“… the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo.”
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The story of Sri Lankan tea is steeped in history.
But it started with coffee.
The island country off the southern tip of India, once a colonial stronghold of the British, was the world leader in coffee production until blight decimated the industry in the mid-1800s.
Enter tea, which had been brought in from China earlier in the century simply as a specimen for display in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya. But with the demise of coffee, it was time for tea to step up to the plate.
The decade-long transition was helped along by the efforts of Scotsman James Taylor, who had already planted the first acres of tea in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, in 1867. This was the launch of an industry that soon saw the Thomas Liptons of the world purchasing huge tea estates and shipping the product back to England.
Skip ahead to 1965 and Sri Lanka had grown to be the largest tea producer in the world.
After years of strife, including a civil war that ended in 2009 and a flip-flop between state and private ownership of tea estates, the country now sits in fourth place in world production, with its famous Ceylon tea being sent across the globe.
You don’t have to be in the country long to appreciate its intimate relationship with tea, from the ubiquity of it in airport shops, the offer of it at every respite or meal, or the waves of tea bushes covering acre after acre of land.
During a recent trip to Sri Lanka, we got our education in tea at the Blue field Tea Gardens in Nuwara Eliya, one of 11 tea-growing regions in the country.
Taking a page from wineries, many tea estates offer public tours of fields and production facilities, and feature tasting areas, restaurants and gift shops. Some also offer accommodations.
Since the end of the war and the subsequent increase in tourism, the two industries are benefiting from mutual booms in business.
Growers like Bluefield send their precious product to an auction in Colombo three times a week, where 10 anonymous dealers buy on behalf of companies from around the world .
The day we were at Blue field during a tour with Toronto-based G Adventures, tourists were crowded in the small gift shop where staff were sealing up box after box of tea to be shipped back to Asia or the Middle East.
Our guide, Madhi Shanmugasundharam, started the tour in the undulating fields where pluckers, women with large sacks on their backs to hold the leaves they’ve picked, were working their way up and down the rows of waist-level tea bushes.
Blue field employs about 100 pluckers who must pick a minimum 20 kilos a day and are paid extra if they exceed that amount, which she said the experienced ones do.
The harvesting crew picks both the more mature leaves, which will become black tea, as well as younger leaves for green and expensive white, or silver-tip, teas. In the production factory, leaves are separated from the sticks (which are composted and returned to the fields), dried and graded. The process takes about two days.
Shanmugasundharam said black tea is graded according to size and whether or not the leaves are intact or will end up in powder form.
“When you break the leaves the taste goes up and the price goes down,” she said.
Orange pekoe, for example, falls into the lighter category, while broken orange pekoe (BOP in the trade parlance), is a stronger version.
Sri Lankans like their tea in the powdered form, with milk and sugar.
“We have it in the morning. It’s like a wake-up tea,” she said. “When you take the leaves, expensive; when you take the powder, cheap.”
Shanmugasundharam said the biggest buyers of the country’s tea are from Europe and China.
Dilmah Tea, founded in 1988, is the most recognizable Sri Lankan tea sold around the world.
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