tea. The journey of tea began in China, and it has been continuously crafted for at least 3000 years. The official date of origin in Chinese history is 2732 BCE. There was intense investigation by European botanists, entrepreneurs, chemists, traders and physicians (as only the ‘finished product’ was imported from China and they were curious) – but China managed to hang onto its tea secrets for over 250 years. But we’ve discussed the illustrious and intriguing history of tea before in this newsletter (in the Sri Lanka columns), so let’s rather focus on our local tea estate…
Outside appearances belie the activity that takes place inside the factory.
Not all tea in South Africa is imported, and we have our own Magwa tea estate which is located near Mbotyi, Lusikisiki (and the Majola tea estate near Port St Johns – which ships their tea to the Magwa estate). Tea grows best in tropical and subtropical climates with abundant rainfall and rich soil – and these local areas fit the bill. I was tickled pink when we were able to organise a tour of the facility whilst on our Wild Coast Tour.
The final product – delicious Magwa tea.
The process of making tea is not simple. It is an intricate affair that begins with the hand plucking of a good leaf – or two leaves to be precis, and a bud, and results in the final tea leaf that you see. 20 000 kg of green leaves give about 4255 kg of dry leaf. Tea bushes, if properly cultivated, can have a productive life of over 100 years – although 50-60 years is more typical.
The carefully picked, moisture rich tea leaves are brought into the factory where they are put onto large withering troughs where hot air is fanned to reduce the moisture content of the tea leaf by 60% – 70%. This makes the leaves soft and ‘bendy’. This is known as a ‘physical wither’. Important chemical changes also take place during this time. In the Magwa Tea Estate factory, the leaves are weathered for around eight hours (weather dependent – and in some factories can take up to 17 hours).
Large withering troughs.
The next step in the process is called “rolling”. This is primarily to break up the leaf cells or compartments and to mix up the chemical components of the leaves with the enzymes. Various types of rollers are used to achieve this objective, at first gently, then more efficiently. The first roll is often very soft and known as the ‘pre-conditioning roll’ which results in the gentle expression of the leaf juice on to the surface of the twisted particles. These juices contribute to the blackness of tea. Subsequent rolling achieves a thorough breakdown of the leaf cells. The heat generated during these processes is controlled by fans so that the quality of the tea is not compromised.
One of the cutting / chopping rollers that was in the process of being sharpened.
Thereafter, fermentation or oxidisation takes place. The leaves are put in troughs or laid out on tables between 30 minutes and two hours (at Magwa Tea Estate the average is about an hour). Enzymes inside the leaves react with the air around them, changing the leaves’ colour from green to gold, to a rich, deep brown. The colour indicates the degree of oxidation and influences the tea’s flavour. For a lighter taste, the oxidation process would be stopped when the leaves are gold. For a stronger tea, rich and coppery leaves are required. The entirety of this process is a complex set of chemical reactions which begin at the moment when the leaf is broken by the roller. Enzymes mix with the other chemical compounds creating many reactions, the most important of which is the oxidation of polyphenols (the major active compounds present in tea).
The friendly and helpful lady outside the gate of the factory, selling the final product.
The second last process is firing or drying. Once the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the heating stops the enzymes in the tea leaves from any more oxidation (you could think of it as the heat immobilising the enzymes). The tea is now passed through hot air dryers, reducing their water content to about three percent, when they will be ready for sorting and packing. Heat control is important at all stages, as the quality of the tea is very dependent on the temperatures and can be burned very easily.
The final stage in the factory is sorting, grading and packing. The fired tea leaves are sorted into particle sizes by sending them through sifters that sift the leaves through different meshes. This helps to categorise the teas into the different grades. In the Magwa Tea Factory, you have 12 holes per inch, then 16, 24 and 30. Too much crushing apparently compromises the quality of the tea, turning it from black to grey.
Sifter (you can see the different ‘sieves’ each with their own funnel).
The Magwa Tea brand is packaged in the factory, and the bulk tea gets shipped to various venues, including a company that is an importer, exporter and broker which is based in Sandton. Much Magwa tea is found in the popular brands on our supermarket shelves…
You can see the different sizes of the tea leaves as they exit each funnel on the sifter.
As a visitor, one must always recognise that what you view as a tourist attraction is the local people’s lives and reality. Politics and economics impact on the facility and on their lives. It is their way of life and their means to earning a living in an environment with incredibly few job opportunities. This 1 800-hectare farm is blessed with an ideal climate and soil type for tea. Many of the fields were planted in the early 60s. When operating at its peak (roughly 2007), it came close to profitability, producing 2.7-million tonnes of tea in one season. The farm employed 1 200 permanent and 2 300 seasonal workers. The tea industry has traditionally been a hotbed of conflict, and this estate in the Eastern Cape is no different. Falling tea prices, demanding physical labour, unionisation and conflict-riddled wages, amongst other issues, led to violent strikes and financial strife which brought the estate to its knees. Like most things in our beautiful country, it is a complex situation.
Vast amounts of bulk packaged tea awaiting shipment.
We visited the estate in the “off season”, where everyone was cleaning, refurbishing machines and getting ready for the season which is almost upon them. Which was really positive. I recently read in a November 2021 online article by news24 that the “Eastern Cape Rural Development and Agrarian Reform MEC, Nonkqubela Pieters, had expressed confidence that Magwa-Majola Tea Estates in Lusikisiki and Port St Johns would reach break-even point and reduce their reliance on government bailouts by 2024”. I really hope they are able to reach this goal. This is a worthy initiative, giving those living in the area an opportunity to earn wages and contribute to the upliftment of both their families and South Africa (producing our own tea rather than importing) at the same time!
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team
Back in business: ‘Largest’ tea farm gets a new lease of life: