Ozone-Friendly Teas? Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Teas Stand Alone

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya icedAt a time when our time on this planet seems limited—Stephen Hawking warns that we “should prepare for a cosmic exodus”* within the next couple hundred years—it is really really nice to know that somebody is working on the problems here at home!

An Island of Responsible Sensibilities

As recently reported in World Tea News,† Sri Lanka—of Ceylon tea fame—was honored for

showing by example its pedigree of social, economic, and environmental responsibility.

This mountainous island, formerly known as Ceylon, exports more black orthodox tea than anyone else, with the tea industry employing 1.5 million people.

But it apparently doesn’t do this by cutting corners.

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya leavesRather, most of the country’s tea gardens are organic, and “all greatly limit the use of pesticides.”† Quite awhile ago they phased out the use of methyl bromide, a fumigant and pesticide that was one of the chemicals targeted by the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer,‡‡ and they implemented environmentally friendly practices.

Consequently Sri Lankan tea has been designated an “ozone friendly tea” and was given the Montreal Protocol implementer’s award. According to the World Tea News, they are the only teas to receive this status!

And an Actual Island, Well Suited for Tea

Tea can be harvested in Sri Lanka year-round; the tea districts in the central highlands include Uva, Dimbula, and Nuwara Eliya, which is situated between Uva and Dimbula, in a small planting area that is 6° north of the equator but over 6,000 feet in altitude.

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya brewThe island’s topography has allowed tea producers to manipulate the plants to produce a range of teas with distinct qualities:

  • low-grown tea (< 2,000 ft in altitude), strong and usually drunk with milk
  • mid-grown tea (2,000–4,000 ft), with a rich flavor
  • high-grown tea (> 4,000 ft), the premium teas

High-quality, exceptional teas, such as Ceylon Nuwara Eliya (pictured in this post, available from TeaHaus), yield incredible flavor! They are outstanding both hot and iced.

The full-bodied Ceylon black teas also serve as the base for many popular blends, including breakfast and Earl Grey teas.

So I will take a stand for our earth and drink an ozone-friendly Ceylon tea today!

*Guarino, B. “Stephen Hawking calls for a return to the moon as Earth’s clock runs out,” The Washington Post, Speaking of Science. June 21, 2017.
Bolton, D. “Sri Lanka shined at World Tea Expo,” World Tea News, June 19, 2017.
‡‡Gunawardene, N. “Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea,” Business Today, July 2011.

Tons of Tea Produced in 2016! Who Drinks It All?


There are about 7.4 billion people on earth right now. Most of those people drink water—and TEA.

Which means we have to grow a lot of tea!

Global tea production going up and up

As you might expect, there is an entity that keeps track of these things, and so the International Tea Committee (ITC) reports that for this past year:*

  • tea production has doubled in the past two decades!
  • in 2016, 5,462,718 tons of tea were produced
  • China, India, and Kenya produced 75% of the world’s tea (China alone harvested 43%)

More tea was produced in 2016 than in 2015, even though Sri Lanka is suffering an ongoing drought that really hit their tea production (and which will likely impact this year’s harvest as well). Kenya picked up the slack, sharply increasing its output of CTC black tea (although India still produces most of the world’s black tea).†

Yet, all of this tea isn’t coming to the U.S.

Rather, the tea is largely staying in the countries where it was produced, especially since our last Great Recession.

Ten years ago, 41% of tea was exported.

In 2016, only 32% was exported—meaning that 68% of the tea is being consumed in the country that produced it.*

Will this trend continue?

According to the ITC, less tea is being drunk in the developed world because (1) the number of people in these countries is not growing and (2) their disposable income is declining.

In China, however, tea consumption is going up 15% yearly. So the country is increasing tea production but then keeping more of it for their own citizens.

Likewise, most of the tea produced in Japan remains in the country.

So, although less tea is being exported, tea consumption is increasing—just in different places than in years past.

The forecast for tea production in 2017?

Not great, with weather problems continuing to plague many countries. Besides the drought in Sri Lanka, Assam is being slammed by weather-related issues, and China had its coldest spring in decades. It is thought that exports out of Kenya and Vietnam will  continue to increase, however.

But meanwhile, costs continue to rise. Combined with a strong U.S. dollar, this portends less investment, according to the ITC.

All of this could mean less tea for all tea lovers, no matter where we call home. Let’s hope that the tea pictured here—Darjeeling Rarity—is not a predictor of tea in general!

*Bolton, D. “Tea production continues steady climb as exports slide,” World Tea News. May 22, 2017.
Sundar, P. S. “Global black tea production up in 2016,” The Hindu Business Line. January 2, 2017.
Note: Darjeeling Rarity shown above is available from TeaHaus.


Tea News Snippets

On the home front, TABELog featured some of the great places to visit in Ann Arbor—including our own TeaHaus!—in their recent article, Culinary and Cultural Finds in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Whether you live here or are planning to visit, be sure to check out these great places. Although I still need to get to Slurping Turtle myself, I can certainly attest to the terrific quality of all the other restaurants listed here!

Farther afield, this week the World Tea News featured an article about Sri Lanka’s upcoming tea industry sesquicentennial (in 2017), highlighting all that’s positive—how the tea industry employs around around a million people, paying them “significantly higher wages than nearby India,” and how it “enforces mandates on herbicides and pesticides that conform to export standards.”

In light of earlier news about the decline of tea consumption in Sri Lanka (see my October post), I imagine that the sesquicentennial will be vital to reigniting the Sri Lankans’ interest in their own tea. (Sort of how we take something for granted—until someone else shows an interest and then we examine it with fresh eyes.) The country of Sri Lanka, those in the tea industry, and tourism boards are planning plenty of events to take full advantage of this milestone. For more information and a few photos, see Royston Ellis’ post as well.

Assam Tea At Risk? Climate Change Threatens

I am seriously cold all the time.

All. The. Time.

My husband will attest to this. And tell you how I wear a sweater on all but the very hottest Michigan summer day. Which means that winters are particularly challenging. And that I reveled in last month’s record-breaking warm temps!

But Michigan is not supposed to be that warm in December!

Climate change is here. And it’s having very real effects on crops worldwide, including in Assam.

Planting Tea Plantations—But Not with Tea?

In an earlier post I wrote about NASA’s initiative that seeks to help farmers in the Assam region maximize irrigation efforts and the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s ongoing studies to smartly use resources while sustaining tea production.

That all sounds very academic and science-y, but a recent article in the Economic Times drives home some very real ramifications of climate issues, with the Indian Tea Association calling for alternative crops to be grown on currently vacant land within tea plantations.

What? Not grow tea on the tea plantations?

Why Would They Do This?

With its tropical monsoon rainforest climate and production of lowland tea, Assam is particularly susceptible to temperature increases. However, new studies are showing that precipitation has a greater impact on tea than does temperature—and Assam has been experiencing changes in the monsoon as well as periods of drought. The tea industry’s viability, then, is intertwined with increasingly unpredictable rainfall.

Tea plantations are a long-term investment, with tea plants taking several years to mature and then producing for decades. Further, because tea production is done by hand and is not mechanized, many people are involved—around two million in Assam alone. Therefore, when the effects of climate change result in less tea, and/or lower-quality tea, the economy suffers. The economies of both Assam and India, as Assam produces 50% of India’s tea.

Predictions are dire:

empty teapot_low res“Broad-scale climate-landscape modelling indicates that tea yields in north-east India are expected to decline by up to 40 per cent by 2050. As yield is directly associated with revenue, changing climate is also likely to impact economic structures of those reliant on tea” (teaclimate.com).


What To Do?

The University of Southampton and the Tea Research Association have teamed up to study Assam’s environment, regional climate, and agricultural practices. Their aim is to learn how these factors can be handled to ensure the well-being of those who currently depend on the tea industry for their livelihoods. Or as the project puts it: “Determining the role of tea in a climate-smart landscape to facilitate sustainable, food-secure and climate-resilient livelihoods” (Teaclimate.com).

They are asking questions:

Are tea plants resilient in the face of a changing environment? Is tea the best crop in light of the vulnerability of the people involved in the tea industry? Is tea sustainable, and are there “best practice strategies [that can be transferred] to new-world commercial and smallholder tea ventures” (Teaclimate.com)?

Other researchers are using different but related tactics to  find solutions. Propagating tea plants by cloning is faster than conventional methods, so if drought tolerant strains could be identified, those could be selected. A team of scientists have done groundwork on deciphering the genetic linkage map of Indian tea and the drought tolerance locus. Eventually they hope to understand the genetics well enough to molecularly breed drought tolerant plants (Bali et al, 2015). 

Ultimately, the solution will probably be a combination of tactics: identifying those tea plants that are more drought resistant, using smarter techniques such as better-targeted irrigation, diversifying crops in the Assam region so that risk is spread out, among others.

And although Assam tea is beloved worldwide—and is certainly one of my own favorites—the goal must be first to ensure the sustainability of the people who live in Assam. Hopefully, Assam’s distinct tea will continue to be part of that solution.

Sources (for further reading, see in particular the informative Tea and Climate website):
—”Indian Tea Industry Faces Major Challenge due to Climate Change,” by Sutanuka Ghosal, Economic Times, December 23, 2015, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/50295609.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
—”Precipitation Key to Tea Yield: Study,” by Roopak Goswami, Telegraph, November 12, 2015, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151112/jsp/northeast/story_52658.jsp#.Vov4eiQiWbK
—”Global Warming Changes the Future for Tea Leaves,” by Brian Kahn, Climate Central, June 4, 2015, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-warming-changes-the-future-for-tea-leaves/
—Tea and Climate, project funded by the UK-India Education Research Initiative, http://teaclimate.com
—”Construction of a Genetic Linkage Map and Mapping of Drought Tolerance Trait in Indian Beveragial Tea,” by Sapinder Bali et al., Molecular Breeding 35:112, May 2015.  

Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

“Tea gardens.”  The words evoke lush plantations far removed from the United States. But tea gardens within our borders? Can we grow high-quality tea?

low res_tea in white flowers

They Said We Couldn’t Produce Great Wine ~ Until We Did

Well, until California wineries shocked the world in 1976 by winningin both the red and white categories—a blind tasting by French judges, many thought that only France could produce the best wines. So wrong!

Ideal climates and soils—it turns out—are found in many locales globally. It just took some experimentation and perseverance to produce the winning wines.

So Why Not Tea?

Tea is a pretty durable plant, loving acidic soils, being drought tolerant, and growing well in both sun and shade. In fact, tea was grown in the U.S. as early as the 1700s and was produced commercially in South Carolina from 1888 to 1915 by Charles Shepard. Decades later, Dr. Shepard’s tea plants were again cultivated, eventually becoming the Charleston Tea Plantation, which Bigelow now operates as a working 127-acre tea garden.

Other states have been experimenting with tea gardens as well. In 2013, the World of Tea listed fifteen states that produce tea, although many of these operations remain small or experimental at this point.

Still, there is enough interest and investment to generate formal acknowledgment of the U.S. tea industry—last month saw the inauguration of the Tea of the United States (TOTUS) Award competition.

Thirty tea gardens submitted entries, in both commercial and non-commercial categories. Grower/producers in Hawai’i earned the top spot for black, oolong, green, and white teas produced commercially as well as for white tea in the non-commercial category. In this latter category, a Mississippi company ranked best for black, oolong, and green teas.

The event brought together many who are serious about producing quality teas in the U.S., and who realize that it takes time, research, and a whole lot of work to produce top-quality teas.

No Reason At All!

Are U.S. companies there yet? Well, they definitely are on their way.

As Jane Pettigrew (chair, TOTUS judges) explained: “Tea growing is a very young, very new industry in the United States. Farmers are growing different varietals and cultivars at different altitudes, in varying climates, in shade and under direct sun. A lot of growers are still experimenting, as you don’t make good teas overnight. . . . You have to tweak, redo, monitor and record. . . . [It is] a focused program of research and experimentation” (World Tea News, 11/17/15).

So Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

It certainly looks that way! As the industry grows and matures, the teas optimally will continue to improve in quality and availability. So congrats to the winners of this year’s TOTUS awards—and know that many tea-lovers are watching your progress with great interest!

Rhinos and tigers and tea—oh my

Hope is Sent

You may have heard that last week, Harapan, meaning “hope,” traveled nearly 10,000 miles to reach his new home. This rare Sumatran rhino is a U.S. native but he has journeyed to what should have been his land of origin, ideally to help propagate his species—which is going to follow the path of our passenger pigeon if more baby rhinos don’t come along.

So when the Cincinnati Zoo said goodbye to Harapan, they sent him to Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, south of the Malay Peninsula, right on the equator. Here, the Barisan Mountains run down the island’s western side and are home to tropical rain forests and Sumatran elephants, tigers, and rhinos (all at risk).

Where Hope is Needed

I didn’t know this about Sumatra and their rhinos. I do, however, know that this island has had some difficult years, suffering devastating floods, earthquakes, and the 2010 tsunami.

Centuries ago, the island was the site of the Srivijaya (“great victory”) Kingdom. Because theirs was a prime location—positioned in the shipping route between China and India, the maritime equivalent to the overland Silk Road—this coastal and sea power controlled the Malaka and Sundra Straits. They dealt in luxury goods from the 7th into the 12th century, producing and shipping highly desired items such as spices and ivory—but apparently not tea.

It was the Dutch who brought both coffee and tea to the island (the Dutch were busy people: see my October 23 and Sept 15 posts). While the Dutch eventually left, coffee and tea remained, thriving in the island’s rich volcanic soil. In 1935, William H. Ukers wrote that “the island of Sumatra seems to offer the greatest promise of any tea-growing country” although this was solely for export and profit as he continued with “no tea is held for use on the Island of Sumatra.”

Indeed, Sumatra coffee is recognized globally as a premium coffee. And Sumatra Barisan oolong tea, grown at high altitudes, is known for its high quality and unique flavor as well. In the photo you can see that the leaves, which have been rolled into small balls, fully unfurl as they steep, releasing a wonderful slightly sweet aroma and a lush, buttery flavor.

sumatra barisan montage

Being an island, there is only so much room—and people, endangered animals, and crops must all compete for limited space and resources. Habitat loss, coupled with poaching, is a major factor in the precipitous decline of Sumatra’s rhinos, tigers, and elephants. And with the multitude of natural disasters in recent history as well as human-generated turmoil, the country has much to overcome.

Harapan’s journey and the news coverage it received brought some attention to Sumatra and its endangered wildlife—and an awareness of what this island offers, and what it sorely needs. Perhaps Harapan will bring not only hope for his species, but for all of us as we endeaver to live together and preserve the beauty and sanctity of our world and all its inhabitants.


~Rare Sumatran Rhino ‘Hope’ Arrives in Indonesia to Mate, Nov. 2, 2015, by AFP, http://news.discovery.com/animals/endangered-species/rare-sumatran-rhino-hope-arrives-in-indonesia-to-mate-151102.htm
~The Srivijaya Empire in Indonesia, c. 7th century to 13th century CE, by Kallie Szczepanski, http://asianhistory.about.com/od/indonesia/ss/Srivijaya-Empire.htm
~Srivijaya Kingdom, http://epicworldhistory.blogspot.com/2012/10/srivijaya-kingdom.html
~William H. Ukers, All About Tea, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, New York, 1935.

Having Their Tea and Drinking It Too?

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