History of Ceylon Tea
Fungus and a flying Scotsman, the history of tea in Sri Lanka is rather fascinating. It all begins with coffee! Coffee was the main crop grown in this beautiful island of the Indian Ocean. But in 1869, a fungus destroyed much of the coffee plants, forcing the estate owners to come up with a quick alternative for their livelihood.
It was a certain Scotsman, called James Taylor, who had come to live in British Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), who decided to diversify into tea, and Bob’s your uncle….that’s how Ceylon tea plantation went from being an alternative crop to being the greatest asset of Sri Lanka.
By 1890, the tea export from Loolecondera estate (where Taylor worked) took to the skies, growing from 23 pounds a year to 22,900 tonnes!
Let’s name drop, shall we!
Henry Randolph Trafford- was a British stalwart and one of the pioneers of tea plantation in Sri Lanka.
Thomas Lipton- yes, the name behind Lipton Tea, a millionaire and incidentally also a Scotsman is credited for establishing the export and auction of Ceylon tea in London.
Thomas Amarasuriya- was the first Ceylonese to become the Chairman of the Planter’s Association (est. in 1915).
Since Way Back when
The Colombo Tea Traders Association (est. in 1894) controls the auction system making the produce of plantations available to all buyers, whilst the Sri Lankan Tea Board (est. in 1976) plays the regulatory role of ensuring that the Trade continues without malpractices. It also issues the Lion Logo which is a symbol of quality pure Ceylon tea.
Tea Regions of Sri Lanka
The brew in your cup has a story to tell. It speaks of rolling hills, abundant sunshine, and lush provinces.
In Sri Lanka, the central and southern provinces produce most of its tea. Varying elevations and micro-climates influence the distinctive flavour, colour, aroma and seasonality of Ceylon tea.
Low-country (Upto 2000ft above sea level)
The regions of Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa are known for their long leaf tea. When tea from this region is brewed, you get a cuppa with a burgundy hue and a caramel and malty flavour. This black tea is popular in the Middle East, the CIS countries, and the UK.
Mid-country (2,000ft -4,000ft above sea-level)
Tea from the misty hills of Kandy is known for its full-bodied flavour and a copper tint. It’s a favourite amongst the Aussies and Americans.
High-country (Above 4,000ft from sea-level)
The eastern highlands of Uva, is celebrated world-wide for its intense pungency and refreshing aroma.) Unique to Uva are micro-climatic conditions that allow estate owners to experiment with growing new types of tea.
There are three other high-altitude provinces in Sri Lanka called Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, and Uda Pussellawa. If you like aromatic teas with a mellow character, you will love the tea from here.
You would think that tea, like most crops, would have the same planting and harvesting seasons across Sri Lanka; but that isn’t quite so. Each province has its own ‘best season’ to produce tea, what the industry refers to as a Quality Season.
The season for the Western Highlands extending up to Nuwara Eliya begins in January and prevails up to the end of March. The next quality season for the Eastern Highlands commences at the end of July and continues up to early September. Climatic conditions in the low country have effectively no season and very little change occurs on a day to day basis.
The journey from shrub to cup takes tea through five main stages.
Plucking: Plucking: This first step is as tricky as it is critical. For instance, plucking two leaves and a bud is the industries norm and additional leaves will result in inferior quality.
Withering: Next, the leaves are laid out to dry or wilt, to reduce the amount of moisture.
Rolling: Then, the leaves are bruised or rolled to commence fermentation.
Fermentation: Kept under climate-controlled rooms, the leaves are left to oxidize. The amount of time given for fermentation influences the colour, taste and strength of the liquor.
Firing: This last step is used to arrest the fermentation and remove the balance moisture contained in the leaf. This results in the production of black tea as you know it.