Sri Lanka’s Tea Tradition
The production of tea is woven into the history and culture of Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island off the southeastern coast of India.
It’s no accident that the word Ceylon is synonymous with the world’s finest tea. For the story of the exotic Asian island of Sri Lanka and the delicious drink are twined by time.
Although tea was “discovered” in 2737 BC when, according to legend, a couple of leaves fell from a tree into a cup of water boiled by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, it was not widely found in the island nation now known as Sri Lanka until late in the nineteenth century. It was the tea-devoted British who gave roots to the first Camellia sinensis plant on the island, in 1824, when their colony was still called Ceylon. Considered nothing more than a curiosity, the plant was displayed in the Royal Botanical Gardens outside Kandy.
And there the story might have ended had the celebrated cinnamon crops of the island’s plantations not proved so terribly unprofitable. The British swiftly switched to coffee production, an apt choice that became a mainstay until 1869, when a fungal disease obliterated the crop, forcing some three-quarters of the seventeen hundred planters to shutter their operations.
When cocoa and cinchona failed to gain ground, a planter by the name of James Taylor got the bright idea to try tea. His first crop, planted in 1867 on the nineteen-acre Loolecondera estate in Kandy, was so successful that by 1872, he was able to add a tea factory to the property. Other planters read Taylor’s tea leaves and set up similar models. By the 1880s, Ceylon and tea were two.
“Tea takes on the character of where it is cultivated,” says Peter F. Goggi, president of The Tea Association of the USA. “Sri Lanka is an ideal location for it. It’s close to the equator, it has warm days and cool nights, and it has a high elevation with a mountain range in the center.” It took an American resident to turn Ceylon tea into an international sensation. In 1890, Thomas Lipton, a Scot who made his fortune in New York City as a grocer, decided to take a trip to Australia. On the way, he stopped in Ceylon. He thought he might like to sell some tea in his stores.
At that time, tea was expensive, but tea plantations were not. So he bought four with the idea to put a cup of tea in every household. He very nearly succeeded. In short order, he lowered the price by streamlining production and made tea super simple to steep by placing it in packets instead of selling it loose.
Today, according to a 2014 report by the International Tea Committee, Sri Lanka is the world’s third-largest exporter and fourth-largest manufacturer of tea. Given the amount of tea that Sri Lanka produces, it can also take a large amount of credit for the fact that tea is the world’s second most popular beverage—right behind water.
Goggi says it’s not surprising that tea, hot and cold, is so fashionable, considering it is tasty and has well documented health benefits.
Sri Lanka’s six main tea-planting regions—Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Kandy, Uda Pussellawa, Uva Province, and Southern Province—produce teas with unique characteristics and flavors. “The low-grown tea is known for its tightly rolled leaves, the mid-grown tea is used in blends, and the high-grown tea is especially flavorful,” Goggi says.
The country is known for Ceylon black tea, which has the sweet scent of citrus. Ceylon green tea, made from Assam tea leaves, has a nutty taste. And the rare Ceylon white tea, also called silver-tip tea, has hints of pine and honey. Goggi favors the tea that is grown in the rugged, mountainous region of Nuwara Eliya. “It has a lemony taste,” he says. “It’s pungent and has a light and bright palate.”
More than one million islanders, most of them women, work in the tea trade and some 4 percent of Sri Lanka’s land is under cultivation. “Tea is an important part of the economy,” Goggi says. “It and tourism are the country’s main sources of income.”
Goggi, the first American-born tea taster for Lipton, spent four months at two tea estates in Dimbula, in 1980. He continues to be fascinated by Sri Lanka’s tea-making tradition. The growing and harvesting of the tea leaves is done much as it was when Taylor started his great experiment nearly a century and a half ago. The tea bushes are planted to follow the contours of the land, creating lush, leafy terraces. They are not easy to take care of. They require a lot of attention and fertilizer. Pruning is done frequently and judiciously, with a special knife.
“The tea bushes grow all year round and are harvested all twelve months of the year,” Goggi says. “Every ten to fifteen days, they have to be trimmed like hedges. Elsewhere, there are bushes that are known to be two hundred, even a thousand years old. But in Sri Lanka, they are newer. The first ones were started from seed, and new ones have been cloned from branches of the old.”
The tea is harvested by hand, something that is rarely done in other tea-producing countries, and no artificial preservatives are added. Machines are not sophisticated enough to discard twigs and coarse leaves that dull the tea’s distinctive flavor. Pickers are trained to pluck only the bud, the source of the flavor and aroma, and the two new-growth leaves below it. Typically, each picker gathers thirty-three to forty-four pounds of tea per day. The leaves are weighed and sent to the muster sheds of the on-site factory of the plantation.
Transported to the upper stories of the factory, the tea leaves are placed in troughs and “withered” to remove excess moisture. Then, they are rolled and twisted and separated; this process creates a chemical reaction with the air that is crucial to the taste of the tea.
After being rolled on tables, the bundles are placed on a rotating cylinder then spread on another table to ferment in the heat, which is strictly regulated to enhance the flavor of the tea. After oxidization turns the fermented leaves from green to copper, they are fired in a chamber to retain their flavor.
Sorted by size and shape, the tea leaves are weighed and packed into chests to be checked and sampled by the Sri Lanka Tea Board before export. Only tea that is grown and manufactured in Sri Lanka is eligible to bear the Lion Logo, the coveted seal of approval. (When the tea itself is 100 percent Sri Lankan, the legal designation is simply the lesser “Ceylon Tea.”)
If tea is big in Sri Lanka, so is tea tourism. Tea tours are a tradition, and tea houses are ubiquitous. There is even an entire institution devoted to the history of the harvest. The Ceylon Tea Museum, which opened in 2001 a couple of miles from Kandy, is set high in the center of a circular road that looks down on the hills of Hunnasgiriya, Knuckles, and Matale. Its landscape is filled with various varieties of tea bushes.
The four-floor industrial building supported with classical white columns is filled with vintage machinery that pays homage to the country’s cash crop. A selection of Sri Lankan teas may be sampled in the top-floor restaurant or bought at the museum shop.
Since his first visit to Sri Lanka in the 1980, Goggi has made several trips back. Next year, he’s going again. To taste the tea at its source.
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