Saturday, September 19, 2015

Could I Interest You in a Warm Cup of Ceylon Tea?

Michelle Gross

Sri Lanka really is a paradise island.  It is such a small country but is filled with so much biodiversity. 
Waterfall and cloud forest in high country, cooler climate
Some delicious tropical fruits, grown in the low country
I was saddened to hear about the social and environmental impact of the tea industry on Sri Lanka. Employees and managers of small and large tea corporations, government officials involved in commerce, hotel and guest-house owners, random taxi or tuktuk drivers, young professionals in the capital, Colombo, staff of Grace, the orphanage and elder care center where I was interning, and many other people I had the opportunity to speak to openly expressed their concern. It was at least somewhat of a relief to hear Sri Lankans of diverse backgrounds bring up this issue. 

Tea plantation, high country, in Nuwara Eliyah
Tuktuk to get to a tea plantation and visitors center

Meeting at Grace to discuss progress with tea companies

Some History: Social and Environmental Impact of the Ceylon Tea Industry
Sri Lanka was a major coffee producer until the late 1800s before the major outbreaks of a disease similar to coffee rust, a fungus that is a serious threat to coffee all over the world (and a topic of interest in my current research of specialty coffee in Costa Rica for my Masters project at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.)
Then, in the late 1800s, tea cultivation was introduced by the British. Sir Thomas Lipton and his business partners converted vast acres of land into tea plantations, and revolutionized the tea industry, selling individually sealed bags to lock in freshness. The new presentation and promotions of tea increased popularity of Ceylon tea, and the growing industry needed more workers. Tamils from India of the lowest caste were brought as migrant workers to work as tea pickers, given the most basic living conditions and hardly any wage. Increased deforestation of the jungle, and farming practices of monoculture, the use of non-native species of trees on the plantations, and other cookie-cutter approaches led to the current environmental state. Today there is heavy erosion all over the country, causing the rivers to literally turn brown due to the excess silt. I was amazed to see a country lush with endless bodies of water, and devastated to see many of them dark, thick brown in color, only to hear that this was not the case thirty or forty years ago. The social and environmental cost of the tea industry was incurred a long time ago, but the effects are being felt today.
"No Chemical Zone" : Some plantations are now enforcing restrictions on use of certain pesticides and fertilizer

Tea pickers carrying fresh tea sack to the factory to be weighed for their daily wage

Tea processing, near Kandy

Tea bagging facility, High-end pyramid tea bags

Mangroves near Colombo
The environmental department of the government has been looking for ways to mitigate the problem. One of the proposals is to remove the silt from the rivers and ‘refertilize’ the tea plantations; a move that would have a heavy economic cost, and only offer a short term solution, since the erosion would continue to be a reality and the silt would make its way back to the rivers once again. I hope that they find other ways to reverse some of the environmental damage.

River somewhere between Colombo and Trincomalee

Fun Ceylon Tea Facts and Other Observations 

Tea brand with buds used for Silver Tips
Tea leaves and buds
Tea buds used for Silver Tips

Sri Lanka has 6 or 7 tea regions. The exact number depends on whom you speak with. The regions vary in elevation, with 1,800m above sea level in Nuwara Eliyah, where arguably the best tea comes from. Blended tea is considered the best way to drink tea in Sri Lanka, as they say that mixing them together makes it possible to increase complexity of the flavors. Tea at high altitudes has a lighter flavor and redder color; tea produced at low altitudes has a stronger, more astringent flavor and darker color.
Teas of different grades from a single estate in Nuwara Eliyah
Different grades of processed teas
·    Tea is always picked by hand in Sri Lanka. This means that the estate can decide to only pick a few of the youngest leaves, enhancing the quality of the cup. The estates that I visited in Nuwara Eliyah and Kandy regions had some variation in number of leaves picked, but most common was two leaves and a bud. Tea in Sri Lanka is mainly processed by machinery, much of which is dated from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Hand picking and machine processing makes it possible to ‘standardize’ quality. Ceylon tea has a consistently high quality for the cup, but has low market price. Unlike in Japan, Taiwan or China, where hand picked and hand rolled teas are easier to find, and prices can be $100/kilo or more, Sri Lanka does not produce tea that is sold at these specialty prices.  However, there are only a few smaller estates in the country that hand process their teas.  Their output is very small (I.e. A couple dozen kilos per month of single estate, single origin tea).

Mural of a tea picker, Tea Museum, Kandy

Tea pickers

Having tea with owners of a tea house in Japan after the Tea Museum tour, Kandy
     Tea is not seasonal in Sri Lanka, but rather grows and is harvested constantly. There is constant rain and constant sun, so tea can be grown and harvested year-round and generally has a consistent flavor. This could be a benefit, as it only takes about ten days for a plant to produce a bud ready for harvest. However,  this can also make it [nearly] impossible to produce very unique and flavorful teas. Some say that Ceylon tea does not have a flavor that really stands out, or is not complex. In order for those rich flavors to develop, the plant needs to be under stress. In other words, lack of rain, lack of sun, prolonged dryness or drought can make the tea plant go through a process that affects its flavor… (Now, it’s up to the consumer to debate whether this causes a better or worse flavor balance.)

Cloud forest and tea plantation in the highlands

     Tea tasters use all four senses to get a sense of and fully taste tea: first they look at the tea leaves and its intricate shapes, observing from up close and arms length.  Dry, spread on a white cardboard paper, and wet, in a white tea cup (or holder). Then, they touch the tea with their fingers (usually dry) . they smell both dry and wet and finally taste the tea, slurping it in, making a huge sound, the kind that your mother tells you not to make when drinking hot soup. And then again, and again, going down the line of tea to try each sample.

Tea Tasting workshop at De Mel's Tea Academy

·     There is a lot of misinformation.  For example, I was told several times by different individuals that legally estates must sell 80% their processed tea through the Tea Auction, which happens several times a week. The Ceylon Tea Auction is the single largest tea auction in the world where about 6.5 million kilograms are sold weekly.  Tea agents and sellers who attend  the auction must be extremely prepared. They try tea samples each week before attending, and prepare their valuation of each tea they are interested in buying that week. They must be very experienced to be able to taste the intricacies of each sample, and to be able to follow the fast pace of the sellers at the auction. I was told by government officials at the Chamber of Commerce that even they do not understand what goes on; the sellers speak so fast that it all sounds like gibberish. 

      Actually, the different ratios that I was told of 70, 76, 80% of tea having to be sold at the Auction is completely false. Tea estates can sell their product to the buyer of their choice. Most choose to sell through the auction since it is an easy, standardized procedure they are comfortable with, and the payback period is just under a week.

·      Gender Divide Besides tea pickers, it seems women are absent from this industry in Sri Lanka. This is a good conversation starter, so we can talk about this more next time we meet.

Tea pickers busy at the plantation

Tea picker and Manager

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