Having Their Tea and Drinking It Too? The State of Tea in Sri Lanka

Yesterday evening, the colors down our street were spectacular.

You know exactly what that sentence means if you are a Michigander, when October brings breathtaking maple leaves saturated in vibrant gold, brassy orange and crimson, rich maroon. And you know that it is time for cider—the dark unfiltered unpasteurized stuff, with its flavor spectrum determined by this year’s apples that were in turn determined by this year’s weather conditions. I wait all year for the autumn cider.

And the best can be found only in an apple-producing state such as ours, where you get it right from the presses.

Which brings me to thinking about the other beverages that I love, and the areas that produce them. When I visited a region that grew coffee, it seemed that everyone there promoted and drank their own country’s coffee.

So although I have not had the opportunity to travel to a tea-growing area, I would’ve thought it would be the same there, especially in those places that produce amazing tea. But as I savor some Michigan cider,  I  think about the fact that Sri Lankans—who produce some of the finest teas globally—do not drink all that much of their own tea!

Recently, the World Tea News reported that because Sri Lanka exports most of their tea, the country’s Tea Board plans to set up tea shops to encourage Sri Lankans to drink tea.

Wow. They need to encourage people to drink the amazing tea that they produce?? Why is this?

An Appallingly Brief History

In the 1800s, this lovely island—deemed the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”—was a coffee-producing country whose estates were largely owned by the British, who called the country Ceylon (a transliteration of the Dutch name, Ceilao; the Dutch preceded the Brits, growing cinnamon on the island). While the coffee industry spurred development in the country, profits were sometimes elusive. In the early 1860s, due to a coffee glut according to one source, the Planters Association of Ceylon did some research. Although tea was already being grown on the island, it wasn’t being produced commercially, so the Association sent a coffee planter to Assam in India, where the tea industry was thriving.

The advice? Grow upland, high-quality tea using seeds and plants from Assam.

James Taylor (not the singer-songwriter) Enters In

So in 1867, James Taylor, himself a transplant (from Scotland) who eventually became known as the father of Ceylon tea, put in twenty acres of tea from seed acquired from the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. The plants readily took to their environment and flourished, and Taylor—with both help from a tea planter in Assam and a whole lot of practice and experimentation—learned how to turn the tea leaves into a high-quality finished product and was soon producing tea comparable to that of Assam.

It seems today a bold move because in 1877, nearly all (94%) of Ceylon’s cultivated land was still planted in coffee—but it was also an incredibly prescient decision as coffee rust ended up obliterating that industry in the early 1880s.

The Stars Align

So . . . coffee plants were dead, tea plants liked the environment, European tea consumption was on the rise (per capita consumption in England increased from 1.22 lb/person in 1820 to 6 lb/person in 1900)—and understandably, growers quickly turned to tea. Those who had suffered total loss in coffee at first had trouble in affording the more costly tea plants. Filling that need, an enterprising coffee grower began growing tea plants within the country and selling seed to Ceylon planters.

By 1895, tea covered 305,000 acres!

Another Reason Why It Worked

The country was well suited for tea. Unlike in areas such as Assam, with a seasonal harvest, tea in Ceylon could be harvested year-round. And its mountainous terrain resulted in a range of teas with unique qualities:

(1) low-grown tea (under 2000 feet in altitude), strong and usually drunk with milk;

(2) mid-grown tea (2000–4000 feet), with a rich flavor; and

(3) high-grown tea (above 4000 feet), the premium teas.

One example of the latter is Nuwara Eliya, a small planting area that is 6° north of the equator but over 6000 feet in altitude. Over the years, growers in this area have manipulated the plants to produce a tea with distinct properties.

And of course there was Thomas Lipton, who aggressively and very effectively advertised Ceylon tea. 

But skipping ahead, . . .

An Even Briefer History

. . . after a long span of colonialism, in 1948, Ceylon became independent, changing its name to Sri Lanka in 1972 when it became a republic. This tiny country has had a tumultuous history, in part due to its complicated tea industry, and only recently has found some measure of peace.

So What’s the Problem Today?

Currently, the tea industry is the country’s largest employer. Globally, Sri Lanka is the third-largest tea exporter, supplying 19% of the world’s tea—which is pretty amazing for such a tiny country. Really amazing, actually, considering that my home state of Michigan is nearly four times larger than the entire country of Sri Lanka (or, to think of it another way, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula alone is around two-thirds the size of Sri Lanka)!

Ceylon has been designated an “ozone friendly tea” and was given the Montreal Protocol implementer’s award. Back in 2007, Malbroc Teas rolled out “ethical” Ceylon teas with packaging that includes information on the United Nations Global Compact, whose mission is: “A call to companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, and take actions that advance societal goals.”

So Why Aren’t Sri Lankans Drinking the Wonderful Tea that They Produce?

According to the World Tea News article, the per capita tea consumption is only 1 lb/person, which is less than that in England in 1820 (while currently, tea drinkers in Turkey consume 16.6 lb/person)!

So several things factor in here. The industry is not growing at the moment, and exports are actually decreasing. Plus, the best teas are saved for Turkey and Russia. With higher demand in the Middle East, where the stronger low-grown teas are preferred, production skews toward those teas, yet the Sri Lankans prefer the high-grown tea. Tea exports are taxed, with the funds used to push overseas rather than domestic sales. As more tourists come to explore this beautiful country (Lonely Planet says that “tourism has been growing by more than 10% a year since 2009, and in 2012 tourism revenue surpassed US$1 billion for the first time”), it seems as though that would be fertile ground for increased sales.

Sooo, Tea Shops Anyone?

Maybe those tea shops are the answer!

Cider mills in Michigan are a huge draw, especially on these perfect autumn days. They highlight what we produce right here at home. They promote a culture around cider—cranking out the special donuts that accompany cider, selling mulling spices, offering baskets of tempting just-picked apples, creating a family-friendly upbeat and festive atmosphere.

The legacy of the tea industry is clearly a complicated and messy business, and I fully realize that this is a simplistic “fix.” But maybe Sri Lankans deserve more opportunities to benefit from this industry that has so drastically shaped their country, even if it is simply to savor for themselves their own tea, the tea that so many of us around the world enjoy.


Sources: –Sri Lanka Export Development Board, http://www.srilankabusiness.com/tea/ –“Sri Lanka Tea Board to Build Chain of Tea Shops,” by Dan Bolton, World Tea News, 10/13/15, http://www.worldteanews.com/news/sri-lanka-tea-board-to-build-chain-of-tea-shops?et_mid=790779&rid=250880126 –”Sri Lankan teas branded with UN Global Compact to promote corporate responsibility,” UN News Centre, 3/19/2007, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=21915#.Vh6oyiTka9o –History of Ceylon Tea, http://www.historyofceylontea.com –Lonely Planet, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/history

3 thoughts on “Having Their Tea and Drinking It Too? The State of Tea in Sri Lanka

    1. I love coffee too, I have to say——but maybe you just haven’t found the right tea! Have you tried Hong Cha Java? To me it has an earthiness and depth that somehow reminds me of coffee although it in no way tastes like coffee.


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