Tea bushes have been a fixture on the Sri Lankan landscape since 1867 when James Taylor, a canny Scottish planter, realised there were big profits to be made by steering clear of the more usual coffee growing. Coffee bushes produced one crop annually, while tea could be plucked throughout the year. Best of all, tea thrived in the cooler climate of the country’s hilly interior. These days, Sri Lanka tea country covers almost 200,000 ha and the average annual production stands at around 280 million kilograms.
Sri Lanka Tea Country
A popular activity while holidaying in Sri Lanka is to take a train ride up into the highlands past mile upon mile of slopes thickly carpeted in vivid hues of emerald green. Regular services carry passengers from Colombo and Kandy up to Nuwara Eliya, the jumping off point for visiting the Heritance Tea Factory. This former tea factory, now a sympathetically restored heritage hotel, showcases the antique machinery once used here and offers attentive service. It’s a real treat to stay here and the place even offers cleansing tea facials in its on-site spa.
The hotel offers a tea plucking and tasting activity each afternoon where guests can pick their own tea to take home and also learn the difference between different grades of tea. There’s a correct way to make tea, too. As Brits will already know, to achieve the perfect cuppa, the pot must be warmed, the water must be boiling and it must be poured over the leaves immediately. While bags might be dunked briefly, leaf tea should be left for three to five minutes to allow the flavours to develop properly. The jury’s out as to whether the milk or the tea should be poured into the cup first; that’s down to personal preference.
Many of the towns in the highlands still have working factories and most of them do tours. Visitors will see the various stages of production and also watch the manufacturing process. One such factory is Lipton’s, a household name across the world. Sir Thomas Lipton made his fortune here and you can take a tuk-tuk ride or hike up to Lipton’s Seat for far-reaching views across the surrounding countryside. Lipton’s Dambatenne factory dates from 1890 and offers one of the most comprehensive tours in the region. You’ll find it about 11km from Haputale station. Other factories offering tours include the Newburgh Green Tea Factory near Ella owned by Finlay’s and the Pedro Tea Estate which dominates the area around Nuwara Eliya.
It’s easy to spot the tea pickers from the train as it ambles past the steeply sloped hills. Women in brightly coloured saris carry large baskets or canvas sacks via a wide strap across their foreheads. They toil for eight hours in the hot sun – even up here it’s still hot unless the clouds have rolled in – to take home an average salary of just 600 rupees a day (about £3). It’s hard work, and their efforts should be something to remember and appreciate next time you put the kettle on.