Ceylon Tea

CEYLON TEA HISTORY

The early 1880s were a lean time in Ceylon. The colonial economy had been built almost entirely on the coffee enterprise, and when the enterprise collapsed, so did the economy. Plantations ‘up-country’ were sold for a song, while in Colombo there were runs on the banks. Frantic experiments with indigo and cinchona came to naught. The Planters’ Association presented the government with panic-stricken proposals for administrative retrenchment – which were, fortunately, rejected. An aura of panic settled over the colony.

Meanwhile, up in the hills where the Kandy and Dimbula plantation districts meet, a reclusive Scots planter named James Taylor had been experimenting with a new plant, planting it along the margins of the divisional roads on his coffee-estate, Loolecondera.

The plant was tea. Already in 1866 he had withered the first leaves on this bungalow veranda, trying to emulate the process used by tea-planters in Assam, India. By the time the coffee-blight struck, Taylor had twenty acres of Loolecondera planted in tea and had shipped his first modest consignment – 23lb. in all – to England. Soon, planters from all over the hill country were visiting Loolecondera to learn how to grow and manufacture tea. Ceylon and its plantation industry were saved.

Salvation did not come easily. More than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land had to be stripped of dead and dying coffee-bushes and re-planted in tea. It was a costly and heartbreaking business, but somehow it was completed. The heroism of the planters were eulogized by no less a pen than that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who described, in his short story ‘De Profundis’, how ‘a rotten fungus drove a whole community through years of despair to one of the greatest commercial victories which pluck and ingenuity ever won,’ adding that ‘the tea-fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo.’ Within a decade a new plantation enterprise had been built in Ceylon on the ruins of the old, and the colony was prosperous again.

James Taylor was the first Ceylon planter to succeed with tea, but he was not the first to try. Though records are scant, there is evidence that the cultivation of tea plants imported from China was attempted as early as 1824. Later, Maurice Worms, a member of the Rothschild family of international financiers, planted some China seedlings on Rothschild estates in Pusselawa and Ramboda. He even made tea from the crop, China-fashion, though the price, at £5 a pound, was much too high to be competitive. It was left to Taylor, a generation later, to show the way.

Ceylon Tea, Today

Today Pure Ceylon Tea stamped with the Lion logo that symbolizes 100% Pure Ceylon Tea packed in Sri Lanka is world-renowned as the finest tea in the world. Tea production is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, and accounts for 2% of GDP, contributing over US$1.3 billion in 2021 to the economy of Sri Lanka.[1] It employs, directly or indirectly, over 1 million people, and in 1995 directly employed 215,338 on tea plantations and estates. In addition, tea planting by smallholders is the source of employment for thousands whilst it is also the main form of livelihoods for tens of thousands of families. Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea. In 1995, it was the world’s leading exporter of tea (rather than producer), with 23% of the total world export, and Sri Lanka ranked second on tea export earnings in 2020[2] after China. The highest production of 340 million kg was recorded in 2013, while the production in 2014 was slightly reduced to 338 million kg.[3]

SRI LANKA'S TEA REGIONS

Sri Lanka’s tea country among the mountains of the central massif and the southern foothills is divided into seven districts, each of which is known for producing tea of a distinct character. This is because each district has its own unique combination of climate and terrain.

Map

1. Uva “Exotically aromatic”

The remote Uva district is exposed to the winds of both northeast and southwest monsoons, believed to endow the tea produced here with a special, unmistakable character and exotically aromatic flavour.

It was with tea grown on his Uva estates that Thomas Lipton, the Victorian magnate, persuaded Americans to drink tea. The mellow, smooth taste of Uva tea, once experienced, is easily distinguished. 

2. Uda Pussellawa “Exquisitely tangy”

The Uda Pussellawa district is situated close to Nuwara Eliya, so its tea is often compared to that of its neighbour. But it is darker in the cup, with a pinkish hue, of greater strength, and exquisitely tangy.

Colder conditions at year-end supposedly add a hint of rose to the bouquet of a tea known for its medium body and subtle character. Heavy rainfall, though, tends to produce tea that is even darker and stronger-flavoured. 

3. Ruhuna “Distinctively unique”

The teas of Ruhuna are defined as “low-grown” as they are cultivated at an altitude not exceeding 600m comprising vast sub regions from coastal plains to the Southern edge of Sinharaja Rain Forest.

The soil, combined with the low elevation of the estates, causes the tea-bush to grow rapidly, producing a long, beautiful leaf. Full-flavoured black tea is a distinctively unique Ruhuna speciality. Ruhuna factories produce a wide variety of leaf styles and sizes, including prized “tips”. 

4. Nuwara Eliya “Delicately fragrant”

Nuwara Eliya, the best-known of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts, is the most mountainous, and has the highest average elevation. Combined with low temperature, this produces teas of exquisite bouquet.

The infusion in the cup is the palest of all the types of Ceylon Tea, with a golden hue and a delicately fragrant flavour. Sought after grades include whole-leaf Orange Pekoe (OP) and Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP)  

5. Kandy “Intensely fullbodied”

In the Kandy district, where the industry began in 1867, the teas produced are described as “mid-grown” as cultivation does not exceed 1,300m.

They range in flavour depending on the altitude and whether or not the plantation is sheltered from monsoon winds. All are particularly flavoursome. Kandy teas produce a bright infusion with a coppery tone, and are strong and intensely fullbodied. 

6. Dimbulla “Refreshingly mellow”

Between Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains lies the district of Dimbula, whose teas are defined as “high- grown” as all estates exceed an altitude of 1,250m.

The complex topography of the region produces a variety of microclimates, which produce differences in flavoursome- times jasmine mixed with cypress. All, however, share the Dimbula character: a tea that produces a fine golden-orange hue in the cup, and which is refreshingly mellow. 

7. Sabaragamuwa “Exceptionally stylish”

Sabaragamuwa is Sri Lanka’s biggest district, the teas of which are low-grown as its estates range in elevation from sea level to 800m. Like Ruhuna, Sabaragamuwa produces a fast-growing bush with a long leaf.

The liquor, too, is similar to that of Ruhuna teas, dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint. The aroma, however, is noticeably different from the Ruhuna product, with a hint of sweet caramel, and not quite as strong: exceptionally stylish. 

  1. Uva “Exotically aromatic”
  2. Uda Pussellawa “Exquisitely tangy”
  3. Ruhuna “Distinctively unique”
  4. Nuwara Eliya “Delicately fragrant”
  5. Kandy “Intensely fullbodied”
  6. Dimbulla “Refreshingly mellow”
  7. Sabaragamuwa “Exceptionally stylish”