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CEYLON TEA

Sri Pada (Adam's peak) view. Sri Lanka.

While tea culture and cultivation enjoys a 5000-year tradition in East Asia, Sri Lanka’s appearance on the international tea landscape is fairly recent. Tea plants were only introduced to the island around 200 years ago by British colonial forces.

With British power and influence increasing on the Indian subcontinent, so too did Ceylon, as it was then known, find itself increasingly dependent on the colonial power. Situated just off India’s southeastern coast, the island has been an important trade hub between Southeast and West Asia since antiquity. This, along with Ceylon’s immensely profitable cinnamon and coffee plantations, were more than enough reason for the British East India Company to expand its sphere of influence to the “teardrop island.” Considering how important tea is to Sri Lanka’s present-day economy, it’s hard to believe that only 200 years ago, the tea shrub was virtually unknown here.

Though introduced to Ceylon as far back as 1824, the first specimen of camellia sinensis was merely intended for horticultural and scientific purposes, on display at the botanical gardens of Peradeniya. It wasn’t until 43 years later that Ceylon’s first tea estate was founded by Scottish entrepreneur James Taylor, who planted seeds obtained from that very first shrub. He was just in time to save what Prime Minister William Pitt described as Britain’s “most valuable colonial possession” from economic collapse. A short time later, the island’s entire coffee harvest was wiped out by a devastating disease known as coffee rust. Following Taylor’s success, who by 1873 had already exported the first-ever 10 kg of Ceylon tea to England, the island quickly switched its entire industry to tea.

Today, tea is by far Sri Lanka’s most important crop. Both camellia sinensis sinensis and the assamica variety native to India are cultivated in a total of seven growing regions around the island’s holy mountain Sri Pada (formerly Adam’s Peak), covering an impressive 200,000 hectares in total. Just to compare: all of Japan’s tea fields takes up only a quarter of this.  Today, around 90% of Sri Lanka’s teas are designated for export. Due to the sheer volume of leaves processed every year, most teas leave the island as relatively generic supermarket-grade teas.

Sri Lanka is one of only two countries (Taiwan being the other) to classify its teas according to the altitude at which they were grown: low grown (up to 600 m), mid grown (600-1200 m) and high grown (above 1200 m). With climate varying heavily between them, all three categories display their own distinctive aroma and flavor profile. Almost half of all teas grown in Sri Lanka are low-grown in the regions of Rahuna and Sabaragamuwa. Long periods of intense heat result in a tannin-rich tea that is characterized by its robust flavor and dark-black infusion. Most low-grown teas are processed using the homogenized CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) method for mass-market consumption.

Just north of Kandy, a city surrounded by tropical jungles and verdant hills, is where it all began. Sri Lanka’s very first tea estate, now Loolecondera, is one of the many estates of this region that account for the island’s mid-grown teas. Full-bodied and robust, the tannin-rich teas of this region are full of character and boast a vibrant, copper-colored cup.

Tea crops gathering process. Bogawantalawa Valley. Sri Lanka.

A remarkably high 20% of Sri Lanka’s annual crop is harvested in the highlands of Uva, Dimbula, Uda Pussellawa and Nuwara Eliya. The teas cultivated at these high altitudes are among Sri Lanka’s finest, benefiting from the fresh, thin mountain air slowing the leaves’ maturation and resulting in a more complex and delicate flavor.

Of all of Sri Lanka’s high-grow regions, it is the highest, Nuwara Eliya, that plays a particularly special role. Unlike other regions, the tea gardens surrounding Mount Pidurutalagala mainly grow the Chinese variant, camellia sinensis sinensis, which deliver exceptional quality nearly the whole year.

Soft, full-bodied aromas reminiscent of sweet berries and a vibrant copper-colored infusion characterize the teas grown in the sparsely populated Uva province. Nestled in the island’s southeastern corner amidst gushing waterfalls and lush jungles, the region is famous for its exceptional teas – the best of which, like our Kipling’s Cup, are harvested between July and September when a dry wind sweeps across the region’s gardens.

 image credits: Mstyslav Chernov