Tea in Sri Lanka is known by the islands ancient name, Ceylon, and its plantations date back to 1825, however, they began as coffee plantations. Seeds of Assam tea plants were sent from the botanical garden in Calcutta and Chinese tea plants were brought back to Sri Lanka by travelers as early as 1839, but until the 1860’s, the main crop remained coffee. In 1869, however, there was a dramatic change. A leaf disease known as “coffee rust” spread throughout the country and destroyed the entire industry within a span of five years. During the next twenty years, planters converted their acreage to the production of tea in an effort to recover financial stability. The Chinese tea plants were gradually abandoned in favor of the Assam variety which is now grown on every estate in Sri Lanka. Today, most of those same converted plantations continue a thriving international tea industry.
Two names are commonly associated with the success of the tea industry in Sri Lanka, James Taylor and Thomas Lipton. James Taylor set up the first tea processing “factory” on the island which were actually nothing more than shacks constructed from mud and wattle walls and floors. However, in 1872, Taylor invented a machine for rolling leaves and after a year, regular export of tea arrived in both London and Melbourne. This success led to the opening of an auction market and the founding of a tea dealers’ association which effectively launched a publicity campaign that caused the word “tea” to no longer be solely associated with China and created a desire for companies and brokers to acquire their own plantations and cut out the middleman. Thomas Lipton was one of them. In 1888, Lipton began to make Ceylon tea famous, not because of his influence in growing, but in the marketing and distribution of the final product. Instead of selling the tea loose from the chest which was the custom, Lipton packaged it in colorful packets and marketed them as “brisk” tea which came “straight from the tea garden to the tea pot.” As a result of these influential men and other business tycoons, by 1900 there were 380,000 acres of tea in production which steadily increased to 600,000 acres by the 1960’s.
Almost all of the tea grown in Sri Lanka, over 300,000 tons annually, is processed black and is used for export. Ceylon tea leaves are generally long and twisted and are almost wiry in appearance. Although many of the tea crops produce excellent flavor on their own and may be drunk with milk as in the popular custom with the British, Ceylon teas are also very popular for blending.
TEA TIME TRIVIA
Sri Lanka is a tiny island,
but ranks third
in tea production
“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”