Near Kandy, there is a tea museum. Here they tell everything about the way they make tea in Sri Lanka. We were the only one in the museum, but before we knew what happened we were guided through the museum and got a cup of tea.
In the museum, they told us about James Taylor
According to the stories, the Dutch introduced the tea plant when they occupied the island in the 17th century.
Tea was first described in Sri Lanka in 1824, during the English colonial rule. A handful of tea plants from China were planted in the Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya (just outside Kandy). In the following years, tea plants from Assam were also planted.
The English built many plantations in Sri Lanka. Because they needed pickers, they got them from India. Generally, Tamils from India (these are not the Jaffna Tamils who come from the North of Sri Lanka).
In Sri Lanka, around 1 million people are employed in the tea industry. Almost all tea is traded through the auction in Colombo.
The women who pick the tea work from 8 am to 4 pm, 6 days a week. They must pick a quota of 18 kg of tea leaves per day. If they achieve this, they will get 600 LKR paid, converted to € 3.06. (that’s just under LKR 15,000 (€ 75.00) per month). If they do not meet the quota, they will only receive 300 LKR (€ 1.53).
Some plantations pay their employees a fixed monthly salary.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for tea factories to find pickers since the younger generation is better educated than the generation that is still picking. They are looking for other work and no longer want to work on tea plantations.
Also, the prices for tea are falling. They have also received a lot of competition from countries such as Kenya and Vietnam. Where Ceylon used to be high on the list of tea-producing countries, it has now dropped to number 4. (after China, India and Kenya)
Several tea producers also realize that the way of working that has been used in Sri Lanka so far is no longer sustainable. They focus on artisanal tea or speciality tea.
Commercial tea factories
Dambro Labookellie Tea Factory was the first commercial factory that we visited. When we arrived we were given a tour of the factory. The entire process was explained at a rapid pace. We could see how green tea leaves were used to make black tea. After the quick tour, we got a cup of tea with tea cake (the best of the whole tour) (the intention was of course that we would buy some tea).
We’ve left Dambro and visited Blue Field Tea Gardens. Our guide was a young man who had memorized the story about the factory. When we asked him a question, he lost the story and started all over again. They produce tea, from OP (A) to very fine tea (what you have to drink with milk and sugar). All tea produced here goes in bulk through the tea auction in Colombo. This tea is sold as Ceylon tea. You’ll know it is coming from Sri Lanka, but not from where on Sri Lanka.
We now had an idea of how tea is made. When we arrived at Pedro Estate, it was quiet in the factory. The rolling, crushing and twisting of the tea is done overnight. The operation we have seen is the tea coming in from the fields. Every 2 hours the tea is brought to the factory, weighed and put on wittering tables. The tea we have tasted here tasted better than at the previous factories.
The next place we visited was Ella. Well, we drove through Ella. Our destination was Amba Estate. Amba is leased by JSOC Holding. A company set up by 4 sponsors; 1 from Sri Lanka, 1 from Uzbekistan, 1 from Italy and 1 from the US.
The goal of this venture is to maximize employment and the income of the local population while preserving the natural environment. They do this by showing local farmers and artisans how to sell their products to international consumers. Instead of just selling valuable raw materials to major processors and traders.
The Estate is certified organic, the tea itself is not. No pesticides or fertilizers are used, everything is 100% natural. Amba was abandoned, all knowledge of tea making was gone. They have mastered the art of tea making in several years.
Unlike on the “normal” estates, the ladies here carry out the entire process, from picking to packing. Each batch of tea is fully traceable to the picker. Where normally 2 leaves and a bud are picked, at Amba they pick 1 leaf and a bud. These leave them to witter and are rolled by hand to oxidise and to be dried carefully. Grading does not happen here because the tea has been carefully picked and rolled. The result is a Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe (TGOP). This tea is exported without going through the auction. We are going to sell this loose quality tea.
At Amba they are only making TGOP, Broken Orange Pekoe, tea with Lemongrass, tea with cinnamon and tea with other additives are also made (all 100% natural).
All ingredients for the tea blends are harvested on Amba Estate.
The great thing about Amba is that everyone who works there has a fixed income and receives a bonus on top of the income. 10% of the revenue is distributed among employees. Where other plantations struggle to get employees, at Amba they stand in line.
Amba employees earn an average of 38,000 LKR (€ 194) per month in 2019, a lot more than on commercial plantations
They do not make huge amounts of tea, they already are at their maximum production limit. The nice thing about Amba is that they are starting to produce coffee. It is still in the starting phase. But it seems that coffee is back in Sri Lanka. We will certainly continue to monitor this.
Amba focuses its tea on a higher segment and sees this as the future for Ceylon tea. They like to share the concept they use with other tea producers for free. Although there is the requirement to keep the tea plantations boutique.
Handunugoda Tea Estate
We received the advice to visit Herman Tea at Handunugoda Tea Estate. A world-famous white tea would come from here.
Since the Tea Estate is close to Unawatuna, in the south of Sri Lanka, many tourists visit the estate. About 300 a day. Fortunately, Petra had already contacted the Estate by email. We received a tour from the owner himself: Mr Herman. A nice elderly man who knows what he is doing and full of energy to get the best out of his tea. Mr Herman also indicates that the time of bulk Ceylon tea is over and that for good loose tea there are only possibilities at the top of the market.
The estate is close to the sea and has only 1 rainy season and until recently this rainy season lasted only 2 months. (This is changing due to climate change). To ensure that the plants do not dry out, they have planted shade trees. An advantage of these shade trees is, the ground under the trees and tea bushes stays cooler, which makes the problem of evaporating waterless. Another advantage is that birds are attracted to the trees, and these birds will eat the insects from the tea plants. There is no need to use pesticides at Hermans Tea. They still use artificial fertilizer but have already reduced this from 6 times a year to 1 time a year and they will stop completely.
They make The Virgin White Tea here, a tea that is only touched by humans when you drink it. The ladies who “pick” the tea, cut the tea bud with a “golden” pair of scissors, wear gloves and protective clothing. Everything to ensure that the tea is not touched by humans. A picker cuts around 160 grams of tea per day. In the days of the Chinese emperors, this tea was picked by virgins. “But where can you still find it” was Mr Herman’s response. The result is a very delicate white quality tea.
In addition to this white tea, they also have tea produced the orthodox way, only on a small scale. They produce beautiful Oolong tea. This is a slightly oxidized loose tea.
Forest Hill Tea
Budikka the owner of Forest Hill Tea already called us when we were on our way. He was very happy that we visited him. A tea tour at Forest Hill normally takes 1 day, compare this to a tour in a commercial factory which takes 12 minutes.
Forest Hill is a company that cooperates with Amba Estate.
What makes Forest Hill special is that their wild tea comes from over 140-year-old tea trees. The English have planted tea bushes on the slopes of Adam’s Peak. After 10 years they left the estate because it was loss-making. Now the tea bushes have become tea trees and the Warnagala Estate is 100 hectares of tropical rainforest. The tea trees are 9 to 12 meters high. This gives the wild tea a unique character. The quality of wild tea remains high because only small batches of tea are produced.
Adam’s Peak is seen as a holy mountain, nothing may be cut down or removed. Naturally, no use is made of pesticides or fertilizers.
In addition to tea, wild cardamom and cloves grow on the estate. A nice combination with black tea.
In our assortment
We have ordered the following tea
- Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe, a slightly aromatic black tea that is also served at Noma in Denmark, among others
- Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe with tea flowers. The tea flowers are normally taken away, here they are dried by the tea. This tea, therefore, has a floral aroma and the taste of honey and almonds.
- Virgin White Tea
- Sapphire Oolong
- Pure Green Tea
Forest Hill Tea
- Warnagala Wild Tea
- Forest Hill Silver Tips