Coffee or tea, which would you prefer? About a month ago, before I travelled through Sri Lanka for three weeks, my answer would have always been: coffee. Since then my black pick-me-up has to share my attention. At least once a day I prepare myself a lovely cup of black Ceylon Tea and all its tasty variations. Because tea isn’t just tea. But between you and me: What is tea in the first place? Where does it come from? How is it produced? What do you need to consider before buying tea?
I found the answers to all my questions – where else – in Sri Lanka, the land of tea.
How Sri Lanka became a land of tea
Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, is not even as big as Bavaria and it feels as if it almost completely consists out of tea plants. Well, not completely, but still: Despite its size, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most important tea export nations and – alongside with China, India and Kenya – one of the five biggest tea producers in the world.
The central highlands are divided into seven tea growing areas all lining up around the famous Adam’s Peak where they mostly produce black tea. And in January we explored the highland’s tea plantations by tuktuk, by food or on one of Sri Lankas gently chugging trains. Especially the areas around the Dambatenne and Halpe tea factories.
In Halpe we were lucky to get to know Mister Siva. He is so full of passion and knowledge about tea and his tour around the factory became a great experience. I have never in my life seen someone speak so proud and passionately about tea – starting by the first tea seeds that got to Sri Lanka and ending with the perfect preparation of a BOPSP tea. But lets start at the beginning.
The history of tea in Sri Lanka is, compared to the honorable China, pretty short. It started around the second half of the 19th century, when the first seeds were imported onto the small tear-shaped island.
Tea for everyone!
At first, tea was almost exclusively used as a medical product and its (expensive) consumption was reserved for the upper class only. Thomas Lipton (exactly, THIS Lipton!) wanted to end this state with his vision of »tea for everyone!«. He bought a couple of tea plantations, annulled the intermediary trade and could now sell affordable tea »from the teagardens straight to the teapot«. Now finally anyone, no matter what social class they’re in, could afford the joy of a cup of tea.
But he didn’t choose Sri Lanka by chance. Climate, temperature, rainfall and the compound of the soil are perfect for growing tea. Even the use of any artificial irrigation system can be relinquished. No wonder there are more than 700 tea factories on the island. Most of them were built 150 years ago. They were imported from Great Britain as so called »ready mades« and just assembled on-site.
The tea growing areas divide up into three regions, that lead to a different quality and taste of tea. The premium, »high-grown«, tea is grown in the area around Nuwara Eliya and can be harvested all year round. »Mid-« and »low-grown« teas are harvested in lower altitudes. By the way, how climate conditions affect tea, how one can improve its taste and adapt it to different biases, is examined in Sri Lankas very own Tea Research Institute.
What Ceylon Tea is actually made of
When you buy loose tea in Germany, you’ll usually find a bunch of small brownies-black, dry and wrinkled parts of plants. Mister Siva, who introduced us to the secrets of great tea at the Halpe tea factory, can see much more in these tiny parts of leaves. And he can tell you exactly which bits and pieces will fit your nationaltypical preferences in a good cup of tea. These preferences can be described by four characteristics.
The 4 characteristics of Ceylon Tea
The taste and quality of a tea is mainly influenced by the youngest, smallest leavies of a tea shrub. The so called »tip«, »topleaf« or »1st leaf«. It contains the highest concentration of antioxidants and is the most expensive part of a tea blend by gram. The »2nd« and »3rd« leaf determine first and foremost the quality and strength of a blend. The percentage of stems however determines its colour after the infusion with hot water.
All parts – 1st, 2nd and 3nd leaves and stems – will be mixed together to the likings of different biases. That’s how you’ll get a milder tea in Germany, with a lot of Top an 2nd leaves, and a strong tea in Colombia with a high percentage of 3rd leaves and dark-colouring stems. A little rule of thumb: the smaller and younger a leaf is, the higher is its price per gram.
The most important steps to produce good quality tea
Every seven days the leaves of a single tea plant can be harvested by the tea pluckers and collected in huge bags that are brought back to the factory for weighing.
Afterwards, the harvested parts are put into a huge tea dryer machine. Without any additional heat supply they will lose up to 43-45% of their water content. 1500kg of freshly picked leaves will end up no more than 800kg. This gentle dehydration at a maximum of 30°C obtains all flavorful components, like polyphenols, which would otherwise react.
3. Breaking the cell structure
Imagine you’re holding a leaf between your flat hands and rub it in circling movements in between. This is approximately what happens at the first real machine that gets a hold of our picked tea. During the next 30 minutes it will only roll the most tender leaves, which are mostly responsible for taste and quality of the tea. Thereafter those broken leaves will be spread for 30 minutes to 3 hours to ferment.
4. Stopping fermentation through heat
Since the fermentation of the leaves would go on and on and would change the taste of the tea, the leaves will now be heated at 95°C for about 20 minutes. Hereby they evolve their typical black colour.
All the different parts are now sorted and sifted by size and colour and filled into big bags. These bags go straight to the central tea market in Colombo, where they are bought by dealers and mixed for their individual target group. Only now will the tea be mixed with additional ingredients or flavourings.
PEKOE, BOPSP, OP – How can I find the right tea for my personal preferences?
I admit it, the descriptions of all the different kinds of teas can be pretty confusing. One time they refer to the processed parts of the plants they used, the next time they refer to the coarseness setting. In any case it’s best to do a little tea tasting, where you can try a couple of different teas in a row and decide, which blend or blends suit you the most.
Mister Siva himself recommends a strong tea, like BOPSP, with a tiny bit of milk in the morning to get you going. In the afternoon you should switch to a milder blend like OP and in the evening you’ll best get along with a gentle PEKOE. I, personally, prefer PEKOE all day, every day. Typically German.
Dear Mister Siva,
thank you so very much for your wonderful, passionate and inspiring tour through the Halpe tea factory. Please keep that passion und your capability to spark enthusiasm in people. And to everyone who is going to visit Sri Lanka I can only recommend doing a tour through the tea factory with Mister Siva.
For now I will make myself a pot of finest Ceylon Tea, sit back in my armchair and revel in memories about my journey through Sri Lanka. I really hope, I was able to let you be a part of my tea experience and I’m looking forward to your messages and comments.
Enjoy life and a good cup of tea,