I’ve been back from my tea tour to Sri Lanka for about four days and I’m still processing all I experienced—or rather all “we” experienced as there were eight of us including our trip organizer, Lalith Paranavitana. I feel like there is so much to write, but will attempt to be brief and descriptive (I know I’ll be writing about this trip for a long time). There’s really three parts to the experience: the tea, the country, and the people.
Sri Lanka teas are known as Ceylon teas (the former name of Sri Lanka). The tea plant, Cammelia sinensis was first planted in the country in 1867 by a Scotsman named James Taylor and as the tea bushes began to thrive and produce good tea, many other growers/producers followed—including Thomas Lipton. Having a British heritage, the tea bushes were planted with the intention of producing black tea and that is what Ceylon is primarily processed into. Most people are familiar with English Breakfast Tea which is a blend of Ceylon and (Indian) Assam. The popularity of single origin, unblended Ceylon tea is growing however—especially in Russia and the Middle East. As more Americans become interested in good quality specialty teas, it is expected that Ceylon tea will gain more recognition here too.
Ceylon teas are classified as High-grown, Mid-grown, and Low-grown according to the elevation of the tea estate. All three have a similar beautiful and fruity flavor profile, but vary in the level of body, nuance and robustness (a word?) depending on elevation. The Low-grown teas (grown at sea level to 2,000 ft.) are the most robust with rich body, deep red color, and a flavor that stands up beautifully to milk and sugar. The year-round heat and plentiful rainfall of the area (familiarly known as Ratnapura region) contribute to prolific growth that influences a heavier flavor profile. The Mid-grown Ceylon teas, grown at elevations from 2,000 ft to 4,000 ft. (best known is the Kandy region) have a more balanced flavor and body which are pleasant as “self-drinkers” or with milk and sugar. High-grown Ceylon teas grown at elevations above 4,000 ft. (Nuwara Eliya) grow more slowly because of the colder temperatures and as a result, the finished tea is lighter in body and color, and has a reputation for more subtle, nuanced flavor.
We spent time at two very large production facilities–Ceciliyan Tea Estate and Dessford Tea Estate where we observed the whole tea processing process. Ceciliyan produces both orthodox and CTC teas (tea bag tea), while Dessford produces orthodox teas only.
Sri Lanka is hard to summarize, but if I had to give a quick description I’d compare it to what I expect Hawaii was like 40 to 50 years ago. It is a lush, tropical country with a few big cities (Colombo being the capitol) but mostly rain forests alternating with rice, rubber and tea plantations amid smaller villages. The beauty of the sea, tropical forests, waterfalls, colorful dwellings and of course, the people themselves never got tiring. Like most developing countries, however, it was a bit of a challenge to get from place to place because of poor roads (most under repair) and the lack of multi-lane highways.
Having come through a civil war that ended only about four years ago, this country appears to have put its problems behind and is quickly growing in sophistication–eager to be part of the high-tech global world. At the same time, they are careful to protect their natural resources and wildlife. Education is mandated for children to attend till age 17, and then college is free (paid for through taxes).
This was the best part of our experience—getting to know so many lovely, generous local Sri Lankans. Everywhere we went people would ask where we were from, what we were visiting and how long we were staying. We were treated with graciousness, patience and respect throughout the trip. Because tea is such a big part of the country’s economy, our being in Sri Lanka to tour their tea industry, prompted even more curiosity and acceptance.
I also have to talk about our unique tour group. As I mentioned earlier, there were seven of us plus our trip organizer Lalith Paranavitana. This trip was truly enhanced by the synergy of our group. Two couples, Lee and Ann Kennedy and Jack and Chris Flaugherty, are part of a non-profit tea company called Compassion Tea. They sell tea online to raise money for medical clinics in Africa. There was Connie Miller, who owns Zen Teas in Atlanta. Connie’s unique store offers tea, yoga, and meditation classes. Michelle Rose, a Hawaii tea planter was with us. Michelle produces fabulous white and black teas on her Tea Estate known as Cloudwater Farm located on the Island of Kauai. Last, and most important I need to mention Dudley, our local Sri Lankan tour guide. Dudley, a very well-read octogenarian whose first career was geologist, kept us entertained with stories and facts about Sri Lanka’s history, land, and culture.
This was truly a magical experience and I’m grateful to Lalith for putting so much work into the itinerary. He plans to arrange another Sri Lanka Tea Tour in two years and I might just go again.