Sri Lanka is well known for its tea. Ceylon Tea is readily available in any supermarket and cafe, and we think nothing of dropping a tea bag in hot water to start the day or for an afternoon comfort. Tea comes in many shapes and tastes and, in the coffee-obsessed society we live in, we tea drinkers have something special too… But how is it made? Geragama Tea Factory was built in 1903 and makes an interesting visit if you are travelling from Colombo to Kandy.
History of Tea in Sri Lanka
The British first brought tea plants from China to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, for non-commercial purposes. At the time, the British exploited coffee in Ceylon, however plants were stricken by a fungal disease. The humidity, cool temperatures and rainfall of the Central Highlands provide an ideal climate for the production of high-quality tea.
James Taylor was the first to develop a tea plantation in 1867, and the trade grew exponentially in the 1880’s.
The introduction of tea significantly contributed to the development of the Sri Lankan economy, turning it from a traditional to a plantation model. The British built roads and railway lines to ensure efficient transportation of tea from the mountains to Colombo.
There are three types of tea, divided according to elevation: low-grow tea is cultivated from sea-level up to 600m and comes mostly from the south of the island. It is known for its strong taste. Mid-grow tea is cultivated between 600m and 1200m and is often blended. High-grow tea comes from plantations located above 1200m.
Nowadays, Ceylon Tea is a significant economic asset for Sri Lanka. It yields 2% of the country’s GDP and employs over one million people. Whilst Sri Lanka is not the largest producer of tea (it comes behind China and India), it is certainly the largest exporter.
Geragama Tea Factory
On the road from Colombo to Kandy, the Geragama Tea Factory is a time-travel experience. Not much has changed since 1903 when the factory was established.
You can take a guided tour through the operational areas and see how tea is processed, from newly-harvested green leaves to dried and graded high-quality tea, ready for consumption. There is a charming tasting room where you can sample and buy tea at the end of your visit.
The transformation of tea leaves is a delicate and well-rehearsed process, which was initially done all by hand and is now helped by machines. Today, machines haven’t completely replaced the handmade process, as tea plants are delicate and need gentle treatment in order to ensure quality. At Geragama Tea Factory, most machines go back to the early days and the process hasn’t changed in generations.
Plantation workers, mostly women, pluck the tea leaves by hand, usually in spring and summer. Depending on weather conditions, picking can also take place in autumn and winter. For each plant, you only pick a terminal bud and two young leaves. Different types of tea (white, green, black…) come from the same plant but are processed differently.
Withering or Wilting
Straight after picking, the tea leaves start wilting in the humid atmosphere of Sri Lanka. In the sun or in a breezy room, the leaves sit to wither for a while in order to remove excess moisture and introduce some oxidisation. As early in the process, the flavours start developing.
Disruption or Leaf Maceration
Shaking or tossing the leaves in baskets bruises them and releases the flavours further. This is now done by machines, but the ones in Geragama Tea Factory were pretty old!
Oxidation or Fermentation
This is the “browning” of the leaves. They sit in a temperature-controlled room until they turn darker.
Fixation or “Kill-Green”
This step is where you warm up or steam the leaves in order to stop the oxidation process. This is done at various stages of oxidation, depending on the type of tea you want to create.
Rolling or Shaping
This next step consists in rolling the leaves in order to wrap them around themselves. I would have loved to have a go myself! The factory workers twirl, roll the tea leaves in little balls. Or twist, knot and even pack them in bricks. The rolling machines do the work now!
This is done by sunning or air drying.
Ageing or Curing
Sometimes you need a second fermentation in the creation of a tea. To create flavoured tea, you need to then spray the leaves with aromas or store them with flavorants.
Grading is done by size in Sri Lanka. The only recent machine at Geragama Tea Factory separates tea leaves by colour!
Sampling and Buying Tea
After your visit, you can sample the different teas, starting from the lightest, such as golden or silver tips, to green and different types of black tea. On a personal note, I very much welcomed having a tea break after the visit, as the factory is a hot and steamy environment. I was able to buy a selection of tea, which I am still enjoying today!
Tea Plantations and Tea Factories
You will find the most spectacular tea plantations in the Central Highlands, in Nuwara Eliya and Ella. If you don’t have a lot of time, or if you are on your way to vist the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, you will get a very good insight of the natural and economic soul of Sri Lanka at Geragama Tea Factory.
Have you experienced a tea plantation in Sri Lanka? Which one would you recommend for my next trip?