Conversation: Sri Lanka Teas

by Jason on September 12, 2013

in Member Content, origin, Voices of Tea

Dessford Estate M.Harney

Workers Weighing Tea at Dessford Estate.
Courtesy of Michael Harney, Harney & Sons

Sri Lanka has been producing teas now for about 150 years, yet they can be some of the least understood, and least appreciated teas. For so many years, Ceylon teas were found in Lipton teabags, or were commodity grade offerings. That is changing.

Elevation, location, and harvest time can make significant differences in your Sri Lankan tea experience.

I asked Michael Harney of Harney & Sons to share his views on Ceylon teas. Michael travels the globe to select teas for Harney & Sons, and is author of The Harney & Sons Guide To Tea.

Beverly-Claire Wainwright is Tea Maker and Business Development Manager of Amba Estate, Bandarawela, Sri Lanka. Her estate and others in Sri Lanka represent the new generation of specialty teas coming out of Sri Lanka.

1. How important is it for consumers to understand “quality seasons”? Is it safe to assume nearly all loose leaf Ceylon teas on the market were harvested during the optimal season?

BW: Perhaps before talking about “quality seasons” it’s important to understand that there are several different regions in Sri Lanka where tea is planted, each with its own distinctive style and flavour due to the variance in agro- climactic conditions. These areas are: Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Kandy, Uda Pussellawa, Uva Province and Southern Province. The different teas produced are also further categorised as high, mid, or low-grown according to elevation.

There are two distinct ” flavoury seasons”, which generally result in reduced leaf production but an increase in flavour. The first is the South- West Monsoon which also heralds colder weather. This normally lasts from January to March and particularly affects the high grown Dimbulla teas.

The second ” flavoury” season is the famous Uva ” quality season” from July to August when there is little or no rainfall and often strong cool winds. It’s worth bearing in mind that weather patterns are changing and last year there was a five month drought in Uva which resulted in a massive decline in leaf production. In general, the “flavoury” teas have a depth, style and complexity which is much less marked during other seasons.

In my own personal tasting ” journey of discovery” and learning over the past couple of years I have found that our teas vary according to field, season, pruning cycle, type of tea planted and of course process and grading. There are a host of factors at work which come into play when any tea is created. For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of making tea by hand on a small scale such as ours is the creativity and subtlety involved in producing interesting teas that do vary throughout the year and not only during the flavoury season.

Apologies for my roundabout answer but coming back to your question, my answer is no, it is not a safe assumption that all loose leaf Ceylon teas on the North American market are harvested during the ” flavoury season” – far from it in fact. I would say that due to the lower volumes of these teas and increased demand they are only likely to be found in specialist tea stores where the owners/ buyers have taken a lot of time and care to source their teas and that you should also expect prices for these teas to increase accordingly.

MH: It has been hard to communicate to consumers that Dimbulla is best early in the year and the Uva season is later. Also tea is made all year long in Ceylon, not just the peak times. So it is up to tea buyers like myself and others to buy in the peak season, so the consumer does not have to worry about it.

2. To what extent does higher elevation mean better tea? Are there exceptions?

MH: Of the low, medium and high-grown teas, the high-growns are very distinctive, especially the Wintergren notes found in peak season Uvas. But is that always the most desirable to the consumer? The teas from New Vithankande are low-grown but very, very nice. Also Kenilworth is not a high-grown tea, but we have many customers who are devoted to it.

BW: Generally speaking, and I am talking about black teas here, the height of elevation has a converse effect on the strength of the tea so the low grown teas tend to “pack a punch” but are a lot less subtle than the more delicate and complex mid and high-grown teas. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better than the other. A lot is down to care taken over the processing regardless of elevation. For instance, Herman Gunaratne makes some of the best teas in Sri Lanka at Hundungoda Estate, which is at sea-level and only a few kilometres from the sea! It also depends on consumer tastes; low -teas often fetch a higher price at auction these days and a lot of this tea goes to the Middle Eastern market where people generally prefer a stronger brew.

3. What are some of the changes or improvements in Sri Lankan teas that drinkers should be on the lookout for?

MH: Tea is a difficult business in Sri Lanka. There are always problems: political, and economic. Not to mention changes in the estate management. So it is hard to keep making good teas. Estates go up and down. We found this micro estate: Amba that makes very nice and unique treas. We bought an OP that has tea flowers mixed in that has lovely flavors. Dessford is an established estate that seems to be on the way up in quality. It is located on the upper reaches of Dimbulla. Right on the edge of the Nuwara Eliya region.

BW: Many plantations are investing in technological solutions such as colour sorters in order to improve overall quality during bulk processing, however in my opinion great tea starts with exceptional leaf quality and that means hand plucking by skilled workers.

Almost all Ceylon teas are factory made on a large scale and one of the challenges over the next few years will be retaining, rewarding and engaging the current workforce and balancing increasing wages and falling yields (due to ageing tea stocks) with relatively low tea prices. This may mean quite a few changes, including a possible move towards even more smallholder development. ( Currently about 65% of tea grown here is produced by smallholders, most of whom farm about one acre of tea and who sell their leaf to factories). My hope is that we start to see initiatives in small scale community tea making as a way forward to develop a new, albeit small “sector” of the Sri Lankan market to produce an even greater variety of interesting, well crafted, “garden made” teas alongside large scale factory production.

4. What teas or estates do you feel represent the best of what Sri Lanka has to offer?

MH: New Vithankande, Kenilworth, and Uva Highlands seem to be pretty consistent ( but who knows about next year.)

BW: There are many estates that are historically well known, such as Loolecandera, Kenilworth, St. James and a host of others that hold a place in the hearts of Ceylon tea lovers precisely because of that history, tradition and romantic association. There are many estates that are known for exceptional quality and care such as Adawatte and Idalgashinne. And finally, there are tea makers such as Herman Gunerathne of Hundunugoda Estate and Bernard Holsinger of Ebony Springs producing innovative teas and our own tiny Amba Estate making entirely hand made teas. It all depends on what ” best ” means to you as a consumer.

JW:  From Michael’s and Beverly’s accounts, it looks as if there is much to explore in the complexity and fluctuations in Sri Lankan tea production. Thanks to both of my contributors.

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