2020 Sep 11
Ahhh! Is there anything more Sri Lankan than a cup of tea? I doubt it! The brew is warm and welcoming – and if that’s not Sri Lanka right there, I don’t know what is.
This cup of gold is pretty high up on the list of what we love as Sri Lankans – we turn to it when we need to kettle down into routine at the beginning of a working week, on a weekday evening whenever we are busy and have to mul-tea-task, on a weekend morning when we simply want to relax and enjoy some sereni-tea- and basically at every opportuni-tea!
Sri Lanka is the third largest tea producer in the world and the largest exporter of high-quality black tea into the world tea market under the Ceylon tea symbol. That’s right – this humble leaf generates over 65% of our agricultural export revenue, contributes approximately 2% to our GDP and employs around 2 million people (10% of our population) directly and indirectly.
Contrary to what many may believe, Ceylon Tea is not a specific type of tea; it is merely a trademark to identify tea that is produced and exported by Sri Lanka, which was formerly known as Ceylon.
Ceylon tea is a marvel of nature – in that it carries several protective and healing properties in addition to its pleasant taste. It is infinite in the variety of its taste since it grows in many regions – each producing tea that differs from another. Ceylon tea, depending on the elevation at which it is grown, has a unique identity, as a result of the confluence of climate, topography, soil and the production process.
Despite our love for tea, a lot of us Sri Lankans actually do not know much about the origins and production of this delicious elixir. For example, did you know that Sri Lanka boasts of 7 regions of tea production? Or that, in addition to traditional black tea and the more contemporary green tea, our island nation also produces and exports White Tea?
Categories of Ceylon Tea
Ceylon black tea
This is the category of tea majorly produced in Sri Lanka. It has a crisp aroma reminiscent of citrus and is used both unmixed and in blends. It is produced on numerous estates which vary in altitude thus the taste of the end product as well.
Ceylon green tea
Ceylon green tea generally gives a fuller body and pungent, rather malty, nutty flavour characteristic. The main green tea grades are OP Full Leaf Green Tea (whole leaf), Gun Powder Green Tea, Fannings (leftover tea pieces after higher grades are gathered to be sold) and Dust Green Tea.
Ceylon white tea
Ceylon white tea divides into two grades, known as “Silver Tips/Silver Needle White Tea” and “Golden Tips/Golden Needle White Tea”. Sri Lanka white tea prices per kilogram are significantly higher than other teas, as there is a high-labour involvement in its production (the tea comprises of just the tips of tea leaves). These have a delicate, very light liquoring with notes of pine and honey and a golden coppery infusion.
Like the great wine-growing regions of France, the tea country of Sri Lanka is divided into several strictly-defined regions or ‘districts’, each of which is known for producing teas of a particular character. There are seven districts of tea production in Sri Lanka- and this should come as no surprise considering that ‘seven’ is the number that symbolises perfection, completeness and heaven!
Each region presents a unique combination of climate and terrain that leaves its mark on the tea it produces, regardless of price point or estate of origin. Of course, there is considerable variation between sub-districts and individual estates, between successive crops taken from the same estate in successive years and even between different hillsides on the same estate; yet despite such differences, the regional character of the tea is always evident to the experienced taster.
Tea Regions in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has 7 Regions and these are categorised into 3 elevations.
- High Grown – Tea grown at an elevation of 4000 – 6000 feet (1200m-1800m) above sea level.
- Mid Grown – Tea grown between 2000 – 4000 feet (600m-1200m) above sea level.
- Low Grown – Tea grown between sea level and 2000 feet (600m).
The Kandyan “intensely full-bodied”
Kandy is the middle of the three districts in the Central Province (north of Nuwara Eliya and south of Matale). In 1867, James Taylor marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a plantation of 19 acres in the Loolecondera estate of Kandy. He also started a fully equipped tea factory in 1872- and this was the first year of sale of the Loolecondera tea.
The teas produced here are described as “mid-grown” as the range of cultivation is between 2000-4000 feet (600m- 1200m) and the altitude does not exceed 1,300m. The area produces a broad mix of different tea grades and different leaf-particle sizes – that vary in flavour depending on the altitude and whether or not the plantation is sheltered from monsoon winds. Most Kandy district estates lie on the western slopes of the hills, so their taste is influenced by the ‘western quality season’, meaning that the best tea is produced during the first quarter of the year, when cool, dry weather sets in across the district.
Kandy teas tend to produce a relatively bright infusion with a coppery tone. Though lighter in the cup, they present a good deal of strength and body, though not as much as the lower-grown products of Sabaragamuwa and Ruhuna. They are referred to as ‘full-bodied’ and ‘flavour-packed’- are the perfect wake-up teas for winter mornings or when the heart needs a perky sprint. The tea grades produced here include both whole-leaf and semi-broken- such as OP Black Tea, OPA, BOP, BOPF tea, and Green Tea. In addition, CTC-style (crush, tear, curl) teas are also producing in the Kandy area.
The Nuwara Eliyan “delicately fragrant”
The Nuwara Eliya tea region of Sri Lanka sits at around 6000 feet (1800m) above sea level and is known as the ‘champagne province’ of tea production. This is the best-known of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts, and has the highest average elevation. Combined with the low temperature (annual average temperature varies from 11-20 C°), this produces teas of an exquisite bouquet.
The Nuwara Eliya tea region enjoys two ‘quality seasons’- the eastern as well as the western. The maximum rainfall is generally in October and the minimum rainfall is in March, resulting in an average annual rainfall/precipitation figure of 1900mm. During the year it has a relative humidity between 65%-87%. High altitude and year-round low temperatures produce a very slow-growing bush. Thus, it grows unusually small leaves that take on an orange hue – just a hint against the blackness – after withering.
The infusion in the cup is the palest and most refined of all the types of Ceylon Tea, with an orange-golden hue and a delicately fragrant flavour. The most sought-after grade of the Nuwara Eliyan tea is the whole-leaf Orange Pekoe (OP), closely followed by the Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP).
Uda Pussellawa’s “exquisitely tangy”
The Uda Pussellawa district is situated close to Nuwara Eliya, so its tea is often compared to that of its neighbour. It sits between 5000 and 6000 feet above sea level- thus its tea is classified as ‘high-grown’.
The tea estates in this area are twice blessed – they enjoy two ‘quality seasons’ – the western as well as the eastern season. The heavy rainfall from November to January tends to produce a tea that has a stronger-flavour and more tang than the Nuwara Eliya counterpart. The colder, dryer conditions during the months of June and September add a hint of rose to the bouquet of UP tea, which also comes in a variety of leaf sizes and styles.
Thus, Uda Pussellawa tea appears darker in the cup, comes with a pinkish hue and a hint of greater strength. It is also exquisitely tangy. These unique characteristics and the overall medium body and subtle character make it easy to identify the tea from that of other regions.
Dimbula’s “refreshingly mellow”
Between Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains lies the district of Dimbula, which sits between 3500- 5000 feet above sea level and whose teas are thus classified as “high- grown”. The district contains a number of sub-districts such as the Golden Valley, Maskeliya, upper Kotmale, Ramboda and lower Dickoya. Here it is cool and dry between December and March and then the heavens open up to send in the rains between May and September. Two different climates within each year thus dictate Dimbula’s tea produce. The complex topography of the region produces a variety of microclimates, which produce differences in flavours.
The area exhibits very clean, bright and brisk teas – with a good coppery red colour. The Golden Valley area tea shows a hint of a golden – orange hue in the cup. Certain estates of Dimbula benefit from the western quality season between March and May- which increases the aroma of the tea and gives rise to subtle notes of jasmine mixed with cypress. The monsoon rain and cold dry weather produce good quality teas ranging from full-bodied to light and delicate (similar tea grades to that of the Uda Pussellawa Tea area). Thus overall the Dimbula character is defined by teas that produce a cup of sunshine- a fine golden-orange hue in the cup and which are refreshingly smooth and mellow. The unique liquor of the Dimbula tea produces good quality English Breakfast tea and Irish Breakfast tea.
Uva’s “exotically aromatic”
The world-renowned Uva province is a very different area from the other tea districts. It was with tea grown on his Uva estates that Thomas Lipton – the Victorian magnate- persuaded Americans to drink tea. Uva is also a champagne tea area. The region experiences a very individual and different quality season, as the remote district is exposed to winds of both northeast and southwest monsoons. The dry, cool wind comes across the ocean from the North/ East and arrives at Uva generally at the end of July towards the middle of August.
This wind has the effect of essentially drying the tea bush, causing the leaves to lose water and close – effectively concentrating the flavoursome compounds in the lowered fluid levels in the cells of the leaves. This is believed to endow the tea produced here with a special, unmistakable character and an exotically aromatic flavour- whose uniqueness is prized and recognised all over the world.
The mellow, smooth taste of Uva tea, once experienced, is easily distinguished. The Uva region produces a leaf that is more blackened by withering than that of any other district, and varieties produced include a wide range of whole and small-leaf grades, as well as the CTC (cut, tear, curl) teas.
The Sabaragamuwan “exceptionally stylish”
It is not only in the mountains that Ceylon tea brews best. The region of Sabaragamuwa, geographically places at a lower elevation, musters a tea that is second to none. The teas here are low-grown- as its estates range in elevation from sea level to 800m (2500 feet). It is one of the biggest tea-growing regions in Sri Lanka. This growing region covers the western, southwestern and central mountains of the country and contains a number of sub-districts such as Ratnapura, Rakwana, Kaltura, Matara and Weligama close to the southern coast.
The highest plantations of the region lie just below the boundaries of the Sinharaja and Peak Wilderness nature reserves, and here the environment consists of rainforests, cloud forests, and high grassy plains. As a result, they produce tea of a somewhat different character to that grown at lower elevations in the district. Other upper Sabaragamuwa estates receive some weather from the nearby Uva climatic system. Therefore, the tea produced here is again remarkably different to that grown lower down.
Like Ruhuna, Sabaragamuwa generally produces a fast-growing bush with a long leaf, which is very black when withered and well-suited for the ‘rolling’ process of tea production. The liquor, too, is similar to that of Ruhuna teas – dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint, though lightening with the altitude it is produced at – and is thus referred to as strong, scarlet and stylish. The aroma, however, is noticeably different from the Ruhuna product – with an undertone of sweet caramel, and not quite as strong.
Ruhuna’s “distinctively unique”
The teas of Ruhuna are defined as “low-grown” as they are cultivated at an altitude not exceeding 600m (2000 feet), and the main tea-growing areas are relatively near the coast. The district comprises a number of sub-districts such as the Ratnapura/Balangoda, Deniyaya, Matara, and Galle; and of vast sub-regions ranging from coastal plains to the Southern edge of the Sinharaja Rain Forest.
This area was a latecomer to the Ceylon tea arena, with the first estates opening in 1900, among the foothills of the central mountain massif, at a convenient distance from Galle and Matara. The region is rained over by the Southwest monsoon and warmed by the tropic sun. The predominant weather patterns prevent the present day plantations from receiving the full force of the monsoon winds and the rain they bring. Thus the zone has a moderate climate watered by several small rivers.
Ruhuna soil, combined with the low elevation of the estates, causes the tea-bush to grow rapidly – producing a long, beautiful leaf. The region’s teas have continuously shown their colours, withering to produce a distinct blackness which imparts a strong and rich taste to rival the best of what the rest of Sri Lanka has to offer. This variety particularly suits the ‘rolling’ process of tea manufacture, and full-flavoured black tea is a distinctively unique Ruhuna speciality. The tea has dark, svelte tones with a vibrant and strong flavour. Ruhuna factories produce a wide variety of leaf styles and sizes, including prized “tips” (the best quality Silver Needle White Tea produced from the tips of tea leaves), whole and semi-whole leaf teas to fannings and CTC (cut, tear and curl) teas.
There you have it, my fellow tea lovers – a delicious insight into tea production in Sri Lanka and the 7 types of Ceylon tea – each blessed with its distinctive appeal to seduce and pamper palates that demand an array of choice. Lightest to strongest, full-bodied to mild-mannered – a cup of Ceylon Tea is nothing but the finest. I don’t know about you – but when it comes to this – I like big cups and I cannot lie!
Which variety of Ceylon Tea is your favourite? Which of Sri Lanka’s tea production regions have you visited? Are you experienced enough to distinguish between the 7 types? Do let us know in the comments section below!