It is a warm Sunday morning on a lakeside 10 km south-east of Colombo. I have just completed my daily ritual of making a perfect cup of Sri Lankan tea. I take it to my desk, which overlooks the lake, and with one eye I am watching migratory birds landing, resting or taking flight.The other eye is watching the computer switching into a global world, many of who are tea drinkers.
I once shared a stainless steel pot of tea with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan..
Friends often ask me what he was like.
He seemed a serious and likable man and he called me over to his table in a small, dirty tea shop to join him for tea. He asked me what I had been doing and I told him that I had been into the mountains of Nuristan with my Afghan Red Crescent colleagues where we were building a clinic, two days walk from the road. I said "women die in child birth because they don't even have basic facilities and now we have trained doctor and nurse." He congratulated us. I didn't know much about this man, but he left an impression on me. Little was I to know his future doings.
Tea is a connector, a healer and a leveler. I am sure God made tea as a ritual and ceremony of peace. I also drank cups of tea with Ahmed Shah Massoud, President Karzai, Indira,Sonya and Priyanka Gandhi, Bill Clinton, Pervez Musharraf, Lakshmi Mittal, Mukesh Ambani, Ed Cotter, Martha Gellhorn and Ed Hillary, to name a few.
Though tea is so important in Sri Lanka today, it will surprise many to learn that the Ceylon tea industry came into being almost by chance. It began in the 1860s when Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then known), was still a British colony. At that time Ceylon was well known for coffee, but a pest attack destroyed the coffee industry and as a result the British were forced to experiment with growing tea. The first tea seeds and young plants were brought to the island from Calcutta in 1839. A Scottish planter, Sir James Taylor is regarded as the father of Ceylon Tea, since he was the first to plant a commercial plot in 1867, in his estate at Loolecondera in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. The first shipment of tea in 1872, consisted of only two small packs containing 23 pounds of tea, a far cry from the amount that is exported today. But that was a small start to something very important.
Initially all the tea manufactured in Ceylon was sent to the London tea market. During the time of British rule, Sri Lanka acted as a raw material supplier for the London auction and value addition, packaging and blending with other teas were done in the United Kingdom. The commencement of tea auctions in Sri Lanka however dates back to 1883 with the first public sale taking place in the office of Sommerville & Co comprising of a mere five lots of tea invoices. Today with 95 percent of an annual production of 300 million kilos sold through the Colombo auction an average of 9,000 lots of separate invoices are processed each week. Incidentally it was in 1959 that a packaged tea shipment was sent directly to Libya from Colombo marking the beginning of Sri Lanka's value addition industry. With packaging of tea and the advent of tea bag machines, export entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka began nurturing brands in the mid 1980s. Thus the value addition rose from strength to strength and today 45 percent of Sri Lankan tea exports is in value added form.
The plucking of the tea leaf in Sri Lanka is done mainly by hand. Using machines in highland areas is hindered due to its sloping terrain and therefore manual plucking is preferred which also ensures the precise selection of tender-most leaves and a bud. Tea pluckers, as they are called, are a common sight in the highland areas where tea plantations are plentiful. The tender terminal shoots are plucked and thrown into large baskets slung behind their shoulders. A practised tea plucker can pick around 25 kilograms of fresh leaves a day. In low lying areas pluckers may also use a shear or scissor to cut the leaves. Visitors who are interested in the tea production process and the history of Ceylon Tea can visit the Tea Museum in Hantane, Kandy for a glimpse into the past where one may find some of the pioneering machinery on display.
A Healthful Brew
Discovered 5000 years ago by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, tea was originally consumed for its medicinal properties. In the present day with an increasingly health conscious society, the health benefits of tea have been brought to light once more. Here are just a few of many benefits:
Antioxidants, a term widely associated with maintaining good health, are in abundance in tea. Known to stave off harmful molecules they are present both in black and green tea in quantities greater than in fruits and vegetables.
Tea possesses a unique compound (Theanine), which has a relaxing effect making it a stress reliever and additionally boosts the immune system response to infection.
Tea is a good source of fluoride which translates to good oral health. Incidentally four to five cups provide 50percent of daily fluoride requirement protecting teeth from decay, in addition to inhibiting the growth of harmful microorganisms.
The moderate caffeine content in up to five cups of tea can increase concentration and in turn performance while devoid of any harmful effects.
One of the most interesting discoveries made by the early tea planters in Ceylon, was the effect of diverse climates on tea production. This resulted in the production of a range of teas, which are unique to each agro climatic area. Seven agro climatic regions exist in Sri Lanka. Four of the regions produce high grown teas at an elevation of about 4000 feet above sea level, in the areas of Nuwara Eliya, Uva, Dimbula and Udapussallawa. Mid grown teas, the medium range, are grown at elevations of between 2000 feet to 4000 feet above sea level in the areas of Kandy. Low grown teas are grown at elevations of 2000 feet in the agro climatic regions of Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa. In total Sri Lanka grows approximately 222,000 hectares of tea with 60 percent of it low grown. Interestingly, the majority of tea produced in Sri Lanka is of a particular type called Orthodox tea (the other being CTC tea - Crush, Tear and Curl) - a manufacturing process where big leaf particles result. In this respect Sri Lanka finds its specialty and incidentally is the market leader for Orthodox tea.
The tea produced in those seven regions each have unique characteristics. The colour, flavour, aroma and strength of the tea all vary from region to region. As a result the Sri Lankan tea industry holds a unique position of being able to cater to the tastes of different markets; this is one reason for its success. Thereby Ceylon Tea is exported worldwide, with the Russian Federation being the largest market, followed by Iran, Syria and Iraq. As an exporter of tea, Sri Lanka is second in the world, after Kenya and also has the distinction of being the largest revenue earner for tea, compared to any other producer country.
With the success of the industry stringent quality measures have been adopted where sampling is carried out even at the supermarket shelves overseas and certified with the Lion Logo - the trademark of the Sri Lankan Tea Board. Ceylon Tea also has the distinction of being 'ozone friendly'. The chemical methyl bromide often used in the tea industry has an ozone depleting effect. However the Sri Lankan Tea Research Institute discovered alternative methods and eliminated its use. As a result the Sri Lankan tea industry was granted ozone friendly status in 2007.
The story of Ceylon Tea is a fascinating one; it is an industry that started by chance and flourished to the extent where it now supplies the world and provides employment to thousands. So the next time you prepare to take your 'tea break', take a moment to reflect on the long journey that went into making that 'simple' cup of tea, and the far away country from which it came.
The Tea Market and Russia
I have collected Samovars over the years and tea, Russia and Samovars are connected.
Hot teas are a popular beverage among Russians and its consumption takes a seasonal character with maximum demand in the winter months. While Sri Lanka was the market leader during the year 2009, Russia continues to be the single largest consumer of Ceylon tea, that is 15 percent of the total exports to the world. Russia also shows preference to low grown teas due to its higher strength and thus black tea maintains the leading position in the market.
Two of my favourite Samovars are a beautiful brass one with the Royal Seal of the Czar and Czarina of Russia and dated 1895 (below in front of me on the right) and a home-made silver one I found in a bazaar in Afghanistan (in front of Satya Tripathi) on the left below).
You can observe that tea is an important ritual in my life and over a pot or two, I can ramble, rove and roam for hours.
Thanks to Chiranthi Rajapakse and Prasadini Nanayakkara permission to quote from some of their writings in this article.