Today I woke up in paradise. I watched the monkeys play on my private balcony. Or perhaps they were looking for food or a new toy. Our guide cautioned us to keep our doors locked. Drinking my hot black tea, I felt this was the perfect ending to my tea tour in Sri Lanka. Tully’s Coffee and Zhena’s Gypsy Tea organized the trip for the winners of their Expedition Sri Lanka contest and invited me along.
The trip offered the ultimate insiders’ look at Sri Lanka and its tea gardens. Zhena, owner of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, hired a tea expert as our tour guide. Our journey started in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where we toured a Buddhist temple and had tea at a hip cafe. From the beginning, I knew I was in for a spectacular adventure.
From Columbo, we journeyed to the emerald hills of Nurwa Eliya – tea country. Tea bushes blanketed the steep mountains. Our driver expertly navigated the hairpin turns that led to the magnificent Tea Factory Hotel – an actual tea factory converted into a luxury hotel, located 6,000 feet above sea level. A mini-tea factory produced organic teas – both green and black – for the hotel staff and guests. The hotel welcomed us with cups of hot spice tea. A mixture of fresh herbs and tea, it helped settle our stomachs after the long bumpy ride up the mountain. The next day, we attended a private tour of the mini-tea factory.
The factory manager excitedly told us about the manufacturing of black teas. I learned that black tea leaves were categorized by leaf size – Orange Pekoe (OP), Pekoe, Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), Fannings, and Dust. Throughout Sri Lanka, you drink BOP, usually with raw whole milk and raw sugar – a strong cup of tea to start your day.
Most Sri Lankan tea is exported, with Russia having been its Number 1 customer in 2010. In 2010, Sri Lanka exported 1.37 billion dollars worth of tea. Tea exports represent about 15% of country’s GDP. But does the money from tea exports trickle down to the workers?
Zhena showed us a biodynamic tea estate with several fair trade programs. It had rained two weeks straight before our arrival. We traveled on a lovely clear blue day, but several road detours caused delays. Arriving at the garden, we were greeted by a beautiful welcome sign and party. Zhena and the tea estate manager met us with a much-needed pot of tea. They brewed their green and BOP black teas for us and we ate a home-cooked lunch at the tea estate manager’s house. I felt honored to be a guest in his home. Up to this point, I had been eating very spicy hotel buffet food. Thoughtfully, they watered down the spices in their traditional dishes. I enjoyed the mild flavors.
Fuelled by the wonderful lunch, I was ready to tour the factory and taste teas. The multi-level factory was top of the line. Everyone donned lab coats, shoe covers, and hats, and beard covers were provided for the guys who needed them. Entering the factory, the sweet perfume of fresh-picked tea hit us. From pluck to final firing, it takes about 24 hours to manufacture common teas. Designers teas may take longer. The factory was in full effect during our visit. Over the roar of the machines, our guides explained the manufacturing process. We watched women hand craft a black designer tea called black bonnies, which I later tasted. After our tour, I experienced a rare treat.
The factory arranged a cupping of over 30 of their regular and designer teas. I was in tea heaven. The best part was tasting with our tour guide – the tea master. Our tea master had worked with Sri Lankan tea companies in Sri Lanka and Egypt for over 30 years. He told us stories about blending Sri Lankan teas to please the flavor profiles of various international markets. It was fascinating for me to compare my impressions of the cuppings with his. For the most part, we agreed. I asked him how I could develop my palate. He replied, “Taste 300-400 teas a day for three months, then you will begin to develop your palate.” If anyone needs a tea taster, let me know. As with wine, you are supposed to spit after each taste, but I didn’t. The teas were amazing. I learned that different countries demand specific flavors for their markets. Westerners generally enjoy the mild taste of Orange Pekoe black tea.
The estate manager shared with us the agriculture and fair trade programs. There are several schools, medical services, a new retirement facility, housing developments, and other amenities. Each cup reflects the commitment to a quality product and a certain quality of life. All profits go to benefit over 500 workers, for a total of 2,300 people in the community. The tea estate manager commented that since his farm does not use pesticides, the water runoff was cleaner and healthier. Learning about the fair trade program and health benefits, I fully understood the impact of drinking quality tea. The community organized an excellent cultural show with the children performing traditional dances and songs.
The next day, we headed to an eco-hotel called Kandalama. Built deep in the jungle, the hotel offered spacious rooms, an extensive buffet, awesome views, and a natural calm. My room faced a lake, miles of trees, and a temple. Watching the monkey antics added to the exotic setting. Drinking my locally grown BOP tea, taking in the lovely landscape, I was happy I had decided to take this journey to Sri Lanka. My experience deepened my appreciation for tea.