Growing Regions of Sri Lanka – Terroir & Tea

Tea bushes in Sri Lanka.

Ceylon Tea Plantation in Sri Lanka.

Most people do not think of Sri Lanka when they think about tea, until you realize that Ceylon tea comes from Sri Lanka. The British East India Company named the island Ceylon and the name Sri Lanka was actually given to the island in 1972, long after the British had gone. So Sri Lanka is Ceylon, but not all Ceylon teas are created equal. This is a mountainous island, so terroir is going to make a huge difference. The island nation of Sri Lanka boasts 7 different tea growing regions, each producing a different flavor profile for their teas. Below we give you a brief description on what to look for from each region.

Uva – This high elevation, remote, mountainous region of Sri Lanka produces the most complex teas. Their mellow, woody, and floral flavors are considered the finest of Ceylon tea, containing both the copper color and smoother flavor. These flavors are a product of the southwestern monsoons and winds of the northeast. So the area is dry during the prime harvest season and wet during other seasons, creating the best growing conditions for the plants.

Kandy – This mid-elevation region produces a strong bodied tea with a copper colored infused. The monsoon winds heavily influence the flavor. The more the wind and rain, the smoother the flavor.

Nuwara Eliya – The most delicate and lightest of the Ceylon teas, this is  generally higher elevation than Uva. It produces a gold colored liquor in the cup and a light floral flavor. This is a Ceylon tea that most Europeans and Americans would not identify as Ceylon. Exposed to cold winters, the tea plants in this area get a dormant period that other growing regions do not get.

Uda Pussellawa – This wet monsoon region is known more for its leopards than its tea. It still produces a tangy, yet pinkish brew that is somewhere between the flavors of Uva and Nuwara Eliya. This heavy rainfall regions produce the stronger Ceylon teas that are known for holding their flavor in milk.

Dimbula – This region averages 4,000 feet high with rugged terrain, lower than Uva. That terrain produces micro-climates at various estates. Some can be dry, while others are rainy. Generally,tea from Dimbula is mellow, missing the finishing bite from other Ceylon teas. It produces a golden-orange cup that is darker than Nuwara Eliya but lighter than Uda Oussellawa.

Ruhuna – This southern coastal region of Sri Lanka is low-elevation. This lower elevation produces the largest tea leaves in Sri Lanka. It also produces the darkest and most flavorful of the blends. If you like your Ceylon tea with a drying finish, this is the region to turn to. Much like Uda Pussellawa, it will more than hold its flavor in milk. In fact, you may want to only drink this tea with milk.

Sabaragamuwa – This mid-elevation region is a mixture of valleys and mountains. It is located on the north end of the island, making it slightly less wet than the other parts of the island. It produces a sweeter, more caramel flavored tea with a dark reddish-brown tinted brew.

While Sri Lanka works to educate the world on the differences of its growing regions, now is the time to learn these differences and to start to explore the different regions of Sri Lanka and Ceylon tea. Ask your tea merchant which region they buy from, that will tell you whether they have taken the time to learn about Sri Lanka and all it has to offer.

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Ceylon Tea and Sri Lanka History

Sri Lanka, Kandy, and Colombo - Home to Ceylon Tea

Map of Sri Lanka. Home of Ceylon Tea.

Sri Lanka is one of the worlds largest tea producers behind only India, Kenya, and China. While today tea is a widely consumed and offered to visitors, this custom has developed only over the past century. Indeed, it was colonization by the Dutch and British which led to this small island nation becoming a powerhouse in tea and ultimately the infusion of tea into its culture.

History of Sri Lanka and The Beginnings of Ceylon Tea

The island nation of Sri Lanka is roughly the same size as the state of West Virginia located only about 35 miles to the southeast of India. Its populations date back to the 5th century B.C.E. and are made up of Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, and Malays with Buddhist and Hindu religions playing a significant role in the culture over time. Though it has developed largely separate from India there has been a close relationship with its neighbor and likely inherited its first taste of Buddhism from there.

The country itself is split into two major parts; a dry side and a wet side and early populations may well have been separate from each other for centuries. Over time, however, the island nation became a significant trading hub with visitors from all over. Rulers rose and fell over the years in Sri Lanka and finally Portugal became the first of the European colonizers at a time when cinnamon was a major product of the island. The rule of Portugal didn’t last long however and local powers worked with the Dutch to kick Portugal out in the mid 1600’s. Unlike Portugal, the Dutch were only focused on trading spices, not on ruling the island itself which they did until an 1801 peace treaty with England which ceded control of Dutch territories, including Sri Lanka.

With British colonization brought British influence into the lives of those of Sri Lanka (at the time called Ceylon). They began adopting British ways, customs, and even education. However, it wasn’t until the 1870’s that tea as a major agricultural product came to Sri Lanka. Prior to this time coffee production was the largest cash crop. However, an influx of coffee rust led to the demise of the crop. Many alternatives were tried but ultimately tea became a major crop for the country. It was at this juncture that a young Thomas Lipton, a grocer from Scotland, arrived on scene at the right time to purchase several estates and establish his tea plantations.

The colonization by Britain had brought tea but also brought with with it British ideals. Many in the local Sri Lanka population began to see tea consumed every day and began to consume it as well. Now in addition to growing tea for export it was also widely consumed.

In 1948 the British handed over control and Ceylon became an independent nation. More recently in 1972 it changed its name to Sri Lanka.

Flag of Sri Lanka - Incorporated in Ceylon Tea brand.

Flag (and Lion) of Sri Lanka

Ceylon Tea Today…

Though British colonialism is long gone and the country has changed its name, tea continues to be a major part of the economy for Sri Lanka. It claims to be the third or fourth largest exporter of tea worldwide and the largest orthodox tea exporter. Most plants are a relative of the c. sinensis assamica originating in India instead of the c. sinensis sinensis variety originating in China. The name Ceylon Tea is well known around the world, despite the country changing its name and the Sri Lanka Tea Board promotes Ceylon as a brand in its own right seeking to ensure its reputation as a high quality producer of tea consumed around the world. Accoding to the Sri Lanka Tea Board:

To qualify for the special, legal distinction denoted by the words ‘Ceylon Tea’, and for the famous Lion logo that goes with it, the tea must not only be grown and manufactured entirely in Sri Lanka; it must also conform to strict quality standards laid down and administered by the Sri Lanka Tea Board. It cannot, moreover, be mixed or blended with tea from any other part of the world. Even a blend that is 95% Sri Lankan cannot be described as Ceylon Tea.

Tea continues to be a major part of the culture of Sri Lanka. It is consumed in most households and offered to guests who visit. The industry employs as many as 1 million people directly as well as a large number indirectly employed in Tea Tourism which allows visitors to come and stay on many of the countries plantations.

Tea from Sri Lanka, like that from any number of other countries, brings with it many great stories and tastes and shouldn’t be missed along the path of your own tea exploration.

 

Sources

Culture of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Travel and Tourism, http://www.srilankatravelandtourism.com/srilanka/culture/culture.php

Ceylon Tea Museum – History, http://ceylonteamuseum.com/history.html

Sri Lanka Tea Board, 2011 Annual Report – http://www.pureceylontea.com/index.php/2014-02-26-10-02-57/downloads/category/3-annual-reports

Tea, by Kendra Wilhelm, http://www.panix.com/~kendra/tea/index.html

 

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English Breakfast Tea

There are a number of teas that might be considered staples today including Masala Chai, Lapsang Souchong or Earl Grey tea. One of the best known of these “staple” teas is English Breakfast Tea, a bold, eye opening tea that many turn to for that first cup of the morning. However, English Breakfast Tea isn’t a consistent blend and has somewhat cloudy history like many other tea.

English Breakfast Tea History

Wall Street Between 1870 and 1887

English Breakfast Tea was rumored to have been “invented” near Wall St in the 1800’s. [by George Bradford Brainard – Public Domain]

One of the reasons we love tea is the wealth of stories around tea and English Breakfast is included in this. Many websites will have you believe that English Breakfast Tea never even existed in England until it was brought over from the US after being “invented” by Richard Davies in New York City in 1843. Most of these websites cite a fascinating story in the “Journal of Commerce” as the source for this. Unfortunately, finding the source material for this has proven elusive and the nearest we could find was a reference to the same story in the Daily Alta California from February 1876. It too cites the “Journal of Commerce” though no date of publish, issue number, or other means to track it down. Partial collections of the New York Journal of Commerce are squirreled away in the rare book stacks around the country and if that weren’t bad enough there were “Journal of Commerce” periodicals in many cities across the US and Canada making it possible that the source came from another journal entirely.

From another corner of commerce in the 1800’s comes Robert M. Walsh, author of Tea, It’s History & Mystery, Tea Blending as a Fine Art, and A Cup of Tea. The last of these publications, circa 1884, suggests that English Breakfast was really Chinese Bohea tea; an oolong or black tea produced in the Bohea hills of northern Fujian Province in China. He speaks of Bohea tea as  “a distinct variety, differing in color, liquor, and flavor from the Oolong species, and known to trade in this country [United States] as “English Breakfast” tea, from its forming the staple shipment to England.”

Then there is the Anhui Tourism Administration which states that Keemun was produced by a failed civil servant who sought to bring black tea manufacturing from Fujian to Anhui which had previously only produced green tea. According to the website the result was so good that it quickly gained popularity in England and became the prominent base to English Breakfast Tea.

We are great believers that the truth to most stories is likely somewhere in between. In this case it is likely that what we know as English Breakfast was already enjoyed elsewhere before it was “invented” and marketed to an eager consumer.

English Breakfast Tea Blends

English Breakfast Tea Loose Leaf and Liquor

English Breakfast Tea by Dominion Tea

Today English Breakfast Tea is typically a blend of black teas from Assam, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. Although this is not a hard and fast rule with many including a Chinese Keemun or other black tea instead. The selection of teas used to make English Breakfast are chosen for the qualities they offer to color, flavor, aroma, and mouth feel.  Even if the same teas are used, the ratio of each are bound to be different. The ratio may even be changed from batch to batch to account for subtle differences in one or more of the ingredients. Since tea is an agricultural product the “same” product from the same vendor will have different qualities from year to year.  Each blender chooses the combination that gives just the right taste that they have in mind and which they believe will best meet the needs of their customers. Thus, blends vary widely and will almost certainly be different from company to company.  So no matter what the blend, if a smooth black tea sounds appealing in the morning, reach for some English Breakfast.

 

Sources Cited
Daily Alta California, Volume 28, Number 9436, 5 February 1876, Page 4, http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DAC18760205.2.38#

Types of teas in Anhui Province, Qimen Black (Keemun) Tea, China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/m/anhui/travel/2010-04/29/content_9791685_2.htm

A Cup of Tea, by Joseph M. Walsh, 1884, pg 108-109, https://archive.org/stream/cu31924023998184#page/n113/mode/2up

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