For nearly 100 years the Satemwa Estate in Malawi has been crafting tea. Set in the Shire Highlands of the country, surrounded by rich red earth and lush green fields, the estate is family run and owned by Alexander Kay.
Alexander’s grandfather, Scot Maclean Kay, bought the land in the 1923 from a tobacco farmer and set to work planting tea bushes. The family worked hard to transform itself into a working tea farm. But it was Alexander who rejuvenated the estate. His tea was sold for industrial teabags but he knew there was another way and, quite quietly, he endeavoured to focus on the future of well-crafted, world class loose leaf teas. He placed his trust in tea drinkers, knowing they would respect a higher quality product.
The estate pushes the boundary of flavours whilst being a steadfast figure for biodiversity and ecological practices. One of our brilliant team members, Jack, remembers his experience of the estate:
I’ll never forget jumping in the back of Mr Mandala’s pickup truck, perfect for the meandering dirt roads encompassing the Estate, to see where the Spearmint was grown. I got lost staring at rolling tea fields, when Mr Mandala suddenly veered sharply right – into dense vegetation that was drooping over the road.
Ten minutes of bumpy driving later, I could smell it before I saw it – spearmint! It was all growing on small plots of lands owned by farmers who live on the estate. Fruits and other herbs were all growing in harmony, it was beautifully organised biodiverse chaos!
The Satemwa estate pushes for a sustainable environment and looks beyond tea to the wider ecosystem. They constantly plant trees which provides a sustainable energy source to power the factory (and cleaner than the widely used coal). These trees also protect the land from soil erosion occurring from mass deforestation. When the rainy season comes Malawi gets hit by floods that cause death and destruction, so this land structure is desperately needed. The estate has its own tree nursery that gives away trees to small holder farms to encourage improvement.
The farm also sits on an ancient natural forest which holds an incredibly diverse array of plants and wildlife. Every year ornithologists from around the world will visit to study there. The birds and trees are of such value (ebonies of such an age worth thousands of pounds) that they require a 24 hour armed guard to protect the area.
Within the forest and estate corridors have been created so that the wild animals can migrate easily across the land. It offers another level of protection: preventing the animals for being killed for meat, and from trampling crops and people. Alexander and his team continuously encourage growth within the beautiful landscape of the Shire Highlands.
Henrietta’s first experience with the Satemwa Estate was unique and most definitely out of the ordinary. A package arrived, covered in stamps, and made of a used cornflakes box. What was inside was another story. After freeing the tea of its homemade container, Henrietta put the kettle on and tried a cup. She describes the first sips as ‘rich and familiar, the strong arms of someone who takes care of you, but on top of that such sweetness’.
We could nostalgically say that the rest is history, but it is not so easy and romantic as that. Henrietta flew out to visit the estate and fell in love with the land, the people, and their practices. The hard part is creating the demand – still a battle today. Beautifully crafted tea is readily available for consumers. It is a trickle of change that is gradually wearing through the destructive idea that tea is cheap, bagged, dust. Alexander is part of the revolution of change to respect tea estates and we stand proudly beside him.
When Alexander came to London, after years of supplying Rare Tea, we took him out to show his work. He tried afternoon tea at Claridge’s, enjoyed cocktails at the Edition, and breakfasted at the Four Seasons – all using his teas. It was an experience that brought tears to his eyes. Alexander’s life work is prove that tea from Africa is more than teabags, that it is in fact a world-class, exceptionally well-crafted product.
Personally speaking, I was blown away by the innovative nature of the Satemwa Estate. The flavours that have been achieved by thinking outside the box are interesting, adventurous, and – of course – delicious. The stories behind these leaves are part of their charm. They’re all founded through an organic process of experimentation and Alexander’s natural inquisitive nature.
Everyone has their favourite infusion. For me the most notable teas from the Satemwa Estate are the Malawi Mountain Moto and Malawi Antlers. They are so different from each other, but both showcase the beautiful landscape and an understanding of the tea plant.
Moto is an example of a deep understanding of nature and wish to retain the ecological balance of the land. In part of the farm the tea bushes grow alongside a guava orchard, which is idyllic as it sounds. However the leaves from the orchard drop onto the tea plants, where they attract pests that attack both the leaves and the tea plant.
The estate promotes biodiversity as much as possible. Instead of clearing the orchard to protect the tea, the workers gather the leaves (which requires a large amount of manpower) and then burn the leaves to smoke out the bugs from the bushes in a natural form of pest control. The scent of the guava leaf smoke was so delicious that Alexander decided to infuse the tea to with it to create a very personal, estate specific, Malawian version of lapsang souchong.
Malawi Antlers is a story of curiosity. Whilst in a field plucking the bud and first two leaves off the plant, Alexander noted a delicious smell had filled the air: stone fruits, apricots, and peaches. Try as he might, making different types of tea with the plant from that field, he could not reproduce that mesmerising scent.
It was after a decade of experimenting on that one field that enlightenment struck – in his kitchen. He was cooking tomatoes and pulling the fruit off the vine when he realised it was the stem that offered such flavour and not the leaves. So called after their appearance, the method of making Antlers is a secret. And rightly so. Alexander has a level of dedication and understanding of the tea plant that has rewarded him with a wonderful, and highly unusual type of tea.
From love at first sip, one bizarre-looking package sparked a journey that has resulted in a relationship that has flourished and grown over the years. From Lost Malawi, our Single Estate English Breakfast, to the Mountain Moto, and Antlers. Alexander and the farmers from Satemwa pour their soul into their tea which you can taste it in every drop. We couldn’t be more excited about where the next chapter takes us.