In 2737 BC, a few stray leaves fell from a tree and landed in a cup of boiled water belonging to Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. And that’s how tea was discovered – or so the story goes. For some 5,000 years, China has been heralded as the birthplace of tea, but it’s actually in Sri Lanka that this aromatic beverage was refined and produced to worldwide proportions.
Just 150 years ago, Sri Lanka’s hill country remained a wild sweep of jungle-clad mountains. But now these beautiful highlands are known for producing some of the world’s finest tea – and they make for an amazing photo opportunity, too. You can see it (and taste it) for yourself on our ‘The Best of Sri Lanka‘ tour – but before you go, be sure to brush up on your Ceylon tea knowledge…
Plucking good tea
In 1867, Scotland-born James Taylor arrived in Sri Lanka and fancied a good cuppa. He planted the very first tea estate (20 acres) in Loolecondera, near the city of Kandy. Taylor discovered and introduced the more widely used technique of ‘fine plucking’ – two leaves and a bud – as opposed to the Emperor’s ‘Imperial pluck’ method. In 1890, Taylor made a business deal with British millionaire Thomas Lipton and before long, Lipton tea was exported from Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon until 1972) and distributed throughout Europe and the USA. Today, Sri Lanka has over 188,000 hectares of tea plantations across the island.
Little England in Sri Lanka
Although the first tea plantation was situated in Kandy, Nuwara Eliya is now considered the prime area for the production of the finest Ceylon tea. On day 8 of our tour, you’ll make tracks for this city in the highlands of central Sri Lanka. Often referred to as ‘little England’, the town has a distinctly British feel to it. Built in the 19th century in the style of a charming old English country town, the streets are lined with colonial-era bungalows and Tudor-style hotels.
At the tea plantation, dive in with the workers – or ‘pluckers’ – and pick delicate leaves by hand for production. You’ll tour the entire manufacturing process from beginning to end, before visiting the wonderful Colonial Hill Club for a tasting during high tea.
It’s all about the altitude
When growing tea, there are three main categories of altitude: low-grown, medium-grown and high-grown. Each level produces a unique flavour, from light and delicate to rich and full-bodied. Udawatte (high-grown tea – above 1,200m) is considered the finest. It has a delicate, crisp flavour and golden orange colour that makes it very sought after. Dimbula, Nuwara Eliya and Uva are the three prime tea districts.
Medawatte (mid-grown tea – between 600 and 1,200m) is less refined with floral, malty notes. It’s the middle ground in terms of price and quality and is mostly grown around the city of Kandy.
Yatawatte (low-grown tea – below 600m) is stronger, more robust and higher in caffeine. Ratnapura and Galle are two important districts of this type of tea.
On our ‘The Best of Sri Lanka‘ tour, you’ll sample some of the world’s best tea as well as discover mountaintop fortresses, ancient capitals hidden in forests and national parks where elephants roam free. Finish with a safari in Yala National Park before relaxing by the beach. This promises to be an adventure to remember.
Originally published in February 2013, updated October 2018.