The rolling hills of the Sri Lankan highlands are carpeted with some of the best tea plantations in the world. Oddly enough, the story of Ceylon tea actually started with coffee as the first British settlers initially saw the diverse climate and sloping hills as ideal for coffee plantations.
In the 19th century, the Sri Lankan highlands were decimated by disease which wiped out the coffee industry and, as the popularity of tea grew throughout the world, the story of Ceylon tea began in Nuwara Eliya, the heart of the Sri Lankan tea industry.
The hill country’s tea plantations have been a great asset to the Sri Lankan economy for centuries, and the industry itself provides jobs for more than a million people. The majority of the workforce are women of Tamil origin and even today the pay rate remains astonishingly low. Campaigns are now in place in many tea plantation areas to transform estates into fair trade establishments, giving the workers a fair price for their hard work.
Having visited many plantations over the last 10 years, I have an enormous amount of respect for the tea workers. They pick and sort the tea come rain or shine, often in the most extreme temperatures and humidity and are required to pick at least 20kg per day – not an easy task.
What makes Ceylon tea so special is the way the leaves are picked. Without a shadow of a doubt, hand picking produces the best tea in the world as it ensures that the leaves are not bruised or damaged in any way.
Once the tea leaves are picked, they are taken into one of the many factories where they are laid out in troughs and dried by enormous fans to remove any excess moisture. Once dry, the leaves are rolled, twisted and then crushed, which speeds up the fermentation process. The crushed leaves are then exposed to high temperatures and left to ferment. This process has to be monitored carefully as fermentation fluctuates depending on temperature and humidity, and the flavour of the leaves can be greatly altered if they are left for too long.
Once the process is complete, the tea has to be graded. This is done using a variety of different sized meshes, which sort the tea particles according to their shape and size. Any sub-standard tea that fails to comply with standards is rejected regardless of quantity and value. The tea is then inspected further and packed into paper sacks ready to be exported.
The highlands of this beautiful island really are spectacular, with the tea pickers canvased against the vibrant backdrop of the rolling green hills.
The climate is also a nice change from the sweltering heat of beach life and is known to the Sri Lankan’s as ‘little England’, due to its cooler climate.