Sri Lanka Tea History: Discover Ceylon Tea Culture & Types

Sri Lanka Tea History: Discover Ceylon Tea Culture & Types

History of Sri Lanka is fascinating as the country itself. Many years ago, the country had a strong culture and heritage and it was ruled by the kings for many generations. Far back in the 16th century, the country was invaded by many foreign forces that came looking for spices, gems, and such other treasures.

The Colonial Past

From the 16th century, the country has been invaded by the Portuguese, Dutch and by the British. Like many other Asian countries, Sri Lanka also faced the fate of becoming a British colony in 1815s and the country was named as “Ceylon” by then.

The tea culture of Sri Lanka was started back then when the coffee plantations of the country started to wipe out due to a fungal disease. In 1839 British brought a tea plant from China and this was planted in the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya, and this was the first non-commercial tea planting trial ever held in Sri Lanka.  Hereafter few other experiments have been done in “Nuwara Eliya” area to check the suitability of this plant to the Sri Lankan soil and climate.

The Tale of James Taylor

A Scottish planter named James Taylor marked a turning point in Ceylon tea history in 1867, as he started to cultivate 19 ackers of tea land in Kandy area, pioneering the commercial tea planting in Sri Lanka. His plantation was named as “Loolecondra Estate” and regarded as the first ever tea plantation in Sri Lanka. His tea plantation started to flourish all over the misty hills in Kandy, proving that Sri Lanka had ideal climatic and soil conditions for commercial cultivation of tea.

Taylor’s effort to plant tea gave hope to other British planters as well.  In recognition of James Taylor’s pioneering role in the Sri Lankan tea industry, even today he is remembered as the “Father of Ceylon tea”. His tea estate is still functioning Sri Lanka and currently belongs to a state-owned tea plantation company. The remaining’s from Taylor’s factory and the bungalows are now kept at the “Hanthana tea Museum” in Kandy and if you visit “Loolecondra Estate” today, some ruins of Taylor’s bungalow can be seen. 

Soon after Taylor’s effort to plant tea, many tea plantations were begun in Sri Lanka. Slowly the tea industry of Sri Lanka was established, with necessary institutional formations and infrastructure developments. The tea industry of Sri Lanka started to flourish slowly and eventually proceeded to gain a reputation as the World’s finest tea. By 1965, the country became the world’s largest tea exporter for the first time and continuing its legend even today among many ups and downs in the industry.

Types of Ceylon Tea

As the industry began nearly 150 years ago, today Sri Lanka holds the title of 4th largest tea exporter in the world after China, Kenya, and India.  Annual tea production of the country adds up to 303.8 million kg (2018) and mostly being Black tea.

According to 2018 statistics, around 91% of countries’ produce is manufactured as Orthodox black tea, while 7.8% produced as CTC Black tea and the balance 1.2% is produced as Green tea.

Among all the other tea producers in the world, the specialty of Sri Lankan tea is heavily resulted by the diverse agro-climatic inheritance of the country. As we know the characters of tea are highly influenced by its growing conditions. Thus the teas manufactured in Sri Lanka have unique characteristics when compared with the products from other countries.

There’s one very special fact to know about Sri Lankan tea, which is the seasonality of Sri Lankan tea. As the country has very specific climatic conditions and topography, Sri Lanka usually experiences two main flavor seasons of tea namely “Dimbula Season and Uva Season. During these seasons, the tea plantations in these specific areas can produce teas with superior flavor and character.

Orthodox Black tea

orthodox black tea ceylon srilanka

Orthodox black teas are produced simply by using orthodox rollers in the production process. These rollers do not create very fine particles of tea, instead, it results in a diverse range of tea grades with different sizes and shapes ranging from large leaf to small leaf. Tea grades such as OPA, OP1, OP, BOP are few examples for Orthodox teas. The specialty of these teas is related to its unique flavor and aroma.

CTC Black tea

CTC is a specific way of producing teas and the letters stand for “cut-tear and curl”. In this style, tea leaves are heavily macerated thus mostly the small leaf teas are produced. Sri Lanka has still not moved much into this style of manufacturing, as they already have a good demand for its Orthodox teas. 

Green tea

Sri Lanka is not a big producer of green tea; it only has very few gardens that produce green teas and most of these products consumed locally. Both Chinese and Japanese styles of green teas are produced in Sri Lanka however when compared with the Chinese and Japanese origin green teas, Sri Lankan green teas are having slightly more bitter character.

Tea Cultivation and Culture

The total tea cultivation area of the country is around 222,000 ha and the country has recognized three main elevation categories for tea cultivation namely, Low country (0-600m amsl), Mid country (600-1200m amsl) and the Upcountry (>1200m amsl). In addition to the elevational categorization, the country has demarcated seven tea growing regions namely Ruhuna, Sabaragamuwa, Kandy, Dimbula, Uva, and Udapussallawa. The teas produced at each of these regions have their own distinct characters.

The tea culture of the country is much closer to that of western culture, mainly due to the British influence that they have got during the colonial period. The tea culture involves classic teapots and other ceramic teaware in preparation. On the other hand, the breakfast tea and the afternoon tea is a key component of the daily life of Sri Lankans.

Hope this brief takes you through a complete voyage on history, culture and cultivation aspects of the Sri Lankan tea industry. Surely this info will help you to understand and choose your cup of Ceylon tea with a much better perspective.  



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