Though not initially planned estate tea production in Sri Lanka has grown into a key element of the economy, accounting for 15% of the GDP. It is also important to the world market, being the third largest global producer.
Plantation industries began during the administration of Dutch governor Iman Willem Falck, cinnamon plantations were planted in Colombo, Maradana, and Cinnamon Gardens in 1769 with Government sponsorship. However the first British Governor Frederick North prohibited private cinnamon plantations to create a monopoly for his employer, the East India Company. Economic slumps Europe in the 1830’s made the cinnamon plantations unprofitable and they were abandoned by Governor William Colebrooke in 1833. The British planters then turned to coffee.
Coffee was first planted as a garden crop and the first coffee plantation was started near Galle in 1824. Demand and high prices in Europe for coffee fueled a Coffee Rush. Speculators flocked to Ceylon and by 1840 around 100,000 ha of rain forest had been cleared for coffee plantations. However in 1869 coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix; “coffee blight” or "devastating Emily". Cocoa and Cinchona were tried as alternatives to replace coffee but by the 1870’s virtually all the remaining coffee planters in Ceylon had switched to tea.
In 1824 a tea plant (stolen from China) was brought to Ceylon and planted at Peradeniya. Experimental plants were also brought from Assam and Calcutta in 1839 and by 1854 a Planters' Association had been established but it wasn’t until 1867 when James Taylor really marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in Kandy. It was only a small estate of just 19 acres but despite that by 1872 he started a fully equipped tea factory and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea was made in Kandy. The following year the first shipment of tea totaling 23 lbs was sent to London.
Tea boomed in the 1880s exceeding that of the peak for coffee and growing to nearly 40,000 acres by 1899. By the late 1880s almost all the coffee plantations in Ceylon had been converted to tea, following the example, with coffee stores rapidly converted to tea factories to meet the increasing demand for tea.
Tea began being sold at auction as it increased in popularity with the first public Colombo auction in 1883, under the auspices of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The formation of the Ceylon Tea Traders Association established a structure that still operates today.
By the 1960s the total tea production and exports exceeded 200,000 metric tons and nearly 500,000 acres with Sri Lanka the world's largest tea exporter by 1965. In 1971-1972 a strongly socialist government nationalized foreign-owned tea estates. In 1976 the Sri Lanka Tea Board was founded through which all tea is still managed. However in 1992-1993 many of the government-owned tea estates were sold back into private hands. As in other countries that had attempted to base economic growth on government control, heavy losses due to nationalized management forced a return to privatization.
Tea production under these new arrangements saw growth exceed 250,000 metric tons in the late 1990’s to over 300,000 metric tons by 2000.
Directly and indirectly, over one million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry. From the beginning of the plantation industries, coffee, rubber or tea, labour was a problem. Sinhalese people were reluctant work in the plantations as they were used to paddy farming. Planters turned to Southern India for experienced labour bringing Indian Tamils to work on the estates and by the end of the 1880’s they represented a big chunk of the population.
A large proportion of the workforce are young women and typically young girls follow their mothers, grandmothers and older sisters on the plantations. Workers on estates live in housing known as "lines", a number of linearly attached houses with just one or two rooms with 6-12 or 24 line rooms in one line barrack.
Over 4% of the country’s land area is covered in tea. The crop is best grown at high altitudes of over 2100 m with an annual rainfall of more than 100-125 cm. For commercial production the “flush” or leaf growth are picked, usually two leaves and a bud, which have the flavour and aroma. The women “pluck” around 15 to 20 kg of tea leaves per day. This is transported to tea factories attached to the estate and within short walking distances as the leaves need to arrive fresh.
The tea factories in Sri Lanka are reflections of the 19th century being an industrial process essentially unchanged for over 150 years. The multi-storied building is centrally located to minimize the costs and time between plucking and processing. The tea leaves are taken up the upper floors of the factories where they are spread in troughs to “wither” reducing leaf moisture.
Once withered, the tea leaves are rolled, twisted and broken to release enzymes in the leaves which react with the air and oxidize particularly for the production of black tea.
Once partly dried the leaves are “rolled” on brass tables and then run through a rotating open drum to dry them further. The leaves are then spread out on a table to ferment. Initially the natural air temperature begins fermentation but it is important to manage temperature and humidity as well as duration of fermentation to maintain the flavor of the tea. As oxidization occurs the colour of the leaf changes from a green to a bright coppery color. To stop fermentation continuing once the leaf is judged at its peak heat is applied in a “firing” chamber to prevent further chemical reaction from taking place. This is when the leaf turns black and becomes crisper and it is critical that fermentation is stopped but the leaf not burnt.
Grading based on size of leaf particles is then completed with tea sorted into different shapes and sizes by sifting them through meshes. Grading names used to classify teas are not by any means the indication of its quality but indicate its size and appearance. Mainly there are two categories. They are "Leaf grades" and "Smaller broken grades". Here’s a quick lesson on tea grading.
Leaf grades refer to the size and appearance of the teas that were produced during the colonial era and the other refers to the modern tea style and appearance:
Leaves that have been “broken” or cut as part of the production process.
Describes the size of a grade.
Describes a good leaf of even appearance.
A rough, shaggy and uneven leaf.
Golden or Pale tip
Golden tips are highly desirable while Pale tips are not as attractive.
So these leaves are then identified by specific processed grades:
Broken Orange Pekoe. This is the most common tea grade in Sri Lanka and South India – normal leaf tea.
Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings. This is a very small broken grade of tea. Most Sri Lankan teas are BOPF grade and destined for tea bags.
Broken Pekoe. A brown or black broken grade of tea that can contain woody, stalky particles.
Crush Tear Curl Broken Orange Pekoe. This is an unorthodox production style but common among low-grown estates in southern Sri Lanka. The leaves in this case are crushed, torn and then curled in rolling machines. There is no impact on quality but because of the smaller size of the particles, CTC teas tend to produce a quickly coloured infusion.
The remnants of the sorting and grading process and used almost exclusively in tea bags.
Slightly larger than dust and named because this is what blew off the tables during hot air fanning process and they end up in tea bags.
Ceylon black tea is one of the country's specialties with a crisp citrus aroma and found as a single leaf style or in blends.
Ceylon green tea is sourced from Assam tea stock and generally has a fuller body and rather malty or nutty flavour.
Ceylon white tea, also known as "silver tips" is the champagne of teas. First grown at Nuwara Eliya the tea is rolled by hand and withered in the sun. It has a delicate, very light liquoring with notes of pine & honey.
The most important foreign markets for Sri Lankan tea are the former Soviet bloc countries of the CIS 57.6, the United Arab Emirates 48.1, Russia 46.1, Turkey 20.3, Iraq 11.1, Iran 12.5, UK 10.2, Japan 8.3, Saudi Arabia 11.4, Syria 21.5 and Libya 10 million kgs.
On an interesting final note, on any day of tea auctions in Colombo (auctions are held every Tuesday and Thursday) the amount of tea sold is equal to the total consumption in New Zealand in 5 years. Now I bet you didn’t know that!