Exploring Tea’s Origins: Sri Lanka

Morning tea in a Sri Lanka garden.
There is a country lush with lakes and forests that has been synonymous with exceptional tea for over 120 years. Whether you call it Sri Lanka or its colonial name Ceylon, this teardrop-shaped island, just off the southwestern tip of India, has developed a loyal audience while rising to the rank of the world’s number two tea exporter.

The sub-tropical nation of Ceylon was once known for producing coffee, rubber and quinine until a fungus swept through the coffee plantations in 1869 and wiped out an entire industry. Partly in desperation, the dead coffee trees were ripped out and experimental tea gardens were introduced in an effort to save the struggling agricultural economy. 

James Taylor of Scotland was chosen to oversee the first sowing of tea seeds in 1866. With some basic knowledge that he had acquired in India, Taylor started manufacturing black tea on the veranda of his bungalow. He rolled the leaf by hand and dried the oxidized leaves in clay stoves heated over charcoal fires. The first Ceylon teas were shipped to the London auctions in 1873 and a burgeoning industry was born to quench the ever-expanding British Empire’s thirst for tea.
Ceylon Tea House at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition
Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka in 1971. The country has six main growing regions, each with its own weather patterns and unique geographical features. Lowland teas may be found just off the coast at elevations beginning at 1500 feet above sea level while highland gardens are situated as high as 8,000 feet. The consistently warm climate leads to almost non-stop tea production. No matter where they are grown, all teas are brought to the capitol city of Colombo to be auctioned and dispatched by ocean freighter to packers around the world.
Picking tea in the Sri Lanka Highlands
Like the teas of China and India,  these teas have their own characteristic aromas and taste profiles that let you know immediately you are drinking a Ceylon. The coppery liquor and caramel nose—brought about by the influences of terroir and finely-honed manufacturing procedures—are unique to these superb creations.

Here are a few Sri Lankan highlights that you might want to include in your tea cabinet.

 The New Vithanakande factory is located new Ratnapura in the heart of the low country overlooking the Sinharaja rainforest. This perfect tea growing climate encourages the mellow characteristics of this factory’s prized creations. They produce teas that are both visually beautiful and deliciously fragrant with honey richness. Their SFTGFOP-1 grade is generously highlighted with golden tips. It is so stunning that I first bought this tea based on appearance alone. I once thought it would be a major faux pas to add milk to this rare find, but I have since discovered that it is superb with or without the addition of milk. 
Gathering withered leaf at Lumbini Estate
The Lumbini Estate is located a short drive inland from the coastal city of Galle. Their prize-winning low elevation gardens border one of the last remaining rainforests in this part of Asia. The family-owned facility produces superior Orange Pekoes with long wiry leaves that yield a bold coppery liquor. Their beautiful Flowery Orange Pekoes are exceptionally tippy and easy to drink.

Lovers’ Leap is a high mountain tea grown in the famous Nuwara Eliya region of the highlands. Legend has it that a prince fell in love with a commoner long ago and the two lovers had to flee to the rocky crags overlooking this tea garden to escape the unhappy parents. The factory produces a signature Ceylon Orange Pekoe grade that yields a brisk caramel liquor and flowery aroma. Plus, your tea drinking friends will love the story that accompanies the cup.
Tea Tasting at Kirkoswold Estate
Kirkoswold Silver Needles is just one of the new teas coming out of Sri Lanka as growers take advantage of the increasing demand for white tea. One of the best comes from the Kirkoswold Estate located in the area of Dimbula. The steeply sloped gardens benefit from August monsoons that drop torrential amounts of rain leading to exceptional December to March teas. Silver needles is made only from tight young down-covered tea buds which brew a light flowery cup with a honey finish. Just a few buds will lead to multiple infusions and many happy memories.

I’m often asked which country is best for seeing tea gardens in full operation. Sri Lanka is my choice. Once you get there, travel is safe and fairly easy, and many estates are set-up for overnight guests in their century-old bungalows. One hotel now occupies a former tea factory that sits in the middle of a huge tea garden. How would you like to wake up to a cup of tea steeped in leaves plucked the day before outside your window? 

From the bush to the cup, this country is a tea lover’s paradise.

Text and photos Copyrighted 2012 by Bruce Richardson. This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine.

Read more about tea’s origins in The New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. 
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