Mountains of Tea

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October 6th 2013
Published: October 7th 2013
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Tea bushes with guide Tea bushes with guide Tea bushes with guide

Our lovely guide led us up lots of steep steps for the start of the tour. Here she shows us growing tea bushes and explains how the pickers aim for "two leaves and a bud". Only the very young leaves are made into tea.
Mountains of Tea:

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, I remember learning the song "I'm a little teapot short and stout, here is my handle, here is my spout..." and performing the actions to it. But it clearly didn't make much of an impression on me--I guess it seemed a quaint Alice-in-Wonderland sort of device. The only tea I knew was the Lipton's teabag we put in Mum's cup each night when we set the table.

So when I went to Australia at age 23, I had no idea what to do with loose tea leaves and my new Australian friends were aghast to see me drop some leaves in a cup, pour in hot water and strain the leaves out with my teeth as I drank it. Obviously, I'm not a tea aficionado.

However, I do have a healthy curiosity about things in general and as tea is a big deal here--Sri Lanka is the world's biggest exporter of tea and it factors high in the country's income--I was very interested in going to a tea factory to see what I could see.

Much of the central mountain slopes of Sri Lanka are covered in
Withering the teaWithering the teaWithering the tea

The first step in tea making is to wither the leaves in large open bins.
tea plantations and "Up Country Tea" is prized for its flavour. In fact in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, going to a tea factory is almost de rigueur for visitors.

The start of the tea industry in Sri Lanka's high country is credited to a Scotsman named James Taylor in about 1852. (Not of "Sweet Baby James" fame.) After the plan to grow coffee failed disastrously due to a blight, plantings were switched to tea and it worked.

For the most part this tea is still tended by Indian Tamils, whose families migrated to Sri Lanka as agricultural workers in the mid to late 1800s. It is worth noting that they are a separate group from the Tamils who have lived in the north of Sri Lanka for many centuries.

The tea industry became huge and was eventually nationalized under the socialist government of the 1970s, but it turned out that men of government are not necessarily savvy tea growers, and after great financial losses, the industry was given back to commercial interests in the 1990s.

I found the entire history and process fascinating but I must admit the biggest shock I got was to
Withering framesWithering framesWithering frames

The entire top floor of the 4-story tea factory is given over to withering.
learn that it's the lowly TEA DUST which goes into teabags.

Real tea drinkers don't use bags--they choose tea LEAVES of many varieties and sizes and reputations. And they brew these leaves in TEAPOTS, little or big, fancy or plain, and they knit little sweaters (jumpers) for them called tea cosies, which are very colourful and fanciful, to keep up the temperature in the pot.

There's even a raging debate about whether you take the kettle from the stove to the teapot to pour in the boiling water, or you take the pot to the kettle.

People who know tea live in a world where odd abbreviations are meaningful. For example, BOP stands for Broken Orange Pekoe, which are Orange Pekoe leaves which have not just been rolled but have also been put through another pressure/grinding machine to break them. BOP is said to be best with milk, given its strong flavour.

As for us, Phil will take a teabag any day, and whatever interesting fruit flavour I choose to drink he refers to globally as "hippy tea".

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Tea rolling machineTea rolling machine
Tea rolling machine

The tea leaves are gently rolled in this machine. Later another machine breaks them, but the highest quality teas are only rolled.
Tea sizing?Tea sizing?
Tea sizing?

OK, I'm running a competition here because neither Phil nor I can remember what this machine does. I think it may sort the leaves by size.
Tea drierTea drier
Tea drier

Tea leaves are given a short time to ferment (less than three hours) and they turn brown. (Green tea isn't fermented.) Then this big drying machine comes in to play to dry them thoroughly.
Fuel for tea dryingFuel for tea drying
Fuel for tea drying

According to our guide, all tea drying in Sri Lanka is done by wood-fired heat.
Tea SeparatorTea Separator
Tea Separator

Finally this machine separates the tea leaves from the tea stems. The stems are then used as compost.
Tea types samplerTea types sampler
Tea types sampler

"Two leaves and a bud" is what the pickers go for, seen here on the right. Also on top of the box are a silver tip and a gold tip, the very expensive tea which is made only from the tip of the bud.
Tea timeTea time
Tea time

And after the tour, everyone gets a free cup of tea. Of course, there are lots of boxes you could buy, too. Here our driver of the day enjoys one with us.
Voters line upVoters line up
Voters line up

We also went to the Tea Museum which was also a polling site, as it turned out.
Soldier with AK47 assualt rifle at election siteSoldier with AK47 assualt rifle at election site
Soldier with AK47 assualt rifle at election site

I'd much rather pass Carol with her "How to Vote Greens" cards when I go in to vote.
Flowering tree redFlowering tree red
Flowering tree red

Great flowering tree at the Tea Museum.
Hillsides of teaHillsides of tea
Hillsides of tea

On our drive up to Nuwara Eliya, we saw many hillsides of tea and also tea factories.
MR billboard in Nuwara EliyaMR billboard in Nuwara Eliya
MR billboard in Nuwara Eliya

The day after the election we saw this billboard in Nuwara Eliya. President Mahinda Rajipaksa is on the right. It looks like he just won, but the election was by no means a clean sweep for the government.

7th October 2013

As a lover of a cuppa I was surprised, and thankful to you to discover that tea bags only contain tea dust. I'll try to only drink leaf tea in future. It all sounds very interesting. M xx
7th October 2013

Fantastic stuff
Martha It's rare that I can come up for air these days with an incredibly hectic work schedule, but we love your detailed travel blog entries. And we are living vicariously through your travels. Keep the good stuff coming. Stay healthy and look out for Phil. Don
7th October 2013

I heard the same for Chinese tea. Teabags are low grade, the expensive leaves can cost thousands of dollars. Dilmah is from Sri Lanka and is this factory associated to them? Wonderful experience for tea drinker ;-)
8th October 2013

Martha, I'd love to hear you tell of your experiences as an ESL teacher...
9th October 2013

Thank you for sharing
Hi Martha and Phil What a wonderful journey. So much sadness in our hearts preventing us from enjoying our own country of birth! Anyway I've sort of had a trip too following your blog! I've enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the photos. Not sure if the little blurb on the right side of the page on the History of SL comes with the blog site, but it is a bit hmmmmmmmm. Anyway have a lovely time for the rest of your stay. I am looking forward to you coming back to good old OZ and sharing more of your stories. Ayubowan & Vannakkam Manjula

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