A short history of tea in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

Tea Plantation in Sri Lanka's Hill Country

Drunk on Tea in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

Have you ever wondered where your morning cup of tea comes from? Chances are it comes from Sri Lanka, the world’s fourth largest producer of tea. It was a Scottish coffee planter by the name of James Taylor who introduced tea to Ceylon in 1867. Until then the Sri Lankan Hill Country was one large swath of rugged, inaccessible jungle. Today it is a neatly pruned tea plantation as far as the eye can see. The soil is held together by giant eucalyptus trees and visiting the tea plantations, on foot, by tuk tuk or on one of the prettiest train rides in the world, is a highlight of any visit to Sri Lanka.

Tea plantation Nuwara Elyia

The spectacular train ride from Nuwara Elyia to Ella

 

The lucrative Ceylon tea estates continued to be owned and managed by the British long after the country gained independence in 1948. The big estate owners, like Sir Thomas Lipton, exported the tea to London’s tea auctions where it was packaged and branded.

It was Merrill J. Fernando, the founder of Dilmah tea, Sri Lanka’s best known brand, who finally realised the dream of packaging and branding tea on Sri Lankan shores. Today the 1.5 billion export industry contributes 2.5% to the country’s GDP and employs about 1 million people. Since the end of the nearly 3 decade long civil war in 2009, the boutique tea market catering to the tourist industry has taken off.

 

Pedro Estate, Tea Factory, Sri Lanka

 

Tea leaves at Pedro Estate, Nuwara Elyia, Sri Lanka

 

There are plenty of tea estates to be visited at different levels of altitude, on a guided tour or even on an overnight stay in a converted planter’s cottage, some of which are rather luxurious and, making the most of industry’s colonial history, offer full immersion ‘tea trail tours’.

We visit Pedro’s Tea Estate, a short and cheap 3.5 km tuk tuk ride from Nuwara Elyia, where the bulk of Sri Lankan tea is grown. At 1900 meters above sea level, Nuwara Elyia or “Little England”, as it is also referred to, has a distinctly British feel to it with heavy fog rolling in and out.  The teas cultivated at this altitude are amongst the finest the country produces.

Set up in 1885,  Pedro’s Tea Estate is one of the oldest tea estates in Sri Lanka and the factory still uses the original machinery to wither, dry, roll and sort the tea. The whole process is surprisingly simple, though we don’t actually see any of the action, as all of the processing here is done at night when it’s cooler.

 

Tea factory

 

I’d always imagined that the flavor of tea was determined by the tea plant, much like wine is determined by the variety of the grape. But there is no such thing as an orange pekoe plant, or a green tea plant. All tea comes from one plant, the camellia sinensis plant, which was introduced to Kandy from China in 1824 and was first displayed in the Royal Botanical Gardens just outside Kandy.

 

Pedor Estate, Nuwara Elyia, Sri Lanka

 

At Pedro Estates we watch as a simple but very effective machine of six layers of mesh trays sorts the tea into six grades or sizes of black tea.

  • Loose Leaf Tea – the highest quality tea
  • P.     Pekoe  – the lightest and easiest to drink without milk and sugar
  • B.O.P.     Broken Orange Pekoe – A small, flat broken leaf with medium body.
  • B.O.P. F   This is the strongest tea with stems and flowers, it is of inferior quality and is usually drunk with lots of sugar
  • F.     Fannings – Crushed leaf particles smaller than B.O.P. and too small to be considered broken leaf
  • D for dust – the smallest and lowest grade used for tea bags

After seeing this, I know I’ll never want to drink dust in teabags again.

 

Tea picker

 

Another interesting fact we learn here, is that the tea is still sold at auction, in Colombo, to the biggest tea houses, who then mix it with other leaves and package it with the labels we are all familiar with from the shelves of our supermarkets back home.

 

Tamil tea pickers, Sri Lanka

 

The 19th century machinery is matched by plucking methods that go back to the times of the East India Company which brought Tamil women from Southern India to work as tea pluckers in Ceylon. Tea plucking remains the exclusive domain of female workers. It is back breaking hard work. The women have to pick 16 kgs per day and are paid the equivalent of AUD $4.50  per day. On the day we visit, the factory is running ‘at slowed capacity,’ the women we see coming up from the tea plantation at lunchtime carry half empty bags. All over the country tea estate workers are demanding higher wages. When I ask whether they will succeed, the estate worker showing us around wobbles his head. When I ask him to explain he smiles. “Maybe, or maybe not,” he simply wobbles his head again.

 

Tea picker, Tamil woman, Sri Lanka

 

Pedros Tea Estates

 

FAST FACTS
Pedro Tea Estate is 3.5 km outside Nuwara Elyia. It is open from 8 – 5 pm. Guided tours last 30 min, are highly informative and cost 200 rp per person. You’ll be served a cup of tea at the end of the tour.

 

Kerstin Pilz

Author at Travelpilz
I am Kerstin Pilz, PhD, recovering academic, travel blogger based in Mission Beach, Far North Queensland.

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