Tea in Sri Lanka

We drink a lot of tea, but how much do we really know about where it comes from? Karen Morrison visited a plantation in Sri Lanka to find out just what goes into your cuppa

Whether it’s high tea at the Ritz or a mug of builder’s brew straight from a Thermos, all Brits have a preference when it comes to the perfect cuppa.

But the Sri Lankans have cracked the formula. For an impeccable brew, they say, one must add 145ml of just-boiled water to three grams of tea leaves – incidentally, the same weight of a regular tea bag – and brew for precisely five minutes. Any longer than this and tea will taste bitter, any less than this and they’ll tell you not to bother. Milk and sugar are optional extras, unless, of course, you’re drinking the precious, virgin white tea leaves, in which case any additions would be considered a contamination.

Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is the island at its most scenic; verdant peaks peep through the mist for as far as the eye can see, and it’s out on these plantations where your morning brew begins life. I visited the Madulkelle Lodge, surrounded by fields carpeted in green tree plants.

The pickers, typically poorly educated Hindu women who travel from the south of India in search of work, pluck leaves from the tea trees from dawn until around 4pm and deposit them into a huge bag strapped to their back. It’s exhausting work; the women I met only get a short break and at the end of every shift they usually have to remove 20 or so leeches from their legs. It was an eye-opening experience to see how gruelling a process it is to collect what ends up in our cups.  

The bags of leaves are then transported to the 1930s-built factory a mile down the tightly-wound road where they are dried out for 12 hours at 84f, which reduces their moisture by 43%. Unlike Indian tea leaves which are crushed, Sri Lankan tea is curled and twisted in a roller. Much of the work is done by hand and the operation never stops; 50 workers will be found in the factory at all times, working on a three-shift rotation, 24 hours a day.

Black and green tea come from the same tea tree plant – not to be confused with ‘tea tree’ though, a phrase that originated in the 1920s when Captain James Cook used leaves from myrtle shrubs to make an infusion to drink in place of tea in the Australian outback. After a fermentation stage, the tea goes through another drier for 18 minutes on slow moving trays before being separated into five lots by machine.

The smaller leaves are exported to the UK for our supermarket teabags and the larger ones are sold to Arab countries for evening drinking without milk or sugar. White tea is not processed at all and is the most expensive of all; 1kg of black tea will be sold for 2,000 rupees (£10), whereas the same weight of white tea sells for 40,000 rupees (£200). At the end of my trip, I was able to sample all the teas, made according to the aforementioned method and served without milk or sugar. For me, the medium-strength pekoe tea was the best.

Tea production in Sri Lanka accounts for 2% of the country’s GDP. It employs more than one million people, with around a quarter of that number working on the tea plantations and estates. The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall in the central highlands provide the perfect climate for high quality tea. Seeing first-hand the hard, physical work and complex processes that go in to producing some of the world's finest tea was educational and important; respect for the supply chain and the labour that goes into it should be key for any consumer. And, of course, tasting it – nothing beats sipping a perfectly brewed origin tea in some of the world's most beautiful scenery. 

Karen Morrison is a freelance journalist

If you enjoyed this, take a look at Alexi Duggin's essay on why good tea matters

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