November 2013


Exuberant Ceylon Tea
November 2013




A terraced tea garden, a sight savoured by Sri Lankans and foreign visitors alike in Pussellawa in the central hills

The aroma and taste of a freshly-brewed, steaming 
cup of tea is invigorating bringing with it images of people sitting around a 
well-laid table.


Words Feizal Samath Photography M. A. Pushpa Kumara


Whether it is ‘High Tea' or just plain, black tea, as you take in the aroma and a sip from a beautiful porcelain cup sitting on a saucer, the trail of good tea leads you back to the mountains of Sri Lanka.


Tea grown in Sri Lanka is promoted across the world as ‘Ceylon Tea'-a brand that promises, and has fulfilled over decades-a pure Sri Lankan origin product from the highlands, midlands or lowlands of the country.


Tea is an aromatic beverage normally prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over leaves of the tea plant known by its scientific name, Camellia Sinensis.


Consumed as a popular beverage, tea-discovered in China some 5,000 years ago-has, in recent times been challenged by coffee and the ‘colas'. This has triggered wide research on the medicinal properties of tea and its health benefits, and now tea is propagated as a health drink in addition to a wake-up-in-the-morning brew to stimulate the body for the rest of the day. However, it is not limited to the morning as many cups of tea are drunk, throughout the day by the rich and poor.


At an estate in Pussellawa in the country's central hills, the fine art of tea production takes place with clockwork precision. Starting early morning, workers get busy on the mountain slopes dexterously picking two leaves and a bud and deftly throwing them into traditional cane baskets hanging on their backs. Only the uppermost part of the stem is picked, leaving the rest undisturbed.


Waking up for ‘muster' or roll-call, plantation managers, supervisors and workers have already met to discuss the duties for the day-which fields to pluck and which to clean, before they fan out to carry out their various duties.


A day's routine takes over, with a mid-morning break for tea and a midday break for lunch. Once the day's work is over, the leaves which have been picked are weighed at a collecting point and then transported to the factory for processing. Thereafter, the leaves are packed in air-tight packs to retain their freshness.


As the spectacular tea-gardens spread before one's vision, there comes the thought as to what if there was no coffee blight in the 19th Century and no James Taylor.


What would have replaced the sprawling tea gardens, terraced fields- sometimes lying side by side with rice fields-and beautiful valleys of pure green that have not only enthralled 
Sri Lankans of all ages but many 
visitors from across the world?

Here are some interesting facts
Tea drunk in the hills often tastes different from tea drunk in Colombo. Why? 
The difference in the water quality since city water is highly chlorinated. After water, tea is said to be the most consumed liquid in the world.

The story of tea begins in the 1860s when the main crop, coffee was attacked by a fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, destroying a large quantum of the crop and resulting in desperate estate owners looking for alternatives. 
Enter James Taylor, a Scotsman, to the Island in 1852 with his base at Loolecondera Estate near Nuwara Eliya. It was 15 years later, in 1867, that tea was introduced to the country by the British colonialists. Taylor was sent to North India to learn the techniques of growing tea and returned to try out seedlings on 19 acres of forested land at Loolecondera, which was cleared for this purpose. Taylor, it is said, used his bungalow verandah as the factory, rolling the leaf by hand on tables. It was reported that firing of the oxidised leaf was carried out on clay stoves over charcoal fires with the leaf on wire trays.


Popular terms during the British Raj were ‘Periya Dorai'-Big Brother, the name for the Estate Superintendent and ‘Sinna Dorai'-Small Brother or Assistant Superintendent who were initially British and later Sri Lankans. The estate ‘kankani' meaning Field Supervisor came from thousands of workers brought by the British from South India who spoke only Tamil.


These designations and titles have changed since then to more dignified honorifics as social responsibility and the dignity of labour took root on the estates when the 1970s era of nationalisation of the estates happened.


Tea needs plenty of rain and sun to transform into over 26 grades of tea with Orange Pekoe, Flowery Pekoes, Broken Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe Fanning being among the popular varieties. The tea plant is a robust shrub, able to tolerate a fairly wide range of more or less tropical climates, altitudes and soil conditions to grow.


But the vagaries of weather could result in the tea picked from different fields on a single estate or even from the same hillside on different days of the week, tasting different to an experienced taster. At the factory, the day's collection is weighed to assess the quality of the leaf. After that the leaves are laid out for withering-placing in troughs to reduce the moisture content leading to physical and chemical changes essential to manufacture. 
 The withered leaf is then ready for rolling-a mechanised process where the leaf cells are ruptured to release enzymes and bring them into contact with air so that aeration can commence.


The rolled, broken leaf is spread out on tables and exposed for a period that varies between 20 minutes and five hours, depending on a variety of factors, including what kind of final product is desired.


The leaf is then dried in a ‘firing chamber' to prevent further chemical changes, shrinking and darkening the leaf to black tea. Grading takes place thereafter before the produce is packed into bags.


Sri Lanka is traditionally an orthodox tea producer but shifted some of its production to unorthodox teas with the advent of CTC (crush, tear and curl) production of teas in the late 1980s for tea bags, which became popular.


Until nearly a decade ago, Sri Lanka was the largest, single exporter of tea to the world. Despite challenges from new producers, Ceylon Tea still holds its own as the best single origin tea, fetching the highest prices in the world.

 

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    A sculpture of James Taylor displayed at Hanthana tea museum

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    A group of tea pluckers at work in the fields with traditional cane baskets on backs held together with a strap on their heads

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    A bag of tea packed in 1944 at the Ceylon Tea Museum at Kandy in the central hills

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    Weighing of tea leaves in progress at a collection centre at the estate in Pussellawa

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    Processed tea falls into a wooden box

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    A double action tea roller from the 1920s displayed at the Ceylon Tea Museum at Kandy

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    A factory worker prepares the processed tea for a final round of cleaning and grading

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    The original tea field planted by James Taylor in 1867 at Loolecondera Estate in Nuwara Eliya, which is preserved up-to-date by its current owners

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    The original James Taylor seat and viewpoint preserved over the years is a popular visiting place for locals and foreigners. It is found at Loolecondera estate in Nuwara Eliya in the central region

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