The tea production of Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is one of the main income sources of the country. It is the fourth largest producer of tea in the world, and the second largest exporter. Around 20% of the teas sold around the world come from Sri Lanka.
Ceylon Tea – History
Pre-Tea Era Cinnamon
First crop to receive government sponsorship.
First planted in the Dutch era.
Private cinnamon plantations were banned by the British and all were under the purview of the East India company.
Decommissioned in the 1830s due to an economic slump.
Pre-Tea Era Coffee
Coffee plantation began the in the early 1800s.
The death of the industry happened in the 1870s when the plantations were destroyed due to a fungal disease known as ‘coffee rust’ or ‘coffee blight’.
* 1824 – A tea plant is brought in from China by the British and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens as a non-commercial crop.
* 1839 – Further tea plants are brought in experimentally from India by the East India Company.
* 1839 – The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is established
* 1852 – James Taylor arrives in Ceylon.
* 1854 – The Planters Association of Ceylon is established.
* 1867 – James Taylor initiates the tea industry by beginning a tea plantation (19 acres only) in the Lulkandura (Loolecondera) estate in Kandy.
* 1872 – Taylor begins the first fully equipped tea factory in Ceylon on the grounds of the estate, and the same year the first tea sale is made.
* 1873 – The first shipment of Ceylon tea, amounting to 23lb/10kg is made.
Late 1870s- Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya plantations to the east and Le Vallon and Stellenberg plantations to the south switch over to tea.
Ceylon Tea – The Growth of Commercial Production Timeline
- 1880 to 1888 – Tea production increases dramatically, the area quickly exceeding the area of coffee plantations. Many famed British figures buy coffee plantations and convert to tea. The tea processing technology rapidly develops with the first tea rolling machine by John Walker and Co in 1880.
- 1884 – The first public Colombo Auction is held in the premises of Messrs Somerville and Company Limited.
- 1893 – 1 million tea packets are sold in the Chicago World’s fair. At the London Tea Auctions the tea nets a record price of £36.15 per pound.
- 1894 – The Ceylon Tea Traders Association is formed.
- 1896 – The Colombo Brokers Association is formed.
- 1899 – The area of tea plantations in Ceylon is almost 400,000 acres.
- 1916 – Thomas Amarasuriya becomes the first Ceylonese to be appointed as Chairman of the Planter’s Association.
- 1925 – The Tea Research Institute is established to research on maximizing yields and on methods of production.
- 1927 – The tea production of the country exceeds 100,000 metric tons
- 1960s – The total tea plantation area exceeds 200,000 hectares, with a total yield over 200,000 metric tons
- 1980s –Ceylon is the official tea supplier for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, 12th Commonwealth Games, and the Expo 88
- 1992-93 – All government owned plantations were privatised due to heavy losses
- 2001 – Forbes and Walker launched the first online tea sales at the Colombo Auction
- 2002 – The Tea Association of Sri Lanka was formed.
How is Tea Processed?
- First it is ‘Plucked’. This involves taking only the upper foliage of a branch. The general method is the top two leaves and the bud.
- The raw leaves are then ‘Weighed’ as there is required benchmark for plucking.
- The next step is ‘Withering’ which is is to the effect of drying. The leaves are fluffed and spread on a large tray. They are left in a well ventilated room for almost a day during which time they lose about two thirds of their moisture.
- Next the withered leaves are ‘Rolled’, mechanical process where the tea cells are ruptured and the enzymes released.
- Next the broken leaves are spread out in the ‘Aeration’ process to bring the enzymes into contact with the air. The time the leaves are exposed is dependent on what product is desired
- After aeration the leaves are ‘Dried’ in a dessicator or firing chamber. This is to prevent further chemical change. Here the leaves lose all moisture and darken and shrink
- Grading comes after this, where the leaves are graded according to flavour and strength. Quality has nothing to do with it. Please refer below in the ‘Tea Grades’ section for more.
- The final steps are ‘Bulk Packing’ and ‘Tea Bag’ packing.
Sri Lankan Tea Estates
Just drinking a few cups of tea and buying a couple of tea items on your visit to Sri Lanka, is really not the best way to get to know about this aspect of Ceylon. What you truly have to do to understand Sri Lankan Tea is to walk those estate paths and experience it for yourself.
You could walk down the lovely cold mountain road that winds its way out of the Nanuoya village, where you end up in if you wish to take a train to Nuwara Eliya town. The road, which lead to the Hatton Road is well made but has little traffic and is best traversed early in the morning. On those dim mist covered mornings it has fresh crunchy leaves with dew floating in the air. The rolling misty green vistas of tea plantations spreading out right next to your feet is an enthralling sight. If you are lucky enough to time it right, you may even pass a few colorful tea pluckers, with the large baskets on their backs fastened with a loop over the top of their heads.
Do not try to move into the tea plantations on the mountainside as they are steep and dangerous. Instead if you walk further along the road you come to a junction after which the road slopes steeply. This section is good for an exhilarating rollercoaster-like jog; though take care as there is a little more traffic after the junction. After that the road levels and if you wish you can try touching the tea leaves though you shouldn’t damage them. If you run out of water, the little green tea berries have sufficient liquid in them and are used by the locals for this purpose in an emergency.
Once you are familiar with the tea trees first hand, you can visit one of the tea estates that provide tours about tea and how it’s processed. They give you a guided tour through the factory where you see the process in detail and listen to the presentation. You can also get high quality teas at bargain prices here at these factories.
The Ceylon Tea Museum
Tea fans should definitely visit the one-of –its-kind Tea Museum in Hantana, Kandy. Opened in 2001, the museum shows how tea was manufactured in the early days and displays century old machinery. There are rooms for each stage of production with equipment from that section but from various periods displayed prominently.
The Immersive Experience
For those who wish to completely live the tea life in luxury, there are tea resorts such as ‘Ceylon Tea Trails’ that is in the Central Highlands. You get to live in historical plantation bungalows with gourmet food, personal guided tea tours, excursions to the surrounding attractions and various exciting extracurricular activities such as golfing or white water rafting at the resort itself. You also get to taste all sorts of exotic teas, so it is a worthy experience.
Contact Lakpura for more information on guides into the World of Tea and bookings.