A heritage of excellence: the wonderful history of Ceylon Tea

22/01/2015

A heritage of excellence:  the wonderful history of Ceylon Tea

Sri Lankan tea (known for generations as Ceylon Tea) carries behind it a heritage and success story like no other. The story of Ceylon tea begins over two hundred years ago, when the country was still a British colony. In 1824 a tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes. Further experimental planting of tea had begun in 1839 with tea plants brought from Assam and Calcutta through the East India Company.

Commercial cultivation of tea commenced in Sri Lanka by the Scotsman, James Taylor. He arrived Sri Lanka in 1852 and settled down in Loolecondera estate in Kandy. Taylor visited India in 1866 to learn the basics of growing tea on plantations. Following his return, he started a 19 acre tea plantation in Loolecondera estate in 1867. Soon enough plantations surrounding Loolecondera such as Hope, Rookwood and Mooloya began transforming into tea plantations and were amongst the first tea estates established on the island. Taylor started a fully equipped tea factory in Loolecondera estate in 1872. In 1875 Taylor managed to send the first shipment of Ceylon tea to London tea auction.

As Ceylon tea gained in popularity throughout the world, a need arose to mediate and monitor the sales of tea. The first public Colombo Auction was held at the premises of Somerville & Co. on 30 July, 1883, under the auspices of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The Colombo Tea Auction is considered as the oldest and largest tea auction centre in the world. In 1894 the Ceylon Tea Traders Association was formed and today virtually all tea produced in Sri Lanka is conducted through this association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. By 1927 tea production in the country exceeded 100,000 metric tons, almost entirely for export. In 1941 the first Ceylonese tea broking house, M/s Pieris & Abeywardena was established.

In 1925 the Tea Research Institute was established to conduct research into maximising yields and methods of production and in 1955 the first clonal tea fields began cultivation. By the 1960s the total tea production and exports exceeded 200,000 hectares and 200,000 metric tons respectively.

By 1965 Sri Lanka became the world's largest tea exporter for the first time. In 1963 the production and exports of Instant Teas was introduced and in 1966 the first International Tea Convention was held to commemorate 100 years of the tea industry in Sri Lanka. In the early 1970s, the government of Sri Lanka nationalized the tea estates owned by the British companies. In 1976 the Sri Lanka Tea Board was founded as was other bodies such as the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB), Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC) and the Tea Small Holding Development Authority (TSHDA) to overlook the government acquired estates. It was in 1976 that the exports of tea bags also commenced.

In 1980 Sri Lanka became the official supplier of tea at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games, in 1982 at the 12th Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and again in 1987 at Expo 88 in Australia. In 1981, the import of teas for blending and re-exports was introduced and in 1982 to production and export of green tea commenced in Sri Lanka. CTC teas commenced in the country in 1983.In 1992 the 125th anniversary of the industry was celebrated in an international convention in Colombo. In 1992-1993 many of the government-owned tea estates became privatized again.

In 2001 the first on-line sales of tea commenced, sold by Forbes & Walker Ltd., at the Colombo Tea Auctions. A Tea Museum was established in Kandy and in 2002. By 2013, Sri Lanka's tea production had exceeded 340,000 metric tons.

A product that began as a diversification experiment in 1867 spanning just 19 acres of land in Kandy has expanded its cultivation today to six principal regions within the country -Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Kandy, Uda Pussellawa, Uva Province and Southern Province. The tea exports has surpassed all geographical borders to satisfy 19% of global demand. It is a great equalizer, demanding attention from the counter of the smallest eatery to the most exclusive tea-bars in the world.

Reputed for its signature taste and aroma, Sri Lanka is currently ranked as the fourth largest Tea producer in the world and the world's largest tea exporter in year 2013. Annual export volume was around 320,000 MT and export earnings were recorded as US$ 1.5 Bn in year 2013 .