The tea-growing regions of Sri Lanka are clustered mostly among the mountains of the island’s central massif and its southern foot hills. Once thickly forested and largely inaccessible to humans, the central mountains were known to the ancient Sinhalese as Mayarata, the Country of Illusions. It was said to be haunted by demons and spirits. This fearsome reputation, together with more tangible threats posed by wild beasts, venomous snakes, landslides, rock falls and the ever-present danger of simply losing one’s way in the forest, kept most people away from the high hills. Settlement was almost nonexistent except in the valleys and around the city of Kandy. Only foresters, hermits and fugitives had any reason to enter the Mayarata. Thus it was that after the annexation of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, the British found themselves in possession of vast tracts of virgin mountain forest. Imperial enterprise soon found a way of putting the acquisition to good use. By 1840, there were already about two hundred coffee-estates dotted about the hills; then came a boom in coffee on the London market, fuelling a land-rush. Down came the high forests, acre after acre, to be replaced by endless, regimented rows of coffee-bushes. At the peak of the coffee enterprise in 1878, no less than 113,000 ha. (278,000 acres) were under cultivation. The blight that was to destroy the enterprise had by then already made its appearance, and by the end of the 1880s, Ceylon coffee was finished. Looking around for a commercial crop to replace it, the planters settled on tea. They soon discovered that the tea-bush was far better suited to the climate and terrain than coffee ever was; indeed, the hill country of Ceylon – known today as Sri Lanka – proved to be capable of producing the finest tea in the world. It has been doing so ever since.
Like the great wine-growing regions of France, the tea country of Sri Lanka is divided up into several strictly-defined regions or ‘districts’, each of which is known for producing teas of a particular character. There are seven districts in all. Each presents a unique combination of climate and terrain that leaves its mark on the tea it produces, regardless of price point or estate of origin. Of course, there is considerable variation between sub-districts and individual estates, between successive crops taken from the same estate in successive years and even between different hillsides on the same estate; yet despite such differences, the regional character of the tea is always evident to the experienced taster or connoisseur.
‘Quality Seasons’ and Microclimates
Sri Lanka is exposed to two Indian Ocean weather systems, known locally as the northeast and southwest monsoons. The first brings rain between December and March, the second between June and September. The central mountains form a windbreak and watershed, sheltering with their mass the hillsides and the plains on either side of them; thus southern and western parts of the island do not receive the winds and rains of the northeast monsoon, while northern and eastern areas are sheltered from the southwest monsoon. This results not only in a different period of rainfall on either side of the mountains, but also an annual ‘quality seasons’, when the monsoon winds, leached of their moisture, pass over the central watershed to bring cool, dry weather to the terrain on the opposite side.
Up among the hills and mountains, however, the complex topography results in an equally complex microclimatic picture, with different areas receiving varying patterns of wind and precipitation from the two weather systems throughout the year. Thus, the climate of each tea-growing district differs more or less from the others. Even within a single district, the variation between small areas can often be marked. These climatic variations are reflected in the diversity of character that is one of the principal and most prized features of Ceylon Tea. Over the years, Sri Lankan planters have learnt how to get the best out local climatic variations in terms of their effect on the tea-bush and its product. In the process, they helped establish the character for which each region and subdivision of the tea-growing districts is known.
A Meaningful Distinction
Just like the Appellations d’origines côntrolées of France, the use of the names of the tea-growing regions of Sri Lanka is strictly restricted and controlled. Only teas that conform to a registered, legal definition of origin and manufacture can bear the name of a given district. First, the tea must have been grown entirely within a particular ‘agro-climatic region’ (the technical term for ‘district’). This usually implies a particular altitude range as well; for example, tea from Uva district will have been grown at an altitude between 1000 and 1600m (3,000-5,000ft.) above sea level, while Nuwara Eliya tea will have been cultivated at a higher altitude range, averaging 2,000m (6,000ft).
Next, the tea has to have been ‘manufactured’ within the district. Fresh tea-leaf does not travel well; it has to be processed more or less in situ, and every large estate has its own factory dedicated to this operation. While the regional definition permits some latitude regarding the actual processes of manufacture, most Ceylon tea is still made according to traditional methods, which are deemed by experts to produce an end-product of the highest quality.
A Well-Protected Legacy
Since 1975, the award and usage of regional ‘appellations’ has been administered by the Sri Lanka Tea Board, the central administrative and regulatory authority for the Ceylon tea industry. The Board, which was created by Act of Parliament in 1975 to replace an earlier body, sets the standards and regulations with which all tea exported from Sri Lanka must comply. Among these are minimum standards of quality and purity; additionally, to qualify for a district appellation, the tea must conform to the specifications and standards pertaining to that region.