First in a series on the teas of Sri Lanka.

Small, green and fertile, Sri Lanka is about the size of the Republic of Ireland and over half a million of its acres grow tea, which is the very juice and sap of its economy.  This acreage makes Sri Lanka the world’s third largest tea producer and some years its foremost tea exporter.  Colombo is the largest of the world’s tea auctions.  When Sri Lanka reverted to its original Sinhalese name in 1972, it was decided to retain Ceylon as the name of its most famous product.  Almost all the tea produced is black, and much of this is superb.

The differences among Indian teas from Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri are more striking and easier to detect than the differences amongst the various Ceylon teas.  These are broadly classified as Low-grown (up to two thousand feet), Mid-grown (two thousand to four thousand feet), and High-grown (above four thousand).  The five tea-producing districts are concentrated in the central highlands and southern inland parts of the island.  Apart from strictly limited amounts of an extraordinary silver-tip tea, tea from the steamy low country tends to be quick-growing, lush and sometimes course, while that from the cooler uplands is the exact opposite.

The smallest and northernmost tea district is Kandy, surrounding the ancient capital.  These are Mid-grown teas of great strength on account of relatively low rainfall.  At the southernmost part of the island is the Rhuna district, also famous for its cinnamon, sapphires and rubies.  Low-grown Rhuna teas are much sought after by Middle Easterners, at prices often exceeding High-grown teas from elsewhere.  Rhuna is characteristically strong and thick-liquoring.

The classic Ceylon teas, however, come from a great sweep of mountain country, planted almost solid, which stretches from Rhuna northeast over the central massif which form Sri Lanka’s backbone.  Ceylon’s reputation for quality rests on the 40 percent of her production from these airy mountainsides, teas with mild and pleasant liquors which are unusually fragrant.  Like all tropical teas, Ceylon is produced year-round.  Unlike the Low- and Mid-grown, however, the quality of High-grown Ceylon varies with the weather.  When and wherever it’s raining, the tea grows like crazy but loses its distinctiveness.  The best teas are those made in the dry months preceding the monsoons.

The famed seasonal monsoons (from mausam, the Arabic word for season) in antiquity allowed Sri Lanka to trade with ancient Alexandria in the West and Indonesia and even China to the East, because her mariners’ voyages were timed to coincide with favorable winds.  Obviously, monsoons blow from alternate directions across the Indian Ocean and both major storm systems affect Sri Lanka, sitting off the tip of India.  In May, moisture-laden winds blow from the southwest and drench the southwestern corner of the island with over 100 inches of rainfall, making it one of the wettest spots in Asia.  As it ascends the central massif the Southwest Monsoon produces thick cloud cover and outbursts of heavy rain, while the opposite slope remains dry.  These central mountains, punctuated by Adam’s Peak and Mt. Pidurutalagala (for “Pedro”) which rise to eight thousand feet, shield alternate sides of the massif from the effects of each monsoon.  Sri Lanka enjoys a split climate, therefore, since the eastern side of the island facing Malaysia which is shielded from the southwest winds comes in for a drenching six months afterwards.  This is the result of the Northeast Monsoon blowing out of Siberia and Tibet, which soddens northeastern Sri Lanka from October through December but leaves the other side of the island dry.  In the high tea country, it is a common experience to enter a railway tunnel in mist and rain and a few minutes later emerge into brilliant sunshine on the opposite side of the divide.  The effect on the tea is dramatic.

Read next: Dimbulla

Photo “Sri Lanka – 028” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer McKay Savage and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “Ceylon Tea” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Drew Maust and is being posted unaltered (source)