It started with a single camellia sinesis plant brought from China in 1824 by the British, who had colonized the island then known as Ceylon in 1801. The plant was to be displayed in the Royal Botanical Gardens outside Kandy; but it has since grown into a $1.5 billion export business for the tiny teardrop island of the Indian Ocean.
Alongside the agricultural production of tea, which accounts for 2.5% of the country’s $60 billion GDP, tea tourism is also emerging as a popular experience for travelers. And it’s not hard to see why. The Sri Lankan people love tea the way I love tea. All day long, and served simply with milk.
In 1867 Scottish coffee planter James Taylor, the man who would become the grandfather of Sri Lanka’s tea industry, planted 19 acres of tea near Kandy at an altitude of around 500 meters. Given that Sri Lanka were a coffee growing nation, few people paid attention to Taylor. Coffee was big money for Sri Lanka, at the time they were the world’s largest coffee producer.
Two years later, the coffee industry was destroyed by coffee rust, or Hemileia vastatrix. Within 10 years, this lethal fungus led to financial ruin for the island’s British coffee planters. Roughly 1,700 left for England, deserting their land and workers; while the remaining 400 or so switched to growing tea.
The East India Company brought Tamil women from Southern India to work as tea pluckers, ushering in the next chapter of human suffering on these lush green acres.
By 1890, the year Thomas Lipton arrived to purchase tea estates, 23,000 tons of tea were exported to London’s tea auctions. Ceylon had become an island synonymous with tea. Ceylon won independence from British rule in 1948 but the tea industry remained a colonial domain. After independence, the government bowed to pressure to implicate a Tea Board with local tea tasters. Six Ceylonese men formed the first Ceylon Tea Board in 1950, and it still stands today as a quality and export control board.
By 1965 the tiny island had become the world’s largest exporter of tea; but the industry itself was still dominated by the British, who exported the tea as raw material and branded it overseas. One of the original members of the Ceylon Tea Board, Merrill J. Fernando began dreaming of packaging and marketing 100% pure Ceylon tea, dispensing with middlemen and keeping more profits for his country, which officially became known as Sri Lanka in 1972. Today, 100% Ceylon tea can be distinguished by its stamp featuring the golden lion from the flag.
But it was a long and bumpy road to get the quality seal. Destructive land reform in the 1970s delayed Fernando’s dream, nearly wiping out Sri Lanka’s tea industry in the process, but in 1988 Fernando founded Dilmah Tea. Today, Dilmah is Sri Lanka’s most recognized international brand.
My Top Five
Dilmah Private Tea Tastings
Sip-and-spit sessions, akin to wine tasting, can be arranged at Dilmah’s headquarters outside Colombo where anyone can learn to distinguish the island’s full-bodied Maskeliya low-grown teas from golden hued high-grown harvests like the Ran Watte single origin variety grown at 1,829 meters.
Euphorium Tea Salon
Japanese-Sri Lankan owner Midori Peiris offers tea appreciation classes and serves bespoke blends like her black-tea based Chloe mixed with dried flower petals, as well as clever tea-based cocktails, Japanese-inspired lunch dishes and pastries.
Ceylon Tea Trails
Some 1,300 meters above sea level among the fertile tea fields of the south central Bogawantalawa Valley, visitors can find four sprawling planters’ bungalows built between 1890 and 1939. They operate as a five-star tea resort with period antiques, Swiss trained butlers and a planter-in-residence — Andrew Taylor, a descendent of Sri Lanka’s tea pioneer, who leads guests through surrounding tea estates. High tea served with premium Dilmah sips like Craighead Estate Ceylon Silver Tips and Rilhena Estate Gently Cinnamon Smoked Ceylon Pekoe.
High Tea at The Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
At 3.30pm sharp, waiters in white livery unveil a bulging buffet of perfectly groomed triangular sandwiches and dainty cakes which get washed down with a vast selection of different teas. Served either out on the lawn or in the semi-open tea lounge, you can choose from over 150 different teas (mostly from the premium Dilmah range) to partake with your dainty sandwiches and cakes.
Though he’s already placed his teas at Colombo’s most popular tourist destinations including Ministry of Crab and Barefoot, the founder of this recently launched upstart makes house (and hotel) calls to introduce the innovative range, which includes Almond Truffle with real white chocolate bits and an Earl Grey concocted with cornflower, bergamot and blood orange.