Tea. It’s the hot drink we’ve all grown to know and love and, with over 3,000 varieties, it’s also one of the most consumed beverages in world.
Tea has become an important part of life for many families across the world. Regardless if you take it strong, milky, with or without sugar, warm or piping hot, when it comes to tea, it’s personal. We know this at Jellybean from our work over years on Twinings, Jackson of Piccadilly and Yorkshire Tea.
There is an extensive amount of research backing up the health benefits behind tea; it contains antioxidants, helps to boost your immune system and has even been known to help prolong life for people with certain health conditions. As a devotee of the ‘good old cuppa’ myself, it seemed only right to visit a tea plantation on a recently holiday to Sri Lanka.
The process behind tea making comes from years of heritage, after the tea plant was brought (smuggled) by the British from China and it was planted in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, formally known as Ceylon (its British colonial name) changed its title after gaining independence in 1948, however, ‘Ceylon Tea’ has continued to carry the name and is now the traditional tea enjoyed in Sri Lanka, with no visit complete without trying it!
On a tour around the island we visited Handunugoda Tea Estate, a family-owned plantation within the Southern Province of the country. Their flagship product is the ‘Virgin White Tea’ alongside a list of various other teas, these are divided into four basic categories:
• Black Tea
• Green Tea
• Oolong Tea
• White Tea
Step 1: Plucking of the leaves
Handunugoda is focused on creating the finest quality teas and staying true to the traditional method; firstly we were shown the tea plants, a picturesque maze of lush green fields. Fresh tea leaves are plucked by hand usually every 5–7 days. This is a more expensive way to harvest the tea, but essential for maintaining the quality.
Our guide also explained to us the importance of the ‘The Virgin White Tea’ plant, traditionally the most delicate of all the varieties. The tea is made from the buds which are completely untouched by human hand before the picking process begins. This tea is renowned for its subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness.
After a short walk we arrived at the tea house and were given a complimentary taste of ‘Sapphire Oolong Tea’ (with cake of course); this is a special tea that is produced on the estate and is not available anywhere else in the world. It is a brilliantly blended loose leaf tea which has to be manufactured at dawn to preserve its flavour.
Step 2: Sorting & withering
The tour continued and next we were shown the sorting of the leaves. After all the leaves have been picked, they are sorted by hand to make sure no twigs, dirt or stones have made it through the picking process. In large trays the leaves are evenly spread out to begin the ‘withering’, where warm air is blown over the leaves for close to 18 hours to reduce the moisture, leaving them soft and flexible.
Step 3: Rolling
Next, a step which has to be performed early in the morning to ensure the correct temperature, a rolling machine that is often well over 100 years old is used to twist the withered leaves and kick-start the oxidization process. It’s an art the Sri Lankans have perfected throughout the years; this is an important step, where the flavour of the tea is brought out and the aroma develops.
Step 4: Fermentation
As soon as the rolling of the leaves, which are now brown in colour, is complete, they are fermented to make the tea more palatable.
Step 5: Sifting and Grading
A clever part in the process, the sifting of the leaves is done mechanically, sorting the tea according to the size and shape of the partials. This eliminates unwanted pieces that have slipped through during any of the previous stages. They are divided by ‘Leaf’ and ‘Broken’ grades. Large and long particles produce a lighter liquor, whereas the smaller ones create a much darker and stronger taste.
Step 6: Packing
Finally the tea is packed and shipped all around the world to be consumed by people like us!
We were privileged to be shown a process that has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans over the years, and will continue to for many more to come. Impressive stuff, huh? I hope this was as educational for you as it was for me. If you find yourself exploring the world of Sri Lanka, be sure to check one of the tea plantations and next time you take a sip of your brew, just think of the journey it’s already been on before it reached you.
Sri Lanka is bursting with life and culture, with lots to discover, I learnt so much about this tea drinking, curry loving nation and how hard they work as an essential part of their daily lives.
P.S – The street cows are real.
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