Are you in for a ‘cuppa tea’?
A cup of tea is just as connected to Sri Lanka as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
When you ask for a cup of tea in Sri Lanka you will get tea with milk and lots of sugar. Tea without milk is called ‘plain tea’. Tea is mostly made with milk powder (not like the coffee creamer as you know it in the western countries). Local people use tea powder, the same stuff that you can find in tea bags. Locals neither drink flavoured tea, like cinnamon, vanilla, earl grey, strawberry and other varieties, nor the high quality tea leaves. Many people start the day with a cup of tea and have another cup at around 3.30 p.m. Tea is such an integral part of the society, that at tea time they call everything ‘tea’, even if it is coffee, milk, Coca Cola or chocolate.
Large parts of the central upcountry are carpeted with amazingly picturesque tea bushes, a collection of different estates with a variety in quality. The highest estates deliver the best quality teas. James Taylor couldn’t have dreamt that the tea of Ceylon would become one of highest appreciated teas in the world when he started his first tea estate Loolecondera in Kandy in 1867.
In Sri Lanka, tea grows on its best in the upcountry, although there are also some low country tea estates to be found in south west Sri Lanka. A large part of the highlands is covered with tea plantations. The famous Sir Thomas Lipton had his bungalow high in the mountains in Haputale, better known as Lipton’s Seat; this very legend of tea built his bungalow because of the stunning view, comparable with that of World’s End. He founded the huge Dambetenna Tea Factory in the same area. Tea factories with their characteristic architecture are scattered around the entire upcountry, from Badulla in the eastern part to Kandy and Hatton in the western part. Nuwara Elya and Bandarawela, in the central part of the upcountry, are also very famous for their extended tea estates. Some tea factories are open for visitors, such as the famous Pedro near Nuwara Elya, Mackwood Labokellie estate, west of Nuwara Elya and the Blue Field Tea Factory.
So called tea pickers pluck the young fresh leaves from the top of the bushes and collect the leaves in a basket which they carry on their backs. At the end of the day the tea leaves are collected at a distribution point and brought to the nearby tea factory. The factory is supplied with tea leaves by different estate owners for processing and sales. Within the factory the tea leaves undergo various stages of manufacturing. First the tea has to be dried, moisture need to be removed and the leaves need to be softened (withering), which takes between 18 and 24 hours, dependent on the weather conditions. Next comes the rolling process. The leaves are twisted and cracked so that a chemical process can start. Aroma, colour and smell will be released. The chemical processing, which is a natural reaction, triggered by the cells inside the leaves, has to be halted at the right time. This is done by heating the leaves. Quality control and grading of the finished tea is done in the last stage before packing.
Ultimately there are various kinds of tea and different grades. The highest grade is ‘Orange Pekoe’. This top quality tea is based on leafs buds, carefully picked with the top of the fingers. Crushed or broken buds are called ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’. The lowest quality (but still a good tea) is called ‘fannings’ or ‘dust’. Tea from the highest altitude has the best quality, while the quality, aroma and smell of the lower growing hills is less.
Apart from the black tea, green tea and the rare white tea are also grown in Sri Lanka, the latter one in Hundungoda, some 15 km land inwards from Koggala. (see under header: Koggala).
Tours related to tea
Almost every tour operator in Sri Lanka includes a visit to the splendid tea growing area in the country with a visit to a tea factory. Some specialized tour operators and hotels also offer a walk or mountain bike tour through the estate. A single tour operator even let you get a glimpse in the daily life of an estate Tamil tea family.
In Hantana, close to Kandy, is an attractive Tea Museum, where you can get an interesting tour by a dedicated guide, who tells you all about the history of tea processing in Sri Lanka from the early days. On the tour you can see all kinds of antique machinery, used in the past.
A visit to one of the tea factories should definitely be on your priority list. During a tour through the tea factory the whole process will be explained to you from the arrival of the tea leaves up till the
packaging. However, many of the factories are not operational during daytime, because the best time to do the processing is during night time, since the climatologically conditions are better then.
The upcountry is full of characteristic, high quality, tea-related accommodation from the colonial time where you can enjoy a lunch or experience your stay at a historical bungalow. There is even an old tea factory that has been transferred into a 4-star hotel.