Ceylon Tea

I originally became interested in Sri Lanka when I noticed one of my favorite black teas, Saint – James, was grown there. Although Sri Lanka has more to offer than tea, I’ve learned more about black tea than ever before.

Sri Lanka’s colonial economy was originally built off of coffee, however in 1869 blight destroyed the crop. Now, Sri Lanka is the world’s 4th largest tea producer (behind China, India and Kenya). The annual value is $1.5 billion dollars. The combination of high altitude, a warm climate and hilly terrain makes it a perfect place for growing tea. By the 1890’s Lipton’s tea plantations were exporting over 30,000 tons of tea from Sri Lanka to London. Today, the majority of Ceylon tea is exported to the Middle East, North America and Eastern Europe. Although Sri Lanka is famous for it’s black tea, it has started producing and exporting green tea and white tea.

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Nick, Dan and I toured the Ceylon Tea Museum outside of Kandy, The Bluefield Tea Factory, and Labookellie Tea Factory outside of Nuwara Eliya. Walking through the 100+ year old factories was fascinating and it was neat to see them still active. The smell of black tea radiated inside of the 4 story tall buildings. The industrial process was very interesting as the only other tea plantation I’ve visited, the process was done by hand.

Regions

Nuwara Eliya- Delicately fragrant, 6,240 ft. above sea level, and known as a smooth tea

Uda Pussellawa- exquisitely tangy, known for it’s medium body and flavor

Dimbula- Refreshingly mellow, plantations located at 3,500 to 5,500 feet above sea level, the monsoon rains and cold dry weather produce a range of teas from full bodied to delicate

Uva- Exotically aromatic, grown at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, it has a unique flavor and is often blended with other herbs and fruits

Kandy-Intensely full-bodied, plantations at 2,000 to 4,000 feet, this tea is strong and flavorful, it’s often served with milk

Ruhuna- Distinctively unique, platntations 2,000 feet above sea level and known for it’s soil

Sabaragamuwa- smooth and full bodied, plantations ranging from sea level to 2,500 feet above sea level, this tea is known for it’s unique leaf appearance and large particle size

Grades of Black Tea

OP – Orange Pekoe, a whole leaf, delicate brew that varies in taste according to region, biggest leaf, light flavor

FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe, a semi-leaf with some tip, mellow

BOP1 – Broken Orange Pekoe 1, a well twisted semi-leaf generally from the low country, malty taste

Pekoe – A curly leaf, light and delicate taste

BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe, a popular leaf size, balance of taste and strength, often mixed with other fruits and herbs

BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings, smaller than BOP, popular in higher elevations, tastes stronger than BOP, cheap, drank with sugar or milk, used in tea bags

Dust 1 – Fine granular particles, strong, ideal for commercial brewing

FBOPF Ex. Sp – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings Extra Special, a whole leaf tea with many long tips, mildly caramel and sweet

FBOPF1 – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings 1, a low country sem-leaf, full bodied, and sweet.

BP1 – Broken Pekoe 1, a larger lead, full bodied, and bright.

PF1 – Pekoe Fannings 1, a smaller size leaf, ideal for tea bags

The Process

Pluck – Tea pickers on average pick 20 kilos of leaves per day and make $4 per day. The tea industry employs 5% of the entire population and mostly consists of women.

Wither – leaves sit and are tossed for 12 hours on a sunny day and 18 hours on a rainy day, 5 kilos of fresh tea leaves turns into 1 kilo of tea

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Withering leaves

Crushed & Roll – self explantory

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Ferment – ferment for 2 hours, similar process to leaving out a cut apple, the tea leaves turn black, gain aroma and flavor, green and white teas are not fermented

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Fermented leaves

Dry – a machine dries leaves for 20 minutes, machines were over 100 years old

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Separate – machines using static electricity separate the stems from leaves, the stems are then used for fertilizer

Grade – see the various grades above

Taste – self-explanatory

Pack & Dispatch – It only takes 24 hours from the time the tea is picked to shipped. Most tea is sold at the Colombo auction held twice a week. The companies that buy the tea flavor it with various fruits and herbs depending on the country in which they are selling.

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*I learned that the difference between golden tips and silver tips (white tea) is that golden tips are sun dried for 1 month, whereas silver tips are only sun dried for 2 weeks.

*If you are into tea, check out another tea post, Tea Tips, from my travels in China.

The Hill Country

Kandy

Nick and I took a shared jeep, tuk-tuk, 3 flights and a taxi to meet Nick’s dad, Dan, in Colombo. Sri Lanka is an island the size of Virginia, south of India. It’s people have faced many hardships as civilians have died from Asia’s longest running war and tsunami. It is predominately Buddhist, hunting is illegal and its main export is black tea. We arrived at 3am and woke up at 6am to greet Dan and head to Kandy. Kandy was a quaint town surrounding a small lake. We immediately noticed that the culture and food differed from India. The people were warm, sensitive, and curious, however always seemed to try and sell you on something. Unknown if it was positive or negative, we always received a huge reaction when we said we were from the states as we didn’t meet many any other tourists from the US.

While in Kandy we visited the Ceylon Tea Museum which was in an old factory built by the British and we learned about the process of making, Sri Lanka’s famous, Ceylon black tea. After, we visited the Temple of the Tooth, which held Buddha’s tooth (Nick and I’s third time seeing a Buddha tooth relic). The complex was large and it was beautiful wandering around as the sun set.

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Nick excited to see his dad and take trains!
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Kandy Lake

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Temple of the Tooth
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Candles inside the temple complex

Dalhousie

Dalhousie was a small hillside town made up of stands selling to local pilgrims. Its hills were covered in bright green tea bushes and what looked like untouched forest. We woke up at 2am to hike Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada. This peak is a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious site, climbed mostly by Buddhist pilgrims. It is believed that Buddha, Adam or Shiva’s footprint is at the top, depending on your religion. It was 7 km hike to the top consisting of 5,500 steps. Nick and I felt this had a similar feel of hiking to Golden Rock, a Buddhist pilgrimage in Myanmar, however was more developed and touristed with foreigners. The sunrise at the top was beautiful and the weather was perfect. Clouds settled on mountaintops and we could see Adam’s shadow from afar. We listed to the Morning Prayer at the top and passed tea pickers on our way back down.

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Sunrise from Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak

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Shadow of Adam’s Peak

We took the train from Hatton to Nanu Oya, where it felt obvious we were on the tourist loop. The individuals we saw on the train from Kandy were the same we saw hiking Adam’s Peak and now saw on the train. Sri Lanka is a small country and it seems like most backpackers are on the same loop. However, these places are popular for a reason. The train ride was spectacular and was one of Nick’s and my favorite! We drank milk tea while dangling our feet out of the door and Nick high fived local school kids as we passed by. We watched lush green tea fields pass and it felt like we were in “Jurassic Park”.

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Cheers to trains and milk tea
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Tea pickers

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Nuwara Eliya

When we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, we were in awe of the vibrant landscape rather than the small city center. It was an old colonial hill town with tea fields and brightly colored vegetables sold on the side of the road (leek, cabbage, carrots, beets, rhubarb, etc.) We spent our first day exploring some of the many waterfalls and at one point Nick was told, “You are very white man!” when swimming with the locals. After, we toured around 2 active tea factories built over 100 years ago. I’ll write another blog post with some tea details=)

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“You are a very white man!”

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Nick & Dan

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Senior portrait green screen

On our final day in Nuwara Eliya, we hiked a 9km loop in Horton Plains National Park. Our guide, knew all about the flora and fauna. We spotted wild black pepper, wild coriander and various herbs used to treat leukemia, depression, and even broken bones. We were also lucky to have not only heard but also seen purple-faced leaf monkeys in the forest. We arrived, to the World’s End, and although we could imagine the remarkable view to the ocean, we only saw fog. After driving back to town, our guide invited us to his home for dinner. We ate some delicious curry with string hoppers (rice noodles). We discussed politics, religion, and happiness. Our guide told us that Buddha’s teaching of the middle way was the most important, especially when it comes to money. People think that money can buy happiness and it can’t. While only living with enough money to survive is a hardship (something we can only imagine), a path in between can bring true satisfaction. We agreed. I truly felt like he was a compassionate individual with aspirations and sincere thoughts, however the scene was a little old. Countless times in Asia,  I’ve spent with intoxicated men while the woman do all of the work. Nonetheless, we had a terrific time and were thankful we were invited into his home. We left Nuwara Eliya the next morning and took a 7 hour bus to Marata, where we would enjoy the coast!

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Horton Plains National Park

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Kandy- The Empire Cafe, try the curry dishes and chai tea

Local foods to try: Kotthu (stir-fried chopped Roti), Vasai (deep fried lentil doughnut, train snack), hoppers, Binjol page (eggplant curry), buffalo curd with kitul (similar to yogurt and honey), and wattalappam (jaggery and cardamon custard).

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The Empire Cafe in Kandy
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Homemade meal

 

Tea Tips

While in Guilin, we visited the Guilin Tea Science & Research Institute, an organic tea plantation where every step of the production process is done traditionally by hand. We experienced a traditional Chinese tea ceremony and enjoyed Osmanthus tea, Liu Bao Compressed Tea, High Mountain Yellow Tea and a variety of oolongs. Do you know it takes 50,000 tea needles to make a half-kilo of white tea?

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Tea serves many purposes, to quench thirst, aid digestion, fall asleep or stay awake.

The Chinese believe tea should be drunk when you are calm so that you can fully appreciate it. You should not drink it when you are busy and it should be enjoyed with few people to avoid excitement (the opposite of alcohol.)

All tea comes from the same evergreen shrub (camellia sinensis); there are some varieties of this shrub, however tea is distinguished by the time the leaves are picked and how they are treated.

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I learned how much the Chinese value not only the plants, but the water used to make tea. It is said that, “water in mountains is best, in rivers is ok, and in wells is second rate.”

Here are a few tea tips that I learned while in in China:

When drinking black or oolong teas, drink from a clay pot. There are many pores that absorb the tea and after 2 years it absorbs the teas flavor. The clay also helps maintain a high temperature. Pour hot water over of the pot and when the outside is dry the tea is ready to drink. Porcelain pots are best for white and yellow teas as it cools quickly. Green tea is preferred to be drunk in clear glass so that the tea drinker can observe the tealeaves floating and sinking. Remember to always rinse the tea leaves before steeping to purify.

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Tea process: manual picking of tealeaves, checking and selecting of leaves, withering tea leaves indoor, drying tea, kneading tealeaves, manual parching of tealeaves.

White Tea – These leaves are young and/or minimally processed, it includes 1 shoot and 2 leaves, it is light in flavor and good to have in the morning.

Yellow Tea – This tea is good for sleeping or for a sore throat. It has virtually no caffeine and was discovered while making green tea, the fermentation process is called “annealing yellow.”

Green Tea – Not fermented and tastes simple and elegant. It retains the original flavor of tea.

Black Tea – Fermented for 72 days, this is sometimes referred to as “red” tea due to the color the leaf turns the water.

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Oolong Tea – This is somewhat of a combination of green and black tea as it uses green teas finishing techniques and black teas fermenting skill (fermented for 36 days), it is high in energy and good to have in the afternoon.

Pu’er – a specific aged and fermented dark tea produced with leaves from the Yunnan Province. It is a roll tea and is pronounced “pu’ar.”

Compressed Tea – This tea is fermented for 3 months. It is made from combining white, green, yellow, black and oolong tea. It is said that drinking compressed tea helps to burn fat and lower cholesterol. This tea is good for digestions and has no caffeine; it’s good to have after dinner. This tea comes in a brick and should be cut with a tea knife as needed. Due to it’s compact structure it will last for years.

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*ps. Did you know that Japanese matcha whisks are made with a single peice of bamboo?