Sri Lanka is such a cute country and its central hilly parts may perhaps be described as a tea-drinkers heaven. The fertile and lush mountains are crisscrossed by intricate paths used by tea pluckers, whose bright saris stand out against the thickly tea bush-carpeted plantations.
Any X- or Z-level Picasso or Dalí or Warhol or Basquiat should find sufficient inspiration by setting up his or her easel at around sunrise, immediately after the mandatory bed tea. Wild parrots twitter in the trees that shade the plantations. Woodpeckers peck away. Kingfishers flutter in the breeze.
At 1889 metres above sea level, I enjoy my stay at an old tea processing plant which has been remodelled into an eccentric luxury hotel – the Tea Factory near the hill station Nuwara Eliya. Pronounced ‘Nurelia’, this small town is also known as the ‘tea capital of Sri Lanka’ with many old tea gardens and tea factories surrounding it. Apparently, the plant-turned-hotel was started by one Mr. Flowerdew, but later when business went bad, one Mr. Waterfall set it on fire so as to get his hands on the insurance money, or so the rumour goes.
The modern hotel created out of the renovated factory is impressive: the lofts with floors of imported Swedish pine, where tea was dried and withered in the olden days, have been partitioned into guest rooms, while the packing hall is a pub where one can enjoy a well-pulled dark pint. There’s also a miniature tea factory on the premises to entertain tourists – pluck some tea leaves out there in the plantation, learn how to convert them into tea, bring a personal package home as a souvenir to impress friends.
The views are fabulous even from my bathroom which has a panorama window. The cloudy sky has the colour of milky tea and its mild light turns the landscape into a kaleidoscope of leafy greens and watery blues, ranging from deep moss hues to oxygen-clear crystal lightness. At the end of the day, as night falls, fires are lit in the villages where the estate workers live – time for dinner. It is very silent. Sounds are muted by the tea bushes.
When its hotels aren’t crammed with tourists in the hot season, Nuwara Eliya is a foggy town with lots of colonial relics – like the Hill Club where planters have been meeting since time immemorial to down beers at the gentlemen’s bar (till today ‘Men-Only’, while there is a separate ‘Mixed’ bar where their ladies can sit and have a sip). The township has golf and race courses too, run by the local golf and turf clubs respectively. Due to the cool high altitude climate, Nuwara Eliya remains a popular summer escape for the richer people of Colombo.
But today I’m off with my driver down the road to Kandy, and on the way I visit several tea plantations where I am guided around the facilities. They offer informative tours for tourists of age-old processing plants that are still running, many of them exactly like the Tea Factory hotel minus the hotel. They also have attached tea shops where one can sample products and buy exclusive single-origin teas, of which I pick up a couple of kilograms.
The orthodox method of tea manufacturing in Sri Lanka is often seen as a parallel to the snootiest whisky distilling processes of Scotland. A ton of freshly plucked leaves are spread out on withering trays where they are slowly dried by squeaking fans; in modern factories this step is speeded up by technological means which, however, results in an immature flavour. Here the air is fragrant with the scent of raw tea and a visitor can sense how the leaves are getting ready to meet the pot and the cup.
When the moisture has been brought down to the right level of dryness, the leaves are fed into a roller that crushes them before they are fermented at a specific temperature which is the point when the flavour truly comes out. Finally the tea is dried and that original ton which went into the factory has by now been reduced to 250 kilograms.
Exploring the estates, most of them over a hundred years old, I find it mind-boggling to think how Sri Lanka which had no tea at all 200 years ago completely unexpectedly became the source of some of the world’s best known teas. Among the famous plantations that welcome visitors are Glenloch near Ramboda Water Falls and the Pedro Estate at Nuwara Eliya, and of course Sir Lipton’s estate near Dambatenne. His bungalow is a popular tourist attraction among tea drinkers: during his lifetime, Sir Lipton loved to bring guests over and show off the enormous tea gardens under his ownership, as if he were the king of Sri Lanka.
Lipton didn’t exactly invent tea, but he made his own tea into a globally famous brand, thus converting an ancient beverage into a modern industry. Although tea was first prepared as a health tonic on a muggy day in China in 2737BCE, give or take, it took 4640 years before it became a mass-market product in the west, a transition which happened with the invention of the teabag.
To understand how Sri Lanka fits into the picture, it is best to proceed to the hill town of Kandy, where the island’s first tea bush still can be viewed at the botanical gardens. At the time when it was planted some 150 years back, Ceylon was actually synonymous with coffee. Visiting the Ceylon Tea Museum located at Hantane, in the hills above Kandy, I inspect curious tea making machines such as the ‘Little Giant Tea Roller’ as well as a 75-year-old tea package, which my guide introduces as ‘the world’s oldest packet of tea’ while he pours out mouldy leaves into my cupped hand.
At the museum I learn how the tea industry was started by a lucky chance back in the 1870s and that the man who is credited with it, one James Taylor, lies buried here at the Mahaiyawa Cemetery. He worked at one of the many coffee plantations, the owners of which doubted that tea had any future, but they allowed Taylor to experiment with growing tea bushes. By sheer coincidence, many Sri Lankan coffee plants were attacked by a mortal disease and died en masse a few years later. In less than a decade the evil rot had spread over the entire island killing the coffee industry. By that time Taylor had managed to get his tea bushes to acclimatise and so, to cut a long story short, most of the coffee planters, unless they went bankrupt, switched over to tea. This reminds me of the fact that the island’s old name, Serendip, gave us the English word ‘serendipity’ – which can hardly be a coincidence, can it? Unless Taylor, somehow, figured out a way to poison the coffee plants in order to prove his point. Hmm… Life is full of mysteries to ponder over a nice cup of tea.
Sir Lipton really had nothing to do with introducing tea to the island, but he comes into the picture because after the great coffee collapse many plantations were up for sale and Lipton, a self-made millionaire who at the time owned a chain of 500 grocery shops in Britain, saw an opportunity. He booked a steamer ticket in 1890, alighted secretly at Colombo, and within a week he had bought up as many insolvent coffee estates as he could lay his hands on. After that coup, he began branding Ceylon tea under his own name. Since he controlled the production chain, he easily undercut all the competitors by selling at a third of the normal rate.
Lipton soon became a multimillionaire and tea remains, from then on, the second most popular beverage on earth. Most popular? It’s not coffee, not milk, not even beer, but plain water of course.
The featured banner shows the landscape at Nuwara Eliya