While you’ll find a myriad of incredible tea brews in countries all around the world, some of the most notable come from the island of Sri Lanka.
Believe it or not, the main crop on the island was coffee all the way through the late 1860’s. In 1869, most of the coffee crops were destroyed by a disgusting “coffee-rust” fungus, forcing most of the plantation owners to find a way to diversify.
The Development of Tea Crops in Sri Lanka
Oddly enough, there had been an interest in tea since the late 1850’s and the arrival of a Scot by the name of James Taylor, in 1866, provided the owners of the Loolecondera Estate the perfect opportunity to experiment. He was put in charge of 19 acres of land and immediately began sowing tea seeds. By the time the coffee crops were destroyed, Taylor’s crops were beginning to thrive.
Because there were no established manufacturing plants, most of the tea was rolled by hand on tables in a small bungalow. James Taylor had learned a bit about how to cultivate tea after spending some time in North India and eventually developed his own manufacturing methods. He began placing the leaves on wire trays and putting them on clay stoves that were set over charcoal fires. His oxidized tea leaves were first sold only locally and were a huge success.
James Taylor acquired his first full factory in 1972 and in 1973 began selling high-quality teas to auction houses in London. By 1880 he had managed to increase tea production from 23 pounds per year to an astonishing 81 tons. By 1890 he was manufacturing over 22,899 tons annually.
Modern Day Ceylon Tea
Sadly, while Sri Lanka is still one of the most respected manufacturers of Ceylon tea, it is no longer the largest. The United Kingdom used to purchase more than 70% of its tea from Sri Lanka but now looks towards North Africa, Russia, and the Middle East.
To make matters worse, most of the European tea drinkers prefer teas that are suitable for tea bags. Because of the high quality of the orthodox teas produced in Sri Lanka, their teas are not manufactured in tea bags. Marketers are not attempting to compete by selling Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka in wood boxes, baskets, reed ware, and sachets. Only tea sold with the red Ceylon Tea lion logo is guaranteed to have come directly from Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s Tea Growing Regions
Despite difficulties, Ceylon teas are still grown in six distinct regions of Sri Lanka. Each region grows a tea with a different color, taste, and aroma. Most of the teas grown at elevations of 1,500 to 1,800 feet are considered good quality and are used in blends. Those grown between 1,800 and 3,500 feet in elevation have rich flavors and bold colors. The teas grown between 3,500 and 7,500 feet in elevation are considered the best Sri Lanka has to offer – touting intense flavors and colors.
The six main tea growing regions in Sri Lanka are as follows:
- Kandy – the lowest region. Most of the teas grown here are used in blends;
- Dimbula - popular for its strong bodied teas with sensuous aromas. The area produces its finest teas during January and February – the driest months;
- Galle – well known for its Orange Pekoes varieties with subtle tastes;
- Nuwara Ellya – popular for growing what are known as the “champagne” teas. Unlike the others, this area harvests tea leaves year round, but the best are picked in January and February;
- Ratnapura – well known for its low elevation, the area grows teas most often used in blends but with enough flavor that they can be brewed alone if consumed with a bit of milk; and
- Uva - is grown on the slopes of Sri Lanka’s eastern mountains and has a flavor with a worldly reputation. The best tea from this region is harvested between June and September.
Ceylon tea leaves are plucked by hand each and every day. The bud and the two youngest leaves of the plant are used because it is believed that they harbor the most flavor and aroma. In areas of the world where tea is harvested by hand you’ll find that your tea has not only the bud and young leaves but older dead leaves, twigs, and other parts of the plant that do nothing to add to the actual flavor of the tea.
Tea lovers would be well advised to watch for the prominent red lion logo representing Ceylon Tea. It doesn’t matter whether you book a hotel in Sri Lanka and travel to a tea plantation, order your favorite flavors online, or sit in one of the world’s finest tea houses – Ceylon teas are a fresh variety you won’t want to miss.