A Cross-Section of Sri Lanka’s Top Tea Factories is The Central Hills.
Ceylon Tea has always fascinated me! Having born on a tea plantation in the Upcountry planting district of Dickoya, I attended one of the Hill Country’s leading schools at Hatton. Upon completion of my studies I joined the same estate where I was born as an Office Trainee. During the following 16 years I worked on various offices and reached a position to be in charge of an office in the Kotagala region, before deciding to go abroad seeking greener pastures. However, my thoughts and romance remained on the lush tea plantations which took care of my life since birth!
After my retirement from my stint abroad my interest returned to the Tea plantations, this time to dig deep into some of the top Tea Factories in the region I was accustomed to. My quest took me to several plantations covering many hundreds of miles across Hatton, Maskeliya, Bogawantalawa, Talawakelle, Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela and Poonagala, armed with a weather beaten camera in sunny, rainy and windy conditions but with determination in mind.
My comprehensive work could not be published as a Book due to financial constraints, though however, the entire work was purchased by the most reputed Tea Exporters of Sri Lanka, AKBAR BROTHERS.
Here I would like to share some of the most interesting places and events I was able to cover during my research journey into the Tea Plantations!
Ceylon Tea – How It Started?
I tried to cover all the best Tea Factories areas which have consistently performed well in Sri Lanka’s Tea Industry even though these factories have seen their good, bad or even ugly days over a hundred and fifty years and yet producing the nation’s largest single foreign-exchange earner. I wanted to write about all such factories which are thus struggling to show what they could do to keep taste buds of millions of tea-drinkers over the world searching for that special quality generations have been tasting through Ceylon Tea.
In some places, I had to personify people who were involved with events connected with the manufacturing process, to give a human touch to my story, seldom seen when dealing with men and machines together. Unlike many other industries, tea manufacture is not confined to a few men and materials but it encompasses generations of culture, traditions, way of life and day to day trials and tribulations of people as well as machines which shape up the end product.
The Tea Gardens of Sri Lanka producing Ceylon Tea are some of the most enchantingly beautiful places in the world. It is here you see Green as Green can ever be and makes one wonder if he or she is in paradise on earth? History of Ceylon Tea is indeed like a thriller. It had a modest beginning and passed through trial and error to become a major primary industry of the country.
Death of Coffee – Birth of Ceylon Tea
“871 – First mention of the Coffee leaf disease, Hemileia Vastatrix” – Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory 1871.
According to records Tea seeds from China was first imported in the year 1824 and from Assam in 1839. The British brought the entire island of Ceylon into their control in 1815 and within a decade established huge coffee plantations throughout the central regions.
However, the days of coffee in Sri Lanka were numbered, as within a few decades a coffee leaf infestation struck a death blow to the industry, thus giving way to something altogether new to this country. The coffee disease was first identified in the Madulsima (near Badulla) area in 1869 and the coffee estates failed to revive production. The timing could not have been better for Tea to take root!
It was James Taylor who started the first tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in Loolencondera Estate, near Kandy in 1867 He started a fully equipped tea factory in 1872 in the same estate. The first sale of Loolecondera tea was made in Kandy that year. The first shipment of Ceylon Tea of a consignment of 10 kilogram (about 23 pounds) arrived in London in 1873.
More areas were brought into tea cultivation thereafter. Estates like Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya in Hewaheta district and Le Vallon and Stellenberg at Pupuressa began transforming into tea plantations and were amongst the first tea estates to be established on the island.
Unfortunately, none of these estates have “top class” tea factories as of today and naturally I had to avoid visiting them for my specific work.
Some Common Facts About Ceylon Tea
More than 80% of the tea plantations were owned by British Companies since 1867 until they were ‘nationalized’ by the government of Sri Lanka under a Land Reform Act in 1971.
Under the first Land Reform Commission Act, the government took over all ‘Sterling’ registered tea estates started by the British a century ago.
With another sweeping move, all other estates under ‘Rupee Companies’ were also nationalized by the then Socialist Government, leaving most of the tea plantations in the hands of the State. Two major Statutory Boards, namely Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC) and Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB), commenced total administrative control of most tea estates.
The plantations have since been privatized and are now run by Regional Plantation Companies (RPC), which own a few estates each.
The Tea sector in Sri Lanka has always been a most vital component of the economy and also the island’s largest employer providing employment directly or indirectly to over a million people.
Globally, Sri Lanka is the third biggest Black tea producing country, next to India and China.
Tea is produced throughout the year in Sri Lanka. The growing areas are – High Grown in elevations from 1200 metres upward, Medium Grown covering between 600 to 1200 m and Low Grown from sea level up to 600 m.
High Grown teas are reputed for their aroma, quality and taste. That is why teas from Dimbula and Nuwara Eliya areas are much sought after by blenders in Tea Importing countries.
The Eastern Highlands of Sri Lanka called the Uva region produces teas of unique seasonal characters. They are widely used in blends particularly in Germany and Japan.
The Medium Grown teas with their thick, colony appearance are popular in Australia, Europe, Japan and North America.
Low Grown teas are popular in West Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe. These teas are of leafy grade, where tea leaves are well twisted and can grade into long particles.
According to known history, it is believed Tea originated in the Yunnan province of China and the plant was introduced to other countries from here. The people here believed that eating tea leaves or brewing a cup could be pleasant.
Camellia Sinensis is the botanical term for the tea plant.
The first public auction of tea was held in 1883 in Colombo.
Sri Lanka became the largest tea exporter in the world in 1965.
Ceylon Tea – Before James Taylor
- Studies on Ceylon Tea History indicate, in the mid or late 1700’s attempts were made to grow tea in Ceylon. They were made by the Dutch who ruled large parts of Ceylon during that period as they could not find Tea and some other elegant aromatics in the island. They made some trials to grow some species of China Teas without success.
- In 1826, some natives thought they had the tea plant, but it was later identified to be Cassia Auriculata, popularly known as ‘Ranawara’ by the natives. The leaves are similar to tea leaves and consumed after infusing in water, just like tea.
- In 1839, Dr. Wallich, head of the botanical garden in Calcutta, sent several Assam tea plant seeds to the Peradeniya estates in the Kandy district. Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Sri Lanka by travellers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries although these yielded disappointing results, and Chinese plants were gradually abandoned in favour of the Assam variety that is now grown on every estate in Sri Lanka. These early arrivals were largely ignored for the more lucrative coffee craze that had seized the region.
- Later, in the 1840’s, cuttings, seeds and seedlings from the Chinese province of Yunnan, fromthe sub-species known as Yunnan were brought to Ceylon. These were planted in the Pussellawa growing district of Ceylon. These Chinese tea beginnings were on the tea plantations in Labookelle group, situated near Nuwara Eliya. During this same 1840’s time frame, the Dimbula tea-growing district was opened to tea production.
Currently, most tea plantations are managed by Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and I picked the following plantations for my research:
- Aislaby Estate, Bandarawela
- Poonagala Group, Bandarawela
- Dambatenne Group, Haputale
- Mattakelle Estate, Talawakelle
- Dessford Group, Nanu Oya
- Great Western Estate, Talawakelle
- Somerset Estate, Nanu Oya
- St Clair Group, Talawakelle
- Kotiyagala Group, Bogawantalawa
- Loinorn Estate, Bogawantalawa
- Bogawantalawa Estate, Bogawantalawa
- Wanarajah Group, Dickoya
- Norwood Group, Norwood
- Laxapana Group, Maskeliya
- Brunswick Group, Maskeliya
- Strathspey Group, Upcot
NUWARA ELIYA REGION:
- Pedro Estate, Nuwara Eliya
- Nuwara Eliya Estate, Nuwara Eliya
- Labookelle Estate, Labookelle
- Dickoya Estate, Dickoya
- Kenilworth Group, Watawala
- Carolina Group, Watawala
The topic will contnue with a series of Articles…