Tea’s Origins: Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan tea pickers
In Sri Lanka, the island off the coast of India that was formerly known as Ceylon, most of the tea pickers are women because their smaller fingers are better suited to picking the delicate tea leaves.
Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson

There is a country lush with lakes and forests whose name has been synonymous with exceptional tea for more than 120 years. Whether you call it Sri Lanka or Ceylon, its colonial name, this teardrop-shaped island, just off the southwestern tip of India, has developed a loyal tea-drinking audience while rising to the rank of the world’s No. 2 tea exporter.

The subtropical nation of Ceylon was known for producing coffee, rubber, and quinine until a fungus swept through the coffee plantations in 1869 and wiped out an entire industry. Partly in desperation, the dead coffee trees were ripped out and experimental tea gardens introduced in an effort to save the struggling agricultural economy. The first Ceylon teas were shipped to the London auctions in 1873, and a burgeoning industry was born to quench the ever-expanding British Empire’s thirst for tea.

Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka in 1971. The country has six main growing regions, each with its own weather patterns and unique geographical features. Lowland teas may be found just inland at elevations beginning at 1,500 feet above sea level, while highland gardens are situated as high as 8,000 feet. The consistently warm climate leads to almost nonstop tea production. No matter where they are grown, all teas are brought to the capital city of Colombo to be auctioned and dispatched by ocean freighter to packers around the world.

Sri Lankan teas have their own characteristic aromas and taste profiles that let you know immediately you are drinking a Ceylon. The coppery liquor and caramel nose—brought about by the influences of terroir and finely honed manufacturing procedures—are unique to these superb creations.

Here are a few Sri Lankan highlights:

The Lumbini Estate is a short drive inland from the coastal city of Galle. Its prize-winning low-elevation gardens border one of the last remaining rain forests in this part of Asia. The family-owned facility produces superior Orange Pekoes with long, wiry leaves that yield a bold, coppery liquor. Its beautiful Flowery Orange Pekoes are exceptionally tippy and easy to drink.

The New Vithanakande factory is near Ratnapura in the heart of the low country overlooking the Sinharaja rain forest. This perfect tea-growing climate encourages the mellow characteristics of this factory’s prized creations. It produces teas that are both visually beautiful and deliciously fragrant with honey richness. Their FBOPF Extra Special grade is generously highlighted with golden tips. It is so stunning that I first bought this tea based on appearance alone. It would be a major faux pas to add milk to this rare find.

Lovers’ Leap is a high mountain tea grown in the famous Nuwara Eliya region of the highlands. Legend has it that a prince fell in love with a commoner long ago, and the two lovers had to flee to the rocky crags overlooking this tea garden to escape the unhappy parents. The factory produces a signature Ceylon Orange Pekoe grade that yields a brisk caramel liquor and flowery aroma. Plus, your tea-drinking friends will love the story that accompanies the cup.

Kirkoswold Silver Needles is just one of the new teas coming out of Sri Lanka as growers take advantage of the increasing demand for white tea. One of the best comes from the Kirkoswold Estate in the area of Dimbula. The steeply sloped gardens benefit from August monsoons that drop torrential amounts of rain, leading to exceptional teas from December to March. Silver Needles is made only from young down-covered tea buds that brew a light flowery cup with a honey finish. It’s expensive, but just a few buds will lead to multiple infusions and many happy memories.

I’m often asked which country is best for seeing tea gardens in full operation. Sri Lanka is my choice. Once you get there, travel is safe and fairly easy, and many estates have their century-old bungalows set up for overnight guests. From the bush to the cup, this country is a tea lover’s paradise.


Bruce Richardson is coauthor of The New Tea Companion. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.

From TeaTime May/June 2011 


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