June 2018


The Story of Ceylon Coffee
June 2018




The glossy cherry bounty, ready to be weighed

Amidst the icy-wet slopes of Mathurata fringed with tall flowering trees, bright ruby red cherries peak through the emerald foliage. These precious cherries give the world a taste of the revived Ceylon Coffee.


Words: Keshini de Silva
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


Coffee, arrived on Sri Lanka's shores nearly a millennium ago. Yet, its true value was realised in the 19th century when the central mountains of the island became the focal point of Ceylon's ‘Coffee Rush' and Ceylon Coffee was sought after for as far as the British Empire extended. After ‘Devastating Emily', the island's coffee production was lost. However, at the dawn of the 21st century, from within the island's verdant tea estates, Ceylon Coffee is making a comeback.


Indeed, it is deep in the heart of Mathurata, in the Uda Pussellawa region that James Whight discovered a single Ceylon coffee tree that had survived the Blithe. From the cherries of this plant, seeds were germinated and he began the cultivation of coffee in the Marigold, Alma and Alagolla fields. The dark, wet soil of the estates where centuries ago Ceylon coffee thrived, had once again welcomed the plants with great fervour.


Along a romantic path strewn with fiery flowers, we trudged to the Marigold Coffee Field. From the thick forestry, almost dramatically, red coffee cherries appeared into view, peaking from the green. The trees that towered over these lanky plants provided shade essential for growth and protection from fungi. While August marks the flowering season of the coffee plants, February/March and April/May are the ideal times for harvesting the precious fruit. A coffee plant must reach the age of four to offer a bounty. Around the cherry-filled coffee plants, pickers flocked, filling their baskets to the brim. It is essential that only ripe ruby red fruits are picked. The green cherries, left to ripen, are collected in the next harvest approximately a week later. The pickers expertly dropped the cherries into baskets with a rhythmic fast paced beat, while the harvested branches were pruned off as these will not bear fruit again.


The glossy cherry bounty was then weighed to be taken to the Marigold Factory, where the largest production of coffee in the island takes place. In the hills of Sri Lanka, where water is plentiful, Ceylon Coffee is processed in the Wet Method. The berries are unloaded to a vent, where it is washed and diverted to the pulping machine. Through gravitational sorting only the good quality fruit made its way to the pulping machine. In this machine the seed is separated from the fruit pulp and as a result the air around sticks with a fruity scent. Ivory-hued coffee seeds gushed with water to large fermentation tanks. While the ripe beans sank to the bottom, the seeds that floated were removed. In these tanks, the seeds were being left to ferment for up to 48 hours until the thin mucilage coating dissolves.

The trays are shuffled by hand to ensure an even dry and moisture levels are measured every 30 minutes.


The next stage is drying - a critical element of the process. Near the factory, on neatly aligned trays, speckles of pale seeds were laid to rest in the sun. Moisture levels must reach 9.4 - 9.3 per cent, for the seeds to attain the status of ‘parchment coffee'. The trays are shuffled by hand to ensure an even dry and moisture levels are measured every 30 minutes. When the ‘parchment coffee' stage is reached, it is sent to the factory for milling.


Inside the Marigold factory, the large hulling machine churned off the thin parchment layer (endocarp) of the bean, groaning with a great steely might. The final result is 'green coffee' or 'green beans', which are graded by quality, ranging from the Grades One to Six. Packed and sealed in sacks, green coffee is left for at least two months before roasting takes place.


The roasting room, perfumed with the addictive, familiar aroma of coffee, the place where the magic happens. It is where green coffee transforms to fragrant brown beans. The process requires the utmost attention, every minute counts. As we watched with fascination, the roasting machine was first preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, while eight kilogrammes of green coffee was measured. Once the machine reached the desired temperature, the green coffee was funnelled and the beans rolled within constantly. For a ‘Medium' roast, at the 13th minute a sample was taken and at exactly 14 minutes the coffee was tipped to the swirling cooling rack. The second batch of green coffee was left for an additional minute to achieve a ‘Dark' roast. After the beans reached room temperature, they were either packed or were ground for brewing. Be it the freshly roasted beans or ground coffee, one of the distinctive aspects of Ceylon Coffee is its rich and chocolaty aroma. The unique character of the coffee bean, coupled with the Mathurata weather and dark fertile soil of the island, results in a robust and rich brew.


The ideal brew to revitalise yourself in the blissful tropics, Ceylon Coffee is once again on the radar of coffee aficionados around the world.


Photographs taken at Marigold Coffee Field in Uda Pussellawa and Whight & Co.

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    Ruby red coffee cherries being picked at the Marigold Coffee Field

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    Cherries unloaded to the pulping machine vent

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    Moisture levels of the seeds are constantly checked during the drying stage

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    Parchment Coffee transforms to Green Coffee during milling

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    James Whight assesses the quality of the milled coffee beans

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    Checking the colour of the beans in the roasting machine

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    Freshly roasted coffee poured onto the cooling tray

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    Green Coffee, Medium Roast Coffee beans, Dark Roast Coffee Beans and Dark Roast Ground Coffee; the final production stages of the strong, chocolaty Ceylon Coffee

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