“Working under organic conditions helps us mitigate the effects of climate change in Malawi” – A conversation with Satemwa Tea Estate (Pt. 2)

For the release of HIRU, the third variety of Ama pét-nat tea, we had a chat with Alexander Kay and Wouter Verelst from the Satemwa Estate in Malawi. This family-run estate grows and produces speciality teas, amongst them the Malawi Green and Malawi White peony, the main ingredients in HIRU.
In the second part of the interview, we dig deep into agronomy to learn about landscapes, tea growing and Satemwa´s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, as we discover a world of creativity and innovation in the crafting of tea.

So Alex, tell us, what part of your work do you enjoy the most?

I like agronomy. I like growing stuff. Not only new stuff but trying to improve the existing agronomy. Growing tea is less chemical-intensive than a lot of other crops but there’s a lot of opportunities to improve. Over the last few years we´ve been adopting quite a lot of principles from organic and natural farming, we are trying to push that. Ultimately I´d like to see us go organic but we need to understand the natural systems a lot more, what’s working and what’s not. We are on that path. There’s a lot of learning there, trial and hopefully not too much error.

Satemwa, if we are not mistaken, is the Estate with the highest altitude in Malawi. Can you explain what height might bring to your tea?

The highest altitude for us is 1,250 metres. One of the main influences is how well the different varieties do at different heights. Some just don’t like to be very cold and they don’t perform very well there. The other places tend to be a bit drier and some other varieties don´t do so well there either. I´m not too sure about how much the height difference affects the same varietal. What seems to be more important are aspects like the afternoon sun on a field. In the hot dry season that has quite a stressful effect on the plants. It makes them produce a sort of stress response and lower moisture in the leaf to produce a much more aromatic flavour profile. You can get different stresses that could be due to cold, too much shade… For us where we are getting better flavours is in a response to dry conditions.

Linking to that, how do seasons affect your tea?

The season we are in now is dry and windy but we get quite a lot of crops because there’s moisture in the soil. A little bit like a Darjeeling first flush, coming out of a cold period, as it warms up, you get that flush. For us, the period is not as cold but we get the flush that is driven by moisture in the soil that stays there from the end of the rains until July and then through this cool period. We prune in April / May, going into the cold season. In September you get sort of cold windy weather and then it gets very hot and dry in October / November. Day temperatures are sort of 30ºC – 34ºC and night temperatures are also high and it’s very dry.

Does this make for a shorter harvest season? Or does it mean that the buds from the beginning of the season are better?

What we are finding is that it’s different. For example, the green tea that you use in HIRU, we make that in a very short period; when the main rains come from mid-November and until mid-December. Very wet and very hot, it’s a period of very fast growth. We have a period in that window where we can make very nice green tea and we can’t make it other times of the year. 

We´ve found that there is only a period of about two to three months where we can´t make anything very interesting, that´s around January / February. The teas tend to have a little less flavour and be thinner but at other times we can make something interesting; a particular varietal or a particular sort of recipe.

That’s one of the things that we´ve been working on in terms of innovation; how can we match what’s going on here? How can we find the best way of making products out of the current conditions?

How is climate change affecting your production? 

What we are seeing is that we get longer drier periods. The overall rainfall is not decreasing, if anything it seems to be increasing, but what happens is that we get fewer more intense rainfall events; so we get a hell of a lot of rain over short periods. Rains tend to start later than they used to and that’s why the tea is here actually… It’s a combination of a higher altitude and the winter rain that we get. 2012 was the first year where that winter rain period fell. And then we had 2015 and 2018 when those rains just didn’t come, so the teas are having to survive much longer without moisture. That’s one of the reasons why we started bringing some of those organic principles; just to try to work on our bush health, trying to make sure that the plants are as healthy as they can be to sustain these longer periods of stress.

At the moment there is only 2%-3% of the Estate under irrigation, so it´s not like we could irrigate extra. We are working on that but even that is a big challenge, a big investment and a lot of negotiation with, not only Satemwa but also with the people living around the area.

We are also looking at different types of shade trees just to try to reduce those peak temperatures during the day.

Is there an ideal, optimum age for quality and yield? Is it anything like vines that usually give better quality with age as roots dig deeper in the soil? 

The tea ages quite slowly so take a lot of time to get its roots down. They go down about 8 metres, so it takes a long time to get down there. In the Chinese market for example they pay a premium for teas coming from bushes that are over 50 years old, they are sort of old teas. 

It´s recognised within the industry that older teas do produce more complex characteristics. From our side, apart from these old trees that we produce Oolongs from, it’s not something that we are focused on. We´ve found that some of the new varieties that we´ve planted out are quite young, 5 years old or so, producing nice tea. From other aspects, soils have an influence, the effect of the afternoon sun on drying out the fields, having that stress effect; those are important things.

Wouter, as you know, our new variety HIRU is made with Malawi white and Malawi green peony. What can you tell us about these teas and the blend?

If you drink them separately, the steamed green tea is more seaweedy, umami, fresh and mineral. The hay tones, the woodiness, the lichee and the peach probably come more from the white cholo peony. The cholo is the peony, a specific cultivar that has more sinensis sinensis in the DNA. It is from the same family of the first tea seeds that came to Malawi and because of that, is quite a historical tea breed growing on Satemwa, very old bushes. 

The white tea is very delicate so we pluck two leaves and a bud. It’s all manually plucked by teams (we call them gangs) of 20-25 people, most of the ladies. Both, the green and the cholo, are made from speciality standard leaves. They pluck them and collect them in baskets on their backs, but they do not fill the complete basket as we don´t want to crush the leaves as they travel from the field to the processing plant. When 20%-25% of the basket gets filled, they go to the collection point to weigh them and to put them in another basket so they still have fresh air and they are not bruised when they get to the plant. That´s where we process the cholo peony. After coming from the fields, we put them in troughs and they are there for 3 or 4 days, depending on the temperature outside, where they become completely dry. 

Afterwards, they get sorted one more time so the bigger stalks are out and the broken leaves are out as much as possible and then we pack them in bags. It’s very bulky, we have big boxes and we can only put 4kg of this type of tea, so transport wise is quite a challenge.

For the green tea, more or less immediately after plucking we steam it, so that the enzymes that cause oxidation stop, and that’s the green tea or the steamed green tea process. Afterwards, you can roll and work on the leaves so that the enzymes causing the taste comes out. 

Wouter, now that you’ve tried HIRU, can you think of any food pairing for it?

I had it as an aperitif in a champagne glass and I paired it with mussels. Basic mussels with a bit of salty butter and pepper and I loved it!

Creativity and Innovation are at the heart of what we do in Ama. We read on your website that you like to experiment and to keep your minds open for new ideas. What can you tell us about creativity and new projects going on in Satemwa? 

We have a lot of varieties, mostly just within Malawi. We spend quite a lot of time going through varieties that haven’t made it through to release for one reason or another. The focus of the research program until very recently has always been based on milk tea, for traditional markets such as South Africa and the UK and it hasn’t really been focused on other markets, so a lot of interesting stuff hasn´t ticked all the boxes. 

However, there are a lot of quite interesting varieties and when we make them in other ways, we can make some very interesting teas, Oolongs, green teas….

The other thing that we kind of look at is the catechins and theine, just trying to look at the phytochemical levels and see what’s in them. They don’t necessarily taste so good or make a great black tea but we try to find ways that we can make those teas into an interesting product.

That’s the kind of things we are doing and then the opportunities come from there to try to make different types of machinery to suit what we are finding or what’s interesting to us but it’s driven by the varietals.

We´ve seen that you are working with herbals such as lemon verbena, lemongrass, mint, peppermint… Is a flower or herbal original from Malawi with the potential to be sold for an infusion?

We have two products we are working on at the moment. One is cedar, the national tree. It grows in the Mulanje mountain, which is in a tea district with a very unique sort of biome. That tree has a lot of oils in it and a very strong sandalwood sort of aroma, so we are using that at the moment. We are doing some trials with smoking and flavouring, it’s quite interesting. I think that we are going to make something nice out of that; so that would be very unique. 

The other thing we are looking at, are a couple of herbs that are drunk locally; one of them is from the verbena family and interestingly it´s had a resurgence locally with COVID because it’s taken traditionally for pneumonia and respiratory illnesses. This is something that we´ve been working on for a couple of years. It’s wild harvested but you don’t get enough to sort of guarantee volume, so we´ve been making plants in the nurseries, working out how to do it. We´ve got a couple of small plots now and that’s something that we´ll be coming out with. We are trying to find out what it takes to grow it. 

There is one other plant that is quite interesting, we haven’t got very far with it at all. It’s a peppermint tea, very strong and it’s also grown on Mulanje, a very interesting plant and that’s something that we are looking at in the future but that’s going to be more challenging to grow. We are trying to work with the communities, managing the mountain to do wild harvesting but it’s a process that we have to go through and it’s not a quick one. It’s growing in a very unique place, it’s quite difficult to farm.

Another experiment that we did lately is with coffee leaves, so we grow a little bit of coffee and Alex started using the same principles as rolling and producing tea with the coffee leaves, with quite nice results. Another thing that we did way back was baobab fibre and there was another one with Moringa. We also plant bergamot, traditionally used in Earl Grey.

Thanks to Alex and Wouter for joining us! Find out more about Satemwa here:

Website: satemwa.com

IG: @satemwa_tea_coffee

Find out more about HIRU here:


Ama pét-nat tea is a new fine-aged low alcohol drink made with water from the Izarraitz Massif in the Basque Country and carefully selected varieties of tea and herbal infusions. Hiru combines two Malawi-grown varieties to intensify its depth of flavour, personality and versatility.

Tea: Malawi Green and Malawi White Peony.

Farmer: Small-scale production, on the family-run Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi, of traditional Japanese-style steamed green tea and white peony, the seeds of which speak of an ancient journey that brought them first from Fujian, China, to Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens, and subsequently to the remote mountains of East Africa.

Tasting Notes: Intense golden colour. Notes of dates and tropical fruits such as papaya with hints of hay and dried herbs. Fine effervescence. Clean, crisp finish.

Aging: Ama pét-nat tea is aged 6 months on the bottle and will continue to improve with time. May be aged even further, for up to 3 years.

Pairings: Versatile and adaptable. It can accompany salads (especially ripe tomatos), seafood, such as crab, but also bacon.

Drinking moments: Ama pét-nat tea is a new fizzy delicious drink, low in alcohol, for the modern lifestyle.

Production: Micro-batch brewing. Each fermentation produces around 280 bottles.

Glass: Enjoy in white wine glasses.

Alcohol grading: 2,5%.

Bottle size: 750 ml.

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