The Road to Kandy: Geragama Tea Factory

The Road to Kandy: Geragama Tea Factory

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.

The Geragama tea factory has been running since 1903

Photo Thierry Mignon

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.

Tea Processing

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.

Plucking

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.

Tea leaves ready to be dried at the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

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!

The maceration troughs are as old as the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

Oxidation or Fermentation

This is the “browning” of the leaves. They sit in a temperature-controlled room until they turn darker.

Tea leaves then have to macerate at the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

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!

Modern rolling machines at the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

Drying

This is done by sunning or air drying.

The process of grading is almost complete at the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

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

Grading is done by size in Sri Lanka. The only recent machine at Geragama Tea Factory separates tea leaves by colour!

This is the only recent machine at the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

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!

You can buy tea before leaving the Geragama tea factory

Photo Thierry Mignon

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?

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Calling all tea aficionados! Learn about tea processing in in an original tea factory near Kandy, Sri Lanka.

10 Comments

  1. ada

    August 15, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Ive heard so much about tea from Sri Lanka! My flatmate is from there and she is just there on holiday so I definitely have to ask her to bring me some! I can’t wait to try it and I can’t wait to visit that wonderful country!

    1. Delphine

      August 15, 2017 at 7:01 pm

      Ada, I bought some tea in Sri Lanka and it was absolutely excellent. I’ve run out now and had to go back to my usual pick. I like black flavoured tea and I found them to be a bit too weak after several weeks of strong flavoursome Sri Lankan tea. I’ll have to get a big stock next time I go!

  2. Mica

    August 15, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Oh wow, thanks for letting us see inside! I’d no idea how tea was made – not a tea drinker! But this was fascinating to read and look a the photos 🙂

    1. Delphine

      August 16, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Mica, thank you for dropping by! I especially loved the visit as I’m a tea drinker (no coffee at all) but I’m sure the coffee making process is as fascinating!

  3. Erica Carrico

    August 16, 2017 at 12:40 am

    What a great post with lovely pictures! It makes me want to pack my bags!

    1. Delphine

      August 16, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Thanks Erica, I’m glad you like it. Sri Lanka is a great destination with very interesting things to visit. I hope you get a chance to visit some day.

  4. Joline

    August 16, 2017 at 4:09 am

    I love tea! In fact I’m drinking tea right now as I’m typing this 🙂 Visiting a tea factory is so cool. Love learning how things are made and where things come from. Hope I can visit one too.

    1. Delphine

      August 16, 2017 at 8:06 am

      Hi Joline, the tea factory is pretty much as it was built in 1903, very vintage! There is only one modern machine in the whole place, to separate tea leaves based on colour… It was a very interesting visit (and shopping experience), I highly recommend it if you get to Sri Lanka.

  5. Julie Estrella

    August 16, 2017 at 6:41 am

    This is so interesting! I have always been a coffee drinker but you are definitely enticing me to have a cup of tea this afternoon!

    1. Delphine

      August 16, 2017 at 8:04 am

      Hi Julie, I’d never visited a tea factory and it certainly opened my eyes on how intricate the process is. Tea appears to be such a simple drink but in reality, a lot of effort has gone into getting it ready!

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