Purple Tea Ready for Prime Time

Purple signals the presence of anthocyanins in tea leaves, a type of antioxidant praised for its health benefits.

Purple may also turn out to be profitable for tea retailers seeking to upsell health-conscious consumers who favor its taste over that of grassy green tea.  U.S. and Canadian wholesalers imported approximately 10 metric tons of Kenya’s purple tea this year, making North America the top export destination.

International Tea Importers (ITI) in Commerce, Calif., is the largest purple tea importer. “We are on the brink of something new and exciting in the tea industry,” says ITI COO Bhavin Shah.

“This is arguably the first true innovation in the Camellia Sinensis plant since its inception thousands of years ago,” add Shah who also holds the title of CEO at Waterfall Tea Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of ITI. “After decades of research by scientists in Kenya, we believe they have developed a completely new category of tea.  Purple tea is unlike any other type of tea in every aspect from its leaf structure and appearance to manufacture process to its distinctive health attributes.”

Shah said ITI recently surveyed retailers across North America. Their responses, he said, lead him to believe “that the market is primed for this exceptional new tea that carries high levels of antioxidants and lower caffeine content with all the flavor and cup quality you would expect from a high-end specialty tea.”

Purple tea was first discovered in Assam, India, and in Yunnan, China, and cultivated experimentally in Sri Lanka, and Japan (where it is known as sunrougue). Researchers at the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya spent 25 years developing drought-, disease- and frost-resistant varieties.

Since 2011, Kenya has led the world in production of this cultivar. Yield from TRFK 306/1 bushes is 1.5 to 3 kilos per year, higher than most varietals. The price it brings at the Mombasa auction can reach $30 per kilo, compared to the current average of $2.85 per kilo for commodity black tea. Wholesale blends sell for $19 to $30 per pound.

There are now 600,000 small-scale farmers producing the tea but only a few hundred are growing purple tea. Reproduction is by cuttings since the seeds display high genetic variability. Bushes take three to six years to mature. The high-mountain grown tea tastes best when withered slightly, using processing methods like green tea.

Much of the tea is still being processed as black while the tea finds its market. The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) has designated four factories to specialize in processing the tea to enhance its healthful qualities, but with so little to process only the factory at Kangaita produces significant quantities. At least two privately operated factories are also processing the tea: Tumoi Tea and Njeru Industries. The country produced 25,647 kilos last year, according to the Tea Board of Kenya.

Good as green?

Globally, production of green tea is expanding. Green tea now accounts for one-third of total global tea production, compared with less than one-quarter a decade ago, according to the Tea Commodity Report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The reasons cited for this growth are local consumption in the tea producing countries and, in the west, an extensive body of science-based research showing the health benefits from drinking three cups a day. All teas from the Camellia Sinensis plant, whether black, green, yellow, oolong, or white, naturally contain between 100 to 300 mg of flavonoids per serving.

Some flavonoids, including the anthocyanin malvidin found in purple tea, are pigments responsible for color. Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid that gives a purple hue to blueberries, purple cabbage, red grapes, hibiscus, and acai berries. The coloring protects leaves from UV-B radiation and elevates leaf temperature during cold snaps. Tests show that anthocyanins are highly soluble and yield about twice the antioxidant benefit of vitamin C.

Lightly processed green teas are touted for a bounty of catechins, another type of flavonoid associated with helping to maintain normal, healthy heart function. Purple tea contains catechins in amounts similar to green tea. Researchers found that purple tea is higher in catechin (+C) and epicatechin gallate (ECG) but lower in epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and epigallocatechin (EGC).

Catechins are brain permeable and neuroprotective antioxidants. However, while some studies have shown promising results, the American Cancer Society has not been able to confirm that antioxidants prevent or treat cancer.

Purple teas have not been subject to the human trials that demonstrate the many benefits of green tea. Researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) are contemplating a human trials study on the effects of purple tea.  UC Davis has recently launched the Global Tea Initiative to bring the university’s premier research in agriculture, health, science, humanities and social science to bear on the study of tea.

Export Promotion Council

Samuel Ogala, head of the Kenya Tea Directorate, said the government, to encourage more production, is subsidizing small processing and packaging companies that promote exports at international trade shows. He told Business Day that last year 20 small-, and medium-sized enterprises shipped 50,000 metric tons of mostly black tea, about 10 percent of total tea exports. Multinationals like Unilever account for 80 percent of exports. Tea exports were 119 million kilos during the first three months of 2017, down 7 percent compared to the same period during the 2016 harvest. Spring rainfall totals were down 75 percent from the five-year average.

The Export Promotion Council is “aggressively promoting tea” according to CEO Peter Biwott. The country has set a goal of increasing agricultural, leather, and textile exports by 14 percent per year to cut its trade deficit by half by 2030, he said.

The primary export targets are Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, China and the U.S.

How does it taste?

 Heather Kreilick, who founded Lake Missoula Tea Co., with her husband Jake, reports the “taste has improved twofold since we’ve been working with farmer David Bor.” Bor has been growing the tea the past 2.5 years on former grazing land. He employs 45 and sells direct instead of at auction.

“The tea had a very roasty, grassy taste previously and it now has more of a green tea, vegetal taste. We expect the taste to continue to improve as both their processing methods and the plants mature,” she said. Purple tea contains considerably less caffeine than green tea.

The tea shows a violet hue in the cup that customers can cause to shimmer and intensify by adding a drop of lemon or lime, a trick that marketers at Pure Leaf (PepsiCo) use when sampling their bottled tea.  Other bottlers include

Purple tea is a cultivar that can be processed as green, black, oolong, and even puer tea where it is prized for a flavor somewhat milder than assamica.

North Americans have a taste for black tea. One concern is that purple tea loses it resemblance to green when processed as a black tea. This is because the flavonoid profile of black tea differs from green during processing.

Once rolled and broken, tea leaves begin to oxidize which contributes greatly to their pleasant taste. Lightly oxidized teas are classified as oolongs, heavily oxidized teas (80 percent and greater) are considered black. The youngest leaves contain the greatest concentration of catechins.

Unfortunately, catechins contained in the tea leaves are not stable. They deteriorate when exposed to heat, light, and moisture. Black tea retains small amounts of the catechins praised in green but its primary flavonoids are theaflavins and thearubigins. About 70 percent of the total flavonoids in black tea are thearubigins. The flavonoids in black tea have been identified as healthful but their full potential is still being discovered.

How is it selling?

Slowly, reports Kreilick: “People are curious. I explain that purple is more like a green and it has more sensitivity to temperature and steep time when brewing.”

“We are learning that blending with purple is a strategy to get people used to it, our Purple Velvet Tonic is a higher end blend with purple, white, and a nice Chinese black, we’ll continue to add more purple to blends,” she said.

ITI offers the tea in five blends: purple jasmine (mixed with green jasmine tea), summer eye candy (a multiple fruit mix), purple lychee and purple citrus.

Retailers marketing the tea like to point out that 60 percent of Kenya’s tea is grown by small holders on farms two acres and smaller. Purple tea processed in smaller quantities can be much more lucrative than black teas gathered in quantity for auction.

Boaz Katah is a tea farmer who has grown purple tea since 2013. “We are one of the first to make tea in tiny kitchens and cottages,” he said. The tea is marketed by JusTea for distribution in Canada, a Vancouver-based wholesaler founded by the Bain family, and ITI for distribution in the US. Katah employs 200 workers and produces two metric tons a month. He traveled recently to Canada to visit distributors and meet some of the people enjoying his tea.

Kenya’s purple tea growers praise the hearty bushes and like dealing direct with buyers but, because of the price it brings, high-value teas have raised concerns. This is because a recent change in the levy on farmers so that taxes are based on the value, rather than volume, may undermine profitability.

Kenya is considering expanding its weekly auction in Mombasa to include green, purple, and orthodox (artisan loose leaf) tea, becoming a one-stop-shop for buyers. The East African Tea Traders Association hopes to auction varietals by the end of the year, managing director Edward Mudibo told Bloomberg News.

The future of purple tea

ITI sources its tea in the Nandi Hills, Kenya at the Tumoi tea farm.

“Last summer the ITI team arrived in Kenya just in time to witness the first commercial flushing of mature purple leaf,” said Bhavin Shah. “The team spent a considerable amount of time traveling west to east of the Rift Valley visiting farms and factories manufacturing purple tea that was truly ready for the market,” he said.

“Bushes require 3 to five annual flushes from the time seedlings are planted before they are sufficiently developed to pluck and manufacture,” Shah explains. Most of the purple tea is newly planted.

“It is critical that Importers accept only teas made from mature purple leaf,” he said.  “Tumoi Teas is extremely diligent, using only using mature purple leaf, thereby ensuring their tea carries all the antioxidant properties of this tea while maintaining a premium flavor and cup quality,” he said.

None of the purple tea grown in Kenya is certified organic. Tumoi has purple bushes undergoing conversion for certification in 2020, but few small growers rely on pesticides or herbicides, no chemicals are ever sprayed on the leaves, said Bain.

Kenya is the world’s third largest tea exporter and the largest exporter of black tea, sales of which continue to grow. Yields there are unusually high so long as the rains arrive. Kenya bushes produce 2,105 kilos of processed per hectare on average, compared to China where the average yield is 785 per hectare.

The country remains in the grip of a terrible drought, the worst in 30 years. Northeastern and southeastern Kenya (23 of 47 counties) are bone dry and blazing hot. An estimated 2.6 million of the country’s 48 million people are considered “food insecure” according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.

Farmers are eager to adopt strategies to curb the impact of climate change, which is, bringing harder frosts and intermittent, heavy rain. Tea bushes there are young, fewer than 30 percent are over 40 years old (compared to India where 40 percent are more than 50 years old). Purple tea bushes are younger still and proving to be quite resilient.

Properly marketed purple blends could proved to be as popular as black teas with the healthy credentials of green.