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A trip to Sri Lanka

Back in February, I was lucky enough to head out to Sri Lanka - a country known for its breathtaking landscapes, delicious food and, of course, for its tea. It would be easy to assume that India is where we do the lion’s share of our tea buying, with Assam in particular playing an important role in our breakfast blends. But in actual fact the region we purchase the most tea from every year, in tonnes, is Sri Lanka. Ceylon, as the tea from this region is still known, is an important component of our breakfast teas, bringing a brightness to the blends, and it is also the single-origin base of our ever-popular Earl Grey. Though I already knew the country well, my trip this time was to visit producers in a number of the different growing regions, get a better sense of any challenges they are currently facing, and finally to understand where the producers, and indeed the wider country, are from a sustainability perspective. I had 10 days, and a lot of ground to cover…

A short history of Ceylon tea

This small island off the southeastern tip of India is the 4th largest tea producer in the world. This is made more impressive by the fact that until the late 19th century, Sri Lanka had little or no tea farming at all. The land instead was dedicated to the production of coffee, until plantations were wiped out by devastating disease in 1870. It is thanks to enterprising British planter, James Taylor, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time, that the island’s tea industry exists at all. Following the blight of the country’s coffee trade, Taylor saw the fledgling tea industry in neighbouring India and decided he’d try his luck at growing tea too, with the first of his imported seedlings planted in 1867. His experiment paid off, the tea plants flourished, and the now trademarked Ceylon tea was born. Ceylon tea soon became synonymous with quality and tradition, gaining global recognition for its distinctive taste and high standards.

The many flavours of Ceylon tea

The most interesting aspect of Sri Lanka as a growing region is the island’s microclimates - most notably its differing elevations, with tea growing from sea level all the way up to altitudes of over 8000 ft. Low grown teas are characterised by thick wiry leaves, smokey flavours and strong, dark liquors. High grown teas, meanwhile, generally considered to be the crown jewel in Sri Lanka’s production, are aromatic, floral, crisp and fresh. Us Brits, long-term enthusiastic consumers of Ceylon black teas, have found our happy place somewhere in between, choosing the medium-bodied, brisk and citrussy teas produced in the mid-high regions of Uva and Dimbula in particular. My trip took me all over, but it is from these latter regions that we select our Ceylon teas.

Although a greater focus on speciality in recent years has led artisan tea makers to start making teas of all types, the bulk of tea produced here is orthodox black tea, with its humid, tropical climate meaning the leaves can be harvested almost all year round. Buying this tea in Sri Lanka involves a well-established auction system in Colombo, where, rigorously regulated by the Ceylon Tea Board, large quantities of tea are traded, more often than not via brokers, with international buyers. This age-old system impressively moved, almost overnight, from a bustling auction room to a purely digital affair during Covid, but there is an ongoing debate over whether the process is a good thing for the industry. Affected as it is by wider supply and demand dynamics, there can be significant price fluctuations, which is challenging for small-scale farmers in particular, who depend on consistent income for their livelihoods. On the other hand it provides a structured and efficient sales platform where producers can connect with a wide range of buyers from around the world. The competitive bidding system can also help producers get a sense of the market value of their tea, so they can see the results first hand of investing in quality. Everyone I spoke to had a differing opinion on the matter, but for the moment, there is no doubt that the auction remains a central part of the industry there.



Challenges in Sri Lanka

Almost all tea-growing regions have felt the impact of changing weather patterns due to climate change - erratic rainfall, increased temperatures and extreme weather events all adversely affecting both quality and yield - and most of them too are feeling the pressure of labour shortages due to the migration of workers to more lucrative sectors. Sri Lanka, however, has had a number of other big challenges to face alongside. They’ve experienced severe financial crisis marked by high inflation and debt, political instability leading to disruptions in governance, and a particularly challenging moment when, in 2021, the Sri Lankan government implemented, almost overnight, a controversial ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides that led to significant drops in yields. The ban was later reversed, but the impact exacerbated the already high competition between Sri Lanka and other tea-growing regions like Kenya, India and China, where production costs are lower.

"This particular tea-growing country - which has traditionally relied on its reputation for quality - has had a tough time, and the future of the industry there, on which millions of people there depend, will rely on its ability to adapt, evolve and embrace change."

In short, this particular tea-growing country - which has traditionally relied on its reputation for quality - has had a tough time, and the future of the industry there, on which millions of people there depend, will rely on its ability to adapt, evolve and embrace change. One response to this is the Ceylon Artisans Tea Association (CATA), which was recently established to support small-scale producers and promote high-quality, artisanal teas. Estates like Amba Tea Estate (which you’ll see I visited on this trip) exemplify this movement, focusing on sustainable farming practices and producing hand-crafted teas with unique profiles that are now much sought after across the world. CATA encourages innovation and quality over quantity, and in doing so hopes to help Sri Lanka’s tea industry adapt to modern demands, while preserving its rich heritage.

I covered a lot of ground in those 10 days, but despite the macro-economic backdrop that had affected every household there personally, I was met on every occasion with the same warm hospitality and smiles that Sri Lankans are known for. Though varying qualities of traditional black tea was still the majority of what was being produced, tasted and discussed on my visits, I also met people working hard to drive positive change. From the team at the aforementioned Amba to Rosh and Mike at Devagiri, who are working tirelessly to both improve the quality of the tea from, as well as the farming practices and community engagement around, their grandfather’s tea factory. My overall feeling from the trip was that Sri Lanka’s tea industry was in a time of reflection - on the status quo, on what its particular strengths are for a changing global demand, and on where the future of Ceylon tea will lie…

From our side we hope to play our small part in supporting the region, first by continuing to purchase fantastic quality, orthodox teas from suppliers who align with our values; by sharing with our customers the wonderfully diverse flavour profiles that this small island’s unique terroir can offer, and finally by championing and showcasing the efforts of those working to drive the Sri Lankan tea industry towards a more sustainable future.

Keep your eyes on our Guest Tea programme for some of the delicious teas we came home with…👀

- Emilie (Founder)

A snapshot of Emilie's trip

A snapshot of my Sri Lanka trip by Emilie



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