Tea 101: Origins – Sri Lanka
A Brief History of Ceylon Tea
Formerly known as Ceylon, the island country of Sri Lanka launched its tea production in 1867 in response to English demand.
Scotsman James Taylor was the pioneer responsible for the Ceylon tea industry. After arriving on the island in 1852 at the age of 17, he was entrusted with the Loolecondera estate in the hills of Kandy that was being primed for coffee production.
When his employers began considering tea production, however, Taylor was charged with initial, experimental plantings, and sewed 19 acres of tea seeds at the estate at an altitude of 500 meters. Some of the resulting tea bushes continue to produce tea to this day.
Tea became one of Ceylon’s predominant crops after a coffee leaf rust blight eradicated the island’s coffee plantations, paving the way for tea to quickly replace coffee as the number one crop.
Black tea was typically farmed, implementing India’s Assamica varietals, though over the years Sri Lankan production would grow to include white and green teas, as well.
Sri Lankan Teas at a Glance
Despite its relatively small size, Sri Lanka boasts a tea production that rivals China.
The island’s climate and topography yield three different kinds of tea – low, medium, and high-grown. Known as Ceylons, each has its own unique flavor. High-grown teas produced at 4,000-6,000 feet are distinctively sweet and woodsy, giving Sri Lankan teas their exceptional reputation.
Ideal conditions for tea growing in Sri Lanka include:
• Acidic soil
• A minimum of 127cm rainfall
• A temperature of 11° C
Sri Lanka has two distinct spring seasons, facilitating almost year-round production. Because of such specific weather conditions, Ceylon gardens can produce up to 30 times the tea as their Chinese and Japanese brethren.
Ceylon tea is grown in several different regions throughout Sri Lanka:
• Dimbulla: High-grown teas are produced here at elevations of approximately 5,000-6,000 feet above sea level.
• Kandy: The birthplace of Sri Lankan teas, Kandy plantations produce mid-grown teas at 2,000-4,000 feet above sea level. These full-bodied teas are known for their bright infusion and coppery tone.
• Nuwara Eliya: At 6,000 ft above sea level, Nuwara Eliya’s high altitudes and low temperatures yield slow-growing teas with an orange hue. When infused, the tea is the palest of all Ceylon teas – subtly golden and delicate.
• Uva: Located on the eastern slopes of Sri Lanka, these plantations produce mid-grown teas with a unique mellow smoothness that is renowned throughout the world.
• Ruhuna: Tea bushes grow rapidly in Ruhuna, which is located near sea level on the South Western Coast of Sri Lanka. The region produces a diverse selection of tea leaf styles.
• Uda Pussellawa: Located at 5,000–6,000 feet above sea level, Uda Pussellawa borders Nuwara Eliya, and enjoys two quality tea-producing seasons. Peak dry and cold conditions yield a medium-bodied tea with a subtle flavor, while periods of heavy rainfall result in stronger, darker teas.