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.
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.
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