The Teas of Sri Lanka

The Arabic name for the exquisitely beautiful island of Sri Lanka was “Serendib,” from which we won the magical word serendipity, meaning joyful discoveries or events that happen quite by chance.

The fortuitous discovery in the 1860s that tea loved to grow in the rich soil of this tear-drop shaped island has meant more than 150 years of indulgent pleasure for tea connoisseurs all over the world. Until the 1870s, Ceylon (the British name for the country) was world famous for its coffee, but when a virus (the coffee rust fungus) destroyed the crop in late 1860s, some of the planters tried growing tea. The example had been set by James Taylor, today known in Sri Lanka as “the father of tea,” who had arrived in the island in 1852 to work as superintendent at the Loolecondera Coffee Estate and was asked by his employers to try growing tea as well. The fact that his first experimental tea (planted in 1867) thrived led him to establish another 20 acres. When coffee planters began to realize that their coffee bushes were failing, they, too, started planting tea and, by 1890, all of the coffee plants had disappeared and Ceylon had become an enchanting island of tea.

Today, tea bushes cover the hillsides and valleys of the Southern Central Highlands and the undulating contours of the tea gardens roll away in every direction, punctuated by waterfalls, tumbling rivers, thick patches of jungle, rough craggy outcrops of rock, and tall trees that shade the tea from the sun’s glare. Lying close to the equator, the tea bushes flush all year long and the character of the teas in the different regions is influenced by altitude and the unique pattern of monsoon rains and dry weather that affect different parts of the mountain range at different times of the year.

The growing area is divided into three categories:

  • low grown: factories lying at between sea level and 2,000 feet
  • mid grown: gardens at 2,000 feet and 4,000 feet
  • high grown: locations higher than 4,000 feet

The northeast monsoon drenches the land on the eastern side of the mountain range from December to March, leaving the western hills deprived of water. The southwest monsoon delivers torrents of rain to the western slopes and peaks from June to September, while the hills on the east crave rain and suffer the onslaught of the fierce, cool, drying Cachan wind that blows in from the northeast. During drier periods, the bushes are stressed and push out their new leaf shoots more slowly, capturing all the concentration of flavor and quality in the leaves of what are called “peak-season teas.” When the heavy rains arrive, the plants grow more quickly and the resultant teas are plainer and have less flavor.

The low-lying area of Ruhuna in the southwest coastal plains is warm and humid and produces teas that are full-bodied, thick, and juicy, with plenty of strength and character. Most of the fresh leaf is processed as black Orange Pekoes (see note at bottom of post about the name) and Flowery Orange Pekoes , whose leaves are neatly twisted, wiry, and shiny charcoal black, and often mingled with tiny silver or golden buds.

To the east of Ruhuna lies Sabaragamuwa, where the tea bushes scramble up toward the old capital of Kandy, skirting dense forests and climbing through hills and valleys where — over the centuries — rivers and waterfalls have washed down vast quantities of precious stones. Rubies, sapphires, moonstones, amethysts, and aquamarines have been dug out of the ground here for more than 2,000 years. The teas are jet-black, large-leafed Orange Pekoes that brew strong, juicy teas with a sweet aroma reminiscent of caramelized sugar. The oldest plants grow around Kandy, close to the Loolecondera Estate, and the fresh leaf is processed to make both orthodox and CTC (crush, tear, curl) black teas, whose leaves are dark chocolate brown, flecked with plum-red, and which brew liquors that are coppery red, clear and bright, with hearty strength and briskness.

Teas from the high-growing region of Uda Pussellawa are vibrant and full-bodied, with hints of brown sugar and the sweet floral perfume of an English summer garden. Dimbula, high up on the western side of the mountains, grows teas that are full of flavor and aroma and are at their very best, with woody, citrus notes, and hints of oak, cypress, spice, and jasmine, in the early part of the year before the monsoon rains arrive in June. On the eastern side of the high mountains lies Uva, a remote region where steep mountain roads wind up through the tea fields. During most of the year, the teas are mellow and smooth, but in the peak season from July to September, the desiccating Cachan wind interrupts the normal patterns of photosynthesis, and cold nights contrasted with very warm days stress the tea and cause a chemical change in the plant. These factors combine to give bright coppery liquors that are powerful, mouth-filling, and almost medicinal and mentholated in flavor.

Nuwara Eliya [photo by Amila Tennakoon]

The highest, rugged mountain region of Nuwara Eliya produces teas that are wonderfully delicate and sweet, with layered flavors of ripe grapes, plums, and spice, and hints of the perfumes of eucalyptus, cypress, and wild mint that drift through the hills on the mountain breezes.

Ceylon teas offer such a wide range of character and flavor — light and fragrant, brisk and strong, subtle and complex, or juicy and rich — that every tea lover can surely find a favorite taste and aroma.

Note: Contrary to its name, there is no fruit in Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea. When the Dutch began importing tea in the 17th century, the finest teas were reserved for the royal family, known as the House of Orange. Later, Orange Pekoe became a term used to grade the size and quality of black teas.

Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.


Originally published at teforia.com on January 7, 2016.

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