The Greenery of the Tea Plantations in Sri Lanka
The Greenery of the Tea Plantations in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is simply a magical island with a unique charm. Just like the scenic rice fields in Bali, the central highlands of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka are concealed with an evergreen canopy, tea plantations. Of course, tea was a legacy the British left behind but the talk of tea does not end there. Tea is not just one of Sri Lanka’s main commodities but also the lifeline of the nation. In the same way, tea is not just a beverage Sri Lankans consume during a break between meals, to the penniless, it is the ‘food’ when they cannot afford anything else. Besides, not only Sri Lankans, but also foreigners love the authentic flavors of Sri Lankan tea.

Hence, we thought of sharing with you the delight of Sri Lankan tea, through this read. We are sure that you are excited to experience its amusements as well. So, why not? Let us get to know everything about the tea plantations and the tea of Sri Lanka that delights the whole world!

Who Planted Tea in Sri Lanka?

The British brought the first tea plant from China and planted it in the Royal Botanical garden in Peradeniya in 1824. Thus, it became the first non-commercial tea plant in Sri Lanka. The British carried out experimental tea planting on a small scale in 1839 but they did not consider promoting tea as an enterprise. In fact, there was no need to do so, because Sri Lanka produced the finest coffee then. By the 1860s Sri Lanka was on top of coffee exporters.

However, this stride was not to last, as a coffee rust disease wiped out the coffee plantations in less than a decade. Therefore, coffee plantations lost focus, and instead, tea plantations became the focal point of attention during that era. Thus, this marked the start of a wonderful plantation in Sri Lanka, which with no time became an integral part of Sri Lankan agriculture.

Where is the First Tea Plant in Sri Lanka?

As mentioned earlier, the first non-commercial tea plant in Sri Lanka is at the Royal Botanical garden in Peradeniya. Afterward, the first tea plantation in Sri Lanka came up around the Loolecondera estate in Kandy.

In fact, a Scotsman, James Taylor who arrived in Ceylon (Ceylon was the name of Sri Lanka before 1972) in 1852 settled down in Loolecondera estate in Kandy. He planted tea on the margins of his coffee estate in Loolecondera. Soon, surrounding estates Hope, Rockwood, Mooloya too turned into tea plantations. Taylor knew what he was doing, for he had learned the basics of tea cultivation in Assam, India. Thus, it became the first tea plantation in Sri Lanka.

Further, in 1872, Taylor established a fully-facilitated tea factory in Loolecondera estate. By the time coffee was going underway due to the disease, Taylor had already shipped 23lb of tea to the London tea auction. Soon, the British stripped the disease-stricken coffee plantations and started planting tea.

Of course, this was not an easy maneuver, but commendable because the tea grown on the dead coffee fields soon captured the tea market and left its trace for more than two centuries to come. Besides, tea plantations in Sri Lanka required a lot of labor. Yet, this was not an issue for the British, as this island was a colony of the British by then. Moreover, the British could receive additional labor from South India as well.

These South Indian laborers were housed in the estates, adding another mix to multiple ethnicities in Sri Lanka. Hence, there is nothing wrong in mentioning that the tea plantations in Sri Lanka not only made a wonderful addition to Sri Lankan agriculture and the economy but also shaded the Sri Lankan culture with the diversified aspects of South Indian Tamils.

Why Does Sri Lanka Grow Tea?

The highlands of Sri Lanka offer the ideal climatic conditions for tea to grow. As you might already know, the tea crop relies on rainfall, humidity, soil temperature, sunshine hours, and elevation. Mild slopes with moderate rains are excellent for tea cultivation. So, the Sri Lankan Highlands consists of these features. Therefore, they make Sri Lanka an ideal location for tea plantations, and thus, Sri Lanka grows tea successfully, even at the present.

Where is the Largest Tea Plantation in Sri Lanka?

As surprising as it’s going to sound, Sabaragamuwa province houses the largest tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Thus, Sabaragamuwa is not just the land of the gems, it is not only the land that houses Adam’s peak and the earliest human settlements but also the land with the largest wonderful tea plantations.

In fact, Sabaragamuwa tea belongs to the low-grown tea region. A fast-growing bush with a long leaf can be seen here. Moreover, the tea grown in Sabaragamuwa is dark yellow-brown with a reddish hint and comes with a faint scent of sweet caramel. However, the ‘exceptionally stylish’ Sabaragamuwa Tea is more popular in Western Asia, Middle East, CIS nations, and BRICS nations.

Haupe, Carolina estate, Watawala plantations, and Nilagama estate are among the leading tea estates of the Sabaragamuwa tea district. Besides, some of the areas in which these estates are located receive the highest rainfall compared to anywhere on the island.

Where are the Best Tea Plantations in Sri Lanka?

We can identify three major tea-growing regions in Sri Lanka. They are as follows.

  1. Low grown tea – Cultivated in areas where elevation is nearly 600m from the sea level
  2. Mid grown tea – Cultivated in areas with an elevation between 600m to 1200m
  3. High grown tea – Housed in areas where elevation is above 1200m

The changes in climatic and geographical factors affect the chemical composition of the tea leaves. As the agro-climatic conditions vary, the texture, aroma, and taste of the tea change in addition. In fact, high-grown tea has paler tones and mellow flavors whereas low-grown tea has darker tones and astringent flavors. 

Moreover, Sri Lanka has seven main tea districts that come under the above three major tea-growing regions. They are as follows.

  1. Nuwara Eliya
  2. Dimbula
  3. Kandy
  4. Uda Pussellewa
  5. Uva
  6. Sabaragamuwa
  7. Ruhuna

Out of these, Sabaragamuwa and Ruhuna produce low-grown tea, Kandy produces mid-grown tea while Uva, Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, and Uda Pussellewa produce high-grown tea.

The seven tea districts produce tea with taste, texture, and aroma endemic to the region. Besides, the use of the name of the region on the tea brands follows a tight set of guidelines. Therefore, tea that is grown, plucked, processed, manufactured, and packed within the region is only allowed to use the name of the region. The effect of diverse climatic, geographical conditions, and microclimatic conditions inside a region results in a range of characteristics in Ceylon tea.

However, the following sections will provide you a brief description of the tea plantations in each of these tea-growing regions.

Kandy Tea District

The hill capital of Sri Lanka where the maiden commercial tea cultivation was embarked upon, belongs to the mid-grown regions where tea is cultivated on slopes ranging from 600m to 1200m. They are simply “intensely full-bodied” tea with the right amounts of aroma and flavor. Further, Kandyan tea has a bright infusion with coppery tones. Tea plantations are visible on the borders of the district, in Nilambe, Hanthana, Gampola, and Hewaheta. Besides, the Kandyan tea district receives its rainfall from southwestern Monsoons. Accordingly, Kandy owns 71,108 Ha of land with lush tea cultivation which is about 32% of the total tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

Hanthana Estate

Hanthana estate which is 4km away from Kandy was one of the first successful estates to grow tea. The Ceylon Tea Board controls the estate and the estate’s tea factory has been converted to the Ceylon tea museum. The museum is a showcase of the journey of Ceylon tea with its two floors occupied with ancient machinery used in processing tea.

In addition to the Hanthana estate, the Kadugannawa tea estate, located on the way to Kandy from Colombo, Kataboola estate which is one of the most picturesque estates in Sri Lanka, and Imbulpitiya estate are among the noteworthy Kandyan tea estates.

Nuwara Eliya Tea District

The most popular Ceylon tea among connoisseurs and commoners alike is certainly the tea from Nuwara Eliya. In fact, Nuwara Eliya tea is distinct due to its golden hue and fragrant flavor. Further, the delicately fragrant Nuwara Eliya tea is the palest among Ceylon teas.

Moreover, Nuwara Eliya boasts a unique climate with moderate rains, chilly days, and frosty nights. It is more mountainous than any other part of the island and belongs to the highest of high-grown regions.

The history of some of the premier tea factories in Nuwara Eliya runs back more than 100 years. However, a visit to Nuwara Eliya won’t be complete without a walk through the tea trails of Sri Lanka.

Dimbula Tea District

Anyone has the chance to visit the refreshingly mellow tea sprouts in Dimbula, situated between Nuwara Eliya and Horton plains. Owing to the complex topography in the area, a range of microclimates can be experienced in the Dimbula tea district. However, the tea grown here has a golden orange hue, a bit darker than tea grown in its neighbor, Nuwara Eliya, but has a surprisingly mellow flavor.

Dimbula was an unspoiled part of the island before the British colonization and was deserted until tea cultivation began here in the 1870s. Wet and misty hills flatter the scenery. However, the Dimbula tea district comprises the following sub-districts.

  1. Nanu Oya
  2. Maskeliya
  3. Bogawantalawa
  4. Kotagala
  5. Hatton
  6. Dickoya
  7. Maskeliya

In addition, Somerset estate, Great western estate, and Queensbury estate are some of Dimbula tea estates with significance.

Uva Tea District

Uva is the remotest, and the least accessible tea district in Sri Lanka. It has two main parts: Badulla, the hilly area, and Monaragala, the dry part. Yet, tea growing is only visible in Badulla and its subdistricts, including the famous Ella, Haputale, Idalgashinna, and Welimada. Thus, the tea-growing areas in Uva spread in the Southeastern parts of the central hills and receive rains from both Northwest and Southwest monsoons.

The British had not considered growing tea in Uva until the construction of a railway line from Colombo to Badulla. However, ‘exquisitely aromatic’ Uva tea is among the most sought-after Ceylon tea at present. Medium-bodied Uva tea is strong and has darker tones with rosy hues. As Uva’s elevation ranges between 1000m to 1500m, it belongs to the high-grown tea region.

Dambatenne Estate

With a major tourist attraction, Lipton’s seat, and ever-flourishing tea cultivation stretching up to as far as the eye can capture, the Dambatenne estate in Haputale remains a significant attraction. As per the records, the owner of the tea estate was a Scotsman, Thomas Lipton. He persuaded the coffee-loving American nation to drink tea from his own estate, the finest, no doubt. Thus, at the topmost of the estate is a statue of Thomas Lipton with a teacup in his hands probably admiring the breathtaking panorama view.

Besides, Halpewatte tea factory, Madulsima plantations, Caravanella plantations, and Demodara plantations are some tea destinations worth visiting in the Uva tea district.

Uda Pussellewa Tea District

The least popular of Ceylon tea, but not with the least prize is Uda Pusselewa tea. Due to its proximity to Nuwara Eliya, it is often compared with tea from Nuwara Eliya, but the liquor is darker and strong compared to the latter. “Exquisitely tangy” is the expert’s remark on Uda Pussellwa tea.

Located between the tea districts of Kandy and Uva, Uda Pussellewa is the smallest tea district of the seven. It is a less densely populated area, and thus, most of the land is covered with tea. Ragala, Maturara, and Halgranoya are the main sub-districts of the region. Uda Pussellwe belongs to the high-grown region with an altitude ranging from 900m to 1600m. Further, the land with no tea belongs to the Hakgala strict forest reserve. Besides, the Uda Pussellewa receives rain from both Southwest monsoons and Northeast Monsoons and therefore enjoys two quality seasons.

Uda Pussellwa was also a pristine region before tea plantations and even today rare flora and fauna can be encountered. Leopards frequent the forests and are occasionally visible in tea plantations as well.

Ruhuna Tea District

Classified as low-grown tea, Ruhuna tea is grown on the southern end of the central massif. Full-flavored black tea produced in Ruhuna is “distinctively unique” as attested by the connoisseurs. In 1900, tea cultivation began in Ruhuna, much later than other tea districts. The British opened the first tea estates on the outskirts of Sinharaja reserve in the vicinity of the Galle and Matara railways. Galle, Matara, and Deniyaya are the main sub-districts of Ruhuna.

While the tea industry was mainly under the control of the British, the Ruhuna tea industry was the first to come under the Ceylonese planting fraternity. Tea bushes grow rapidly in the low elevation estates of Ruhuna producing a long tea leaf. It’s similar to the neighboring Sabaragamuwa tea but Ruhuna tea has a stronger aroma.

With an elevation below 600m, Devtura estate, Moragolla estate, and New Deniyaya estate are among the leading tea producers of the region. Along with its nearby resident, Sabaragamuwa, Ruhuna tea has distinct claims to a substantive 60% of Ceylon tea production.

Is It Safe to Drink Tea from Sri Lanka?

Of course, yes! In fact, Sri Lankans use minimum pesticides and chemicals in growing tea. Besides, the finest technology in the manufacturing process further enhances the quality of this world’s popular Sri Lankan tea. Hence, we can certainly mention that Sri Lanka provides premium quality tea that comes with the Lion logo. Hence, tea from Sri Lanka is quality assured, and safe to drink.

Further, a tea brand must meet the following features in order to appear with the Lion logo.

  1. The lion logo can only be used on consumer packs of Ceylon Tea.
  2. The pack must contain 100% of pure Ceylon tea. Even packs with 95% of Ceylon tea have no chance to use the Lion logo.
  3. Packaging should be done only in Sri Lanka.
  4. The brands which employ the lion logo must meet the necessary standards. 

The minimum standard applied on Ceylon tea is ISO 3720, followed by ISO 22000 and health and safety regulations stipulated by the European Community. For the first time, Sri Lanka discontinued the use of methyl bromide as a pesticide in tea growing. Accordingly, it became the first tea brand in the world to wear the “ozone-friendly tea” badge. In the same way, Ceylon Tea is rich in antioxidants and contains a small amount of caffeine, and microscopic quantities of minerals such as Magnesium, Manganese, and Cobalt. So, owing to all these reasons, we can promise you quality tea from this splendid island of Sri Lanka!

Value Added Tea from Sri Lanka

Back in the day, Sri Lanka’s share in the tea export market exceeded 20%. However, due to the rising popularity of tea from China, India, and Kenya, the tea export market is highly competitive today. Ceylon tea receives a higher price through value addition. Thus, Sri Lanka exports more than 50% of Sri Lankan tea as value-added tea. Sri Lanka exports only packets of tea instead of bulk tea. The country began the export of tea bags in 1976 and export of green tea in 1982. Green tea, instant tea, flavored tea, bio tea, and organic tea are among the most popular products from Sri Lanka. 

In addition to tea, tea-based products such as soap, shower gel, and shampoo are also in the product index.

Impact of Tea on Sri Lankan Economy

In Sri Lanka, tea cultivation accounts for 65% of agricultural exports revenue while it provides direct and indirect employment for nearly 10% of the population. In addition, tea contributes approximately 2% to the Gross Domestic Product. All these statistics prove that Sri Lankan tea plays an important role in the Sri Lankan economy. However, this fact is not only true at the present, but it was the same in the past as well. In fact, the Sri Lankan economy has benefitted from Sri Lankan tea for more than a century now. Thus, tea plantations in Sri Lanka are indeed great assets that secure the economy of the country, and the lifeline of thousands of innocent Sri Lankans.

The Main Destinations of Sri Lankan Tea

The demand for Sri Lankan tea was first unveiled when one million packets of Ceylon tea were sold at the Chicago World’s fair. Ceylon gained fame in the world as the largest tea exporter for the first time in 1965.

By the end of 2020, Sri Lanka was the 4th largest tea producer in the world next to China, India, and Kenya. Besides, Ceylon tea ended up on the second spot among the largest tea exporters in the world. Among the destinations of Ceylon tea are Russia, Middle East, the African continent, Europe, Japan, and America. Turkey claims the biggest share of Ceylon tea in the export market and Iraq is the second on the line. In 2020, Turkey had imported 14% of Ceylon tea, Iraq 13.7%, and the Russian Federation 10.4%.

Low grown-tea with dark hues and sharp aroma is popular in Western Asian countries and the Middle East including Turkey, UAE, and Cypress. Australia and European countries love the liquor with mild colors between pale and dark produced in Kandy, the mid-growing region. In the same way, high-grown pale teas with sweet fragrances are popular in Japan and Germany.

Colombo Tea Auction

The single largest tea auction in the World, the Colombo tea auction happens every Tuesday and Wednesday except during the New Year and Christmas. The first tea auction took place on 30th July 1883. The tea auctions are the path through which tea reaches the consumer through the buyer. What started as a modest enterprise during the colonial period, now sells approximately 6 million kilos of tea every week.

The Tea Research Institute in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka boasts one of the largest tea research institutes in the World. The British established the tea research institute in 1925 in Nuwara Eliya. The reason behind this establishment was to conduct research and implement new technologies on tea cultivation and processing. Later, they moved the research center to its present location in St Coombs estate in Thalawakele in 1929. Accordingly, the Tea Research Institute published the first tea journal in Sri Lanka in 1928. Branches of the tea research institute later extended to all the following tea-growing regions which comprise the biggest tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

  1. Passara
  2. Kottawa
  3. Kandy
  4. Ratnapura
  5. Deniyaya
  6. Kalutara

The staff consists of qualified scholars in the fields of research, economics, and management. Agronomy, Plant Breeding, Entomology and Technology, and Advisory and Extension are the main divisions of the tea research institute. The tea industry is ever-changing. Therefore the significance of efforts made by the tea research institute in advancements of the tea industry in Sri Lanka is immense.

Sustainability Standards and Certifications on Sri Lankan Tea

Tea plantations in Sri Lanka contribute to the economy of the country on a praise-worthy note. However, the sustainability of industry calls for economic growth and the conservation of the environment, while uplifting the community standards along with economic boon. Ceylon tea cultivators have understood this for a long time and have followed good agricultural practices (GAP) and good manufacturing practices (GMP).

Land degradation due to the frequent use of pesticides, climatic changes caused by deforestation, and global warming are the main issues of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. However, the Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit organization that offers its certification to pro-active users of sustainable agricultural practices, has entered into a partnership with the country’s smallholders and tea estate owners. The whole world recognizes the Rainforest Alliance certification, and this proves that Sri Lankan tea growers follow the standards set by the Sustainable Agricultural Network which recommends and oversees practices for sustainability. In addition to preserving the forest coverage, owners of the tea plantations in Sri Lanka are looking forward to putting front machines operated by solar energy in hope of reducing the carbon footprint as well.

In recent years, attention has been drawn to improve the infrastructure of the workers who are the unsung heroes of Sri Lanka’s tea heritage. Thus, the government of Sri Lanka and a few other organizations have come up with several steps. Some of them are the implementation of sanitation facilities, aiding modernization, and assisting water and electricity supply in order to uplift the lives of laborers.

However, with all these steps and measures, there is a high chance that the cup of tea you had this afternoon is from the most eco-friendly tea-growing nation, Sri Lanka.

The Bottom Line

The greenery of the tea plantations not only adds a unique sense of charm to this magical island but also plays an integral part in the Sri Lankan economy as well. Hence, tea plantations in Sri Lanka, are simply treasures that further enhance the value of this splendid country. However, let us highlight to you again, that no visit to this island would be ever completed without a visit to a tea plantation. Whether you are a tea lover or not, a walk by the mighty tea plants, trying out plucking tea leaves, experiencing the process of the making of ‘Sri Lankan tea’, and finally, tasting the authentic flavors of Sri Lankan tea are sure to amuse you! So, if you are to arrive on this land any sooner, make sure you plan a visit to a tea plantation in this country as well. Happy and Safe Travelling!