Sitting back with a cuppa, you could hardly be further away from the tea estates and their green oceans which cover the slopes in and around the city of Ratnapura in Sri Lanka. Haveeru's Ali Naafiz goes on a two-day journey to search for some unique blends of pure Sri Lankan Tea.
When I was asked by a friend to join him and his crew on a trip to document the tea plantations in Sri Lanka, I was so excited to see the much-hyped estates for the first time. With just a pair of denims and a couple of t-shirts in my backpack, I hurried to my friend's house in order to leave to Ratnapura. As we rode in the bus to the small town of Nittambuwa, where we were supposed to meet the rest of the crew, I could picture nothing but the amazing scenes of tea estates I have seen in countless documentaries.
The makeshift road to Ratnapura was bumpy to say the least, with lush green seas of tealeaves lined on either side of the road. The early morning mist and frequent showers made it difficult to see through the windows of the van. And yet, the breathtaking view of the tea estates with the famous Adam's Peak visible from behind was a sight that could not be missed.
Located some 100km southeast of capital Colombo, Ratnapura is home to alluvial soils rich in precious gemstones, including sapphires, rubies and moonstones. The 'land of gems' is also the largest tea-growing region in Sri Lanka. Its relative importance has increased since the end in 2009 of the country's 26-year long civil war and the expansion of markets for tea in the Middle East.
'Two leaves and a bud'
Sri Lankan tea, commonly referred to as Ceylon Tea, is known all over the world for its golden colour and rich, intense flavour. This unique characteristic is achieved with the hard work of thousands of female workers who come to the estates early in the morning despite the cold weather.
"We use an approach called 'two leaves and a bud'. An immature bud from the plant is plucked along with its two leaves. We also don't use any machineries to pluck the leaves. That's what makes Ceylon Tea special," Jayasinghe, a senior official from RTS Holdings that owns several tea estates in Ratnapura, said.
Large baskets attached to their backs, the workers pluck every available bud and their leaves from the plant before moving on to the next. And they would not see the same plant for another seven days.
"The leaves are plucked in a seven-day cycle. This ensures that the plants get enough time to grow new leaves. Unlike other countries, the bud and leaves are handpicked which means that the process doesn't cause any harm to the coarse leaves," Jayasinghe explained.
Workers bring the buckets of plucked tealeaves to the muster sheds where they are weighed in and checked for quality. Once the initial quality inspection is complete, the leaves are transported to the factory to be withered using large blowers. Withering removes the moisture from the leaves making it easier to be refined for further manufacturing processes.
"In the next step, we've to cut the withered leaves. This brings out the juices and begins the fermentation process. Fermentation is the most important step," a senior supervisor at the RTS-owned Hidellana Tea Factory said.
Fermentation requires extra care with special equipment installed at the factory to control the humidity, temperature and fermentation time. These conditions have to be well monitored and controlled or the flavour is lost.
"The fermented leaves are then fired to lock in the flavour, to dry it and to improve the quality. We don't add any preservatives or artificial flavouring in the manufacturing process," the supervisor said.
Before the final product is packed and taken to the auction, the fermented tealeaves are classified in order to remove the leaves that do not comply with the stringent quality standards employed by the factory. The final product is graded according to the size and appearance of the leaves.
The next level
Ratnapura also houses the Low-country Regional Centre of the Tea Research Institute (TRI), the institute responsible for enriching Sri Lanka's tea industry through professional research findings. Experts at the centre with knowledge and years of experience in growing tea plants study matters related to agronomy, plant breeding, entomology and processing technology. The findings are disseminated to the planters via publications, workshops and other awareness methods.
Companies also have their own quality-testing methods. RTS Holdings, for instance, has a dedicated 'Tea Testing Room' at its Hidellana Tea Factory where experts conduct routine quality checks. The company's chairman Lalith Liyanage regularly tests the more than 30 varieties of tea produced at the factory, which has a capacity of 25,000kg per day.
Sri Lankan Tea is unique due to its exotic flavour, colour and character that cannot be readily found elsewhere. The humidity, temperature, sunshine and rainfall in the country's central and southern highlands provide the perfect environment for the manufacture of one of the finest blends of tea available anywhere in the world.
Yet for the high quality of the tea manufactured in Sri Lankan tea factories, its most memorable aspect may well be the natural beauty of the tea estates. The calm environment and greenery of the never-ending tea plantations, coupled with spectacular sceneries of the nearby hills, would definitely dazzle a newcomer.
Note: Arshad Najumudeen from Sri Lanka's Independent Television Network (ITN) contributed to this story.