A Journey on the Ceylon Tea TrailSri Lanka — By Julie F on January 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Lost Girl Julie Falconer recently took a trip to Sri Lanka and explored the tea estates in the Hill Country. Read on for a selection of her personal essays of her trip experiences. See Julie’s London travel blog and Sri Lanka travel website for more stories.
Winding up the mountain from the coastal beaches in southern Sri Lanka, the road cut smooth grooves in the hillside. As I journeyed inland through lush greenery, the air cooled and the fog rolled in. I was rapidly approaching the Hill Country, which is famous for the acres and acres of Ceylon tea that is planted on its slopes.
In the late afternoon I arrived at my lodging, Ceylon Tea Trails. There I stayed at the Tientsin Bungalow, one of four that Tea Trails runs in the Hatton area of the Hill Country. The bungalow was high colonial in character, with a handful of guest rooms, a wood-paneled dining room with historic portraits on the walls, a quiet library with a fireplace and comfortable couches, and beautiful gardens, croquet lawns, tennis courts, and pools all around.
The first thing I did when I arrived was sit down for afternoon tea. Along with all of the other elements of the tea service—scones, cakes, sandwiches, and heaping dollops of clotted cream—I was brought a pot of tea. It wasn’t just any tea, though. It was tea that had been gown on the hillside opposite my bungalow, and it made for a pretty unique experience. I couldn’t wait to discover more about Sri Lankan tea.
A Tour for Tea Making
Over the course of the next three days, I had plenty of time to explore the Ceylon tea country. Just outside my bungalow was a working tea plantation. Every morning as I walked through the tea bushes I saw the local workers picking “two leaves and a bud” in what was the first stage of the tea-making process.
On the third day I was able to visit a working tea factory in nearby Norwood. The factory visit included a guided tour with one of the most enthusiastic guides I have ever met. He first explained how tea trees are pruned into waist-high bushes to make it easier for picking the leaves, and then showed us the “two leaves and a bud” while explaining that the leaves needed to undergo an oxidation process in order to become drinkable tea.
The next part of the tour took me inside the tea factory to discover how the oxidation process works. First the leaves are piled into large, shallow trays that sit in front of giant fans on the top floor of the factory building. The fans blow air across the leaves to partially dry them out in a process called withering.
After the leaves have undergone the withering process, they are sifted to remove excess debris that may have been leftover from the picking process. Then they are taken downstairs to the ground floor for the next stage of the process: rolling.
The leaves are gently rolled in large machines before being conveyed over to another set of machinery that cuts them into pieces. After they have been chopped several times and are of a sufficiently small size, the oxidation process is complete. The leaves are then taken to a conveyor belt that sends them through a heated space that is at the perfect temperature to stop the leaves from further oxidizing.
The whole process—from withering to heating—only takes a few hours, such that tea leaves picked in the morning can be turned into tea as we know it by evening.
But there is still one more step in the tea making process. Tea can be sold in a wide variety of forms, from loose-leaf tea that has large particles, to tea in teabags that has smaller particles. Each form of tea has a slightly weaker or stronger flavor, and different parts of the tea-drinking world have different preferences. As such, the tea is taken from the heating stage to be ground into various grades. Each grade has a number attached to it, as well as a name (Orange Pekoe, for example).
After the tea is ground, it is packaged into large bags and sold at auction in Colombo. For the most part, the smaller particled tea is sold to buyers in the Middle East, Russia, and countries that like strong tea, and the larger, particled tea is sold to buyers in the U.K., the U.S., and countries that like weaker tea.
The buyers of the tea are free to scent it (as in the case of Earl Gray and other scented teas), add extra flavors, and otherwise alter the tea as they see fit. Once they have done so, they can package and brand it with their own label before selling it to consumers all over the world.
My tour complete and my stay at Ceylon Tea Trails over, I once again found myself on the winding Hill Country roads. It was sad to leave, but I didn’t go empty-handed. I departed not only with a newfound knowledge of the tea making process, but also with several boxes full of Ceylon tea to serve as a reminder of my stay in Sri Lanka’s tea country.