Sri Lanka. The name means “Glittering Island” or “Shining Island”. It’s a perfect description for this beautiful spot in the blue Indian Ocean just off the coast of India, home to the famous Sri Lankan tea known as Ceylon.
I love it here. The beaches are clean. The water is warm. The food is interesting and the history – well it’s quite remarkable.
Like many Asian and African nations we have visited, Sri Lanka is no stranger to bloodshed, violent colonization and civil war;
- The Portuguese arrived in the early 1600’s
- The Dutch colonized and enslaved natives in the late 1600’s
- The British ousted the Dutch, killed the royal family and everyone associated with them, and enslaved more people while launching the tea industry in the late 1800’s. During this period the island was known as Ceylon.
- Independence from Britain came in 1947 and the country changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka.
- A civil war raged between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the Indian Hindu Tamil minority between 1983 and 2009 during which time the Tamils tried to create an independent state in the North and East of the island.
All of this for power and control. It’s a recurring theme everywhere we travel, resulting in many lives lost.
Today though, Sri Lanka seems stable. The tea industry is booming and results in 2% of the gross domestic product (tourism is also booming).
Ceylon Tea (also known as black tea and English Breakfast Tea) is growing in popularity worldwide. Green Tea, now popular for its health benefits, is also growing in popularity. Both come from the same plant – the Ceylon Tea plant from the Camellia Sininses family. The differences between Black and Green Tea, as well as the more expensive White or Silver Tea is the parts of the plant used and how it is processed.
We took a private tour of the Glenloch Tea Plantation and Factory in the mountainous Nuwara Eliya area of Sri Lanka on our six-day tour with Sri Lanka Brothers Tours. Our time at Glenloch was really fascinating. I learned so much;
- Before the British planted tea they tried coffee but the crop was wiped out by the coffee leaf disease, also known as coffee blight. The first tea-plant arrived in Ceylon in 1842 but it wasn’t until 1867 that Englishman James Taylor began the first tea plantation.
- Sri Lanka’s climate and soil are perfect for tea growing. Three kinds of regions now grow tea – low, mid and upper. Each region produces a different product from the same plant due to the different growing conditions and soil.
- Nearly all of Sri Lanka’s tea becomes an export. Local people are left with “tea dust”, literally the left overs from the floor and machinery sold locally.
- The Sri Lanka Tea Board founded in 1976 runs a tight ship with inspections and tastings
of all tea to preserve the highest quality product and the reputation of the industry.
- Tea leaf picking in Sri Lanka is ALL done by hand (unlike most other countries) and done by women. Many women spend their entire lives in the tea plantations. Their daughters and granddaughters follow in their footsteps. It’s a back-breaking and arduous process. Only the new growth and the first two leaves get harvested. Each plant requires picking every seven days.
- Making the picking even more difficult is the steep slope the plants grow on, often in terraced plantations that follow the natural contour of the mountains.
Glenloch is one of the few factories that has a special permit to allow tours. The Sri Lankan Tea Board is fastidious about cleanliness and health standards, so only a few factories are open to visitors.
Glenloch has been in operation since the 1800’s and is now the fourth largest tea factory in the
world. One of the founders of Glenloch was Sir Thomas Lipton. During our tour some of the original machinery was on display. Much of it was man or horse powered back in the day. Today’s process uses automated technology but still employs many people. In fact over a million Sri Lankans are directly or indirectly employed with the tea industry.
Walking into the factory you are surrounded by the sweet and earthy smell of tea. It is a lovely aroma and permeates the factory. Our lovely Sari robbed guide took us through the factory and explained the steps to turn leaves to tea;
- The women pickers bring their days harvest to the muster shed for weighing. They are expected to pick 15 -20kg a day.
- Immediately the leaves are spread on large troughs in a process known as withering where circulated air from below dries the leaves. This takes about 24 hours.
- The leaves are then sent to the roller. This machine, now automated but formerly horsepowered, mashes the leaves into a black pulp. This process releases the enzymes in the tea.
- Here the green tea follows a separate process of steaming instead of rolling. This process halts the oxidation and keeps the green color.
- The black tea is then sent to a fermentation area where the temperature and humidity level dictates how long the fermenting process takes, anywhere from 20 minutes to five hours.
- Next the tea proceeds to a dryer to stop further fermentation before going through a grading process for size. Larger tea particles are more highly prized.
- The tea is then put on a conveyor belt and packed in to large paper sacks (in olden times it was a very heavy wooden tea chests) and shipped to the auction house and brokering companies for shipment around the world.
Following our tour we had a tea tasting where we enjoyed the darkest black tea, a medium black tea, green tea and the special white or silver tea. This last tea is very expensive, made essentially by using only the buds of the plant, dried in the sun but not steamed or rolled or fermented. This tea has a unique and light and nutty flavor.
For me however, my favorite was the black tea, but during this tasting I found I also enjoyed the green tea. I’m not usually a fan of green tea, but maybe I need to drink more Sri Lankan Green Tea – it was really smooth and delicious.
So how about the next time you make yourself a cup of tea (black, green or white), take a moment to think about where it came from. The remarkable journey from high in the mountains of Sri Lanka to your tea-cup. And give a little prayer up for the women who picks the leaves, day in and day out, to make your lovely cup possible.
Sri Lanka – Shining Island. Fabulous.
Want to learn more about tea around the world? Read our blog about tea in China here.