Raising the profile of Ceylon artisanal tea

Sri Lanka’s artisanal tea industry is small but growing as passionate producers revive old estates, create handcrafted teas and experiment with new varieties. By Yumi Nakatsugawa. All images courtesy of the author.

Although primarily known for its large-scale black tea production, some small but artistic and creative tea-making has emerged in Sri Lanka in recent years. Under this movement, the Ceylon Artisanal Tea Association (CATA) was formed by seven founding members in early 2020, and was officially recognised by the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) in July 2020. Previously, the SLTB started to register ‘Handmade Tea (HT) Factory’ in 2016 after examining individual applicant’s facilities and operations which must meet with the Good Manufacturing Practice standard. As of 10 January 2022, eleven factories have been listed in this category.

Meanwhile, there are about 30 large factories that are operating under the regular license of tea manufacturer, which have been making small quantities of unique specialty teas over the years. Some of them are sold through the Colombo Tea Auction that provides a premium category if producers are able to present a minimum of 75kg per lot.

The definition of ‘artisanal tea’ is not yet commonly determined, but artisanal tea is different from mass products in a clear number of ways. For example, some are organically grown, hand-plucked and hand-rolled, but not all. Some producers are trying to maximise the quality of green leaf, while others are focusing on unique appearance. Furthermore, not only the tea made from 100 per cent of Camellia sinensis leaf can be considered artisanal, but also various teas mixed with herbs, flowers or spices.

Leading the artisanal charge

One of the pioneers of handmade teas is Bernard Holsinger of Ebony Springs, which is in the Western area near Kenilworth Plantation. Holsinger was born in 1946 and had worked in leading large estates mostly in the Western High-grown district until 2003. He dreamed of establishing a small tea garden and a cottage-like factory with accommodations to entertain tea lovers from all over the world and provide the joy and experience of homemade tea.

In 1999, Holsinger found two hectares (ha) of land that was over-run with weeds but on sale and affordable, so he bought it. After clearing the weeds, he planted tea on 1.2 ha and built a bungalow with two attached twin guest rooms and one separate cottage for family use on the remaining land. Holsinger planted mainly TRI2043 cultivar on 0.8 ha that has purple leaves with shiny, large and hairy buds, commonly used for Silver Tips tea (white tea). For the remaining 0.4 ha, he chose the Norwood cultivar known for quality western high-grown tea.

Holsinger continued to work for the auction broker, Forbes and Walker, as a consultant, and was invited as an advisor for a new tea factory in Rize, Turkey from 2007 to 2009. Therefore, his Ebony Springs project was accelerated only after his return from Turkey. He innovated nine varieties of unique teas, what he calls Designer’s Tea, such as Tea Urchin, Knotted Tea, White Peony, Hand Rolled Green Tea, etc., and trained local villagers how to make those teas. The estate can produce 15 to 20kg of Designer’s Tea per month from its own leaf and has found good overseas buyers by selling through online malls. Ebony Springs registered as HT0005 in March 2021 and joined the CATA in the following April.

“It is more appropriate to call those teas handcrafted teas, since most of the Ceylon orthodox black teas are artisanal. They are different from the CTC teas manufactured by a fully mechanised process in which green leaves are put from one side then manufactured CTC teas come out from the other side,” said Anil Cooke, the managing director/CEO of Asia Siyaka Commodities plc, an auction broker. He also pointed out that a trigger for increased discovery of handcrafted teas in Sri Lanka was when the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association (CTTA) along with the SLTB organised a series of Ceylon Estate Tea of the Year and Charity Auctions in tea-importing countries since 2000s. They added an ‘innovative tea’ category in 2010 and encouraged capable producers to participate. The Charity Auctions have taken place in the USA, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Russia and China. The Lumbini Tea Valley is the first gold medal winner in this category.

Lumbini tea reinvents itself

Lumbini Tea Valley is in Deniyaya, Southern Province, near the Sinharaja Virgin Rainforest, a Unesco World Natural Heritage site. Lumbini is a private tea estate with 73 ha of total land and 70 ha under tea where planting was started by Dayapala Jayawardana in 1975. The factory was built in 1984 at an altitude of 452 meters above the sea, and now manufactures about 600 metric tonnes of tea annually: 30 per cent from estate leaf and 70 per cent from bought leaf grown by 1,500 contracted farmers. Since 2000, the founder’s son has managed the estate. Chaminda Jayawardana is known as one of the most enthusiastic and skilled tea producers in the private sector.

Lumbini has been selling its specialty teas such as FBOPF Extra Special, FFEXSP1, etc., by direct export or through the weekly Colombo tea auction. Furthermore, Jayawardena has been handcrafting some teas since 2009, and its ‘Jayachakra Tea’ (Jaya is from the founder’s surname, and chakra means ring in Sinhala language) won the first gold medal in the innovative category in the Charity Auction in Tokyo in 2010.

Since then, Lumbini has continuously won international awards, and expanded its varieties of handmade teas. Lumbini formed a team of four creators who make 11 kinds of artisanal teas from the estate leaf. It can produce 10kg of each variety per month; however, currently, they make those teas only after they get an order so that Lumbini supplies freshly made teas. Jayawardena pays a five per cent of loyalty to each creator from the revenue generated by their handcrafted teas to encourage them with respect for their skill and creativity. Jayawardena is a founding member of the CATA, and deeply involved in its collective promotional activities.

Kaley combats deforestation

About a 40-minute drive from Lumbini south, another CATA member’s estate is situated in Kotapola, Southern Province, which also faces the Sinharaja rainforest. The name of the estate is Enasaldola (enasal means cardamom, and dola means stream in Sinhala), and now it is making handcrafted teas sold under the brand name of Kaley, from the Sinhala word kalé, which means forest. The estate was founded about 25 years ago and has been managed by Kaley Natural Farms (Pvt) Ltd, since January 2015. The owner, Udena Wickremesooriya, has a unique career before he became a tea producer. His father, Gerald Wickremesooriya was a planter, and later he established the first Sri Lanka’s independent music label, Sooriya. Consequently, Udena spent his childhood surrounded by rice paddies, tea, coconut and rubber fields as well as music studios, radio stations and live shows. However, as an adult, he was involved in diverse business areas over 30 years such as finance, foods, aquaculture, apparel, supply chain, logistics, IT, human resources, etc, across the South Asia region.

Wickremesooriya’s (Udena) major motive for becoming a farmer was his concern for deforestation in Sri Lanka. In 2004, he bought 3.6 ha of abandoned rubber estate in Horana, near Colombo, and planted some indigenous forest and fruit trees. On his first visit to Enasaldola estate, which was on sale, he immediately decided to purchase it since out of 20 ha of the total estate land, 9 ha was preserved as rainforest. In the 11 ha of cultivated area, he planted tea (75 per cent), cinnamon (20 per cent), pepper and some fruit trees, along with a variety of nitrogen-fixing species of plants that are sown as inter-crops, and green leaf is sold to a nearby tea factory.

The estate under the original owner was not profitable and poorly managed with excessive use of chemicals. The original owner had emigrated to Australia and wanted to sell the property. Wickremesooriya viewed its potential and devoted himself to realising the harmony of mother nature, local community and the estate by forming a forest ecosystem.

He promptly stopped the use of chemical weedicides and pesticides. After that, in order to alleviate the shock effect on soil caused by the sudden exclusion of chemicals, Wickremesooriya gradually started to reduce the application of artificial input by substituting it with natural fertilisers made from plants and livestock. Kaley finally terminated the use of any agricultural chemicals by 2019.

Although the estate harvests 60,000 to 90,000kg of green leaf per year, Wickremesooriya felt that selling only green leaf to a large tea factory was not sustainable enough. Then, a mutual friend introduced him to Simon Nihal Bell, the managing director of AMBA Estate in 2018. They share their experiences and methods, and Wickremesooriya has started to handcraft teas. They have been closely working together with some other handmade tea producers, which led the formation of the CATA.

Wickremesooriya established a micro-scale tea factory suitable for their hand-crafted teas on the premises in 2020, which was registered as HT0011 in early January 2022. Kaley has launched 14 kinds of handcrafted tea items of black, green, white, and spice-mixed teas, producing about 40kg of them a month. In addition, they have gained the US Department of Agriculture’s organic certification (USDA Organic) in February 2022.

Revitalising a 100-year-old estate

AMBA Estate, which is in Ambadandegama valley, near Ella, Uva Province, has been restarted as a rehabilitation project of the local community by foreign investors. The estate was originally established by Thamba Arunasalam Pillai in 1900 with the purchase of 10 ha of land, who came to work in a British-owned plantation from Tamil Nadu, South India in 1890. Pillai built a tea factory in 1912, and tea cultivation was rapidly spread in the valley, resulting in the Pillai family’s prosperity until his demise in 1942. Unfortunately, his successors couldn’t maintain the business, and the factory was forced to close by 1975.

The revival attempt of the estate began in the late 1990s by a Sinhalese doctor from Colombo, whose an ambition was to develop a traditional Ayurvedic retreat in a quiet place. He bought land in the valley and replanted it with tea and other plants such as coffee, herbs and spices. His intention was succeeded by JSOC Holdings (Pvt) Ltd, which was incorporated by four foreign investors in 2006, and registered with the Sri Lanka Board of Investment. The company is named after the investors’ initials, who are from Italy, the UK, the USA and Uzbekistan. All were either born or worked in Sri Lanka and have been involved in economic and social development projects around the world. The “S” indicates Simon Nihal Bell, who was born in Sri Lanka while his parents are from the UK, and now serves as the managing director of the company and the first chairman of the CATA.

JSOC commenced operation in 2007 and has been committed to materialising an organic farm with accommodations, which can provide distinctive experiences for visitors as well as generate job opportunities and sources of income for the local community. The company started replanting tea and other crops that meet organic farming standards and renovated the estate’s 100 year-old original farm house, line-rooms (housing for immigrated workers), and a close-by planters’ bungalow to guestrooms. The ‘AMBA Farmstay’ began receiving guests in 2013. It has become a popular and favoured place among foreign tourists and has been rated high in major internet travel sites due to its rustic and unspoiled surroundings, and the hospitality of the staff members. AMBA offers 15 rooms that can accommodate 30 guests at a time. From the outset, AMBA’s mission has been to maximise local incomes by showing small farmers how they can create high-value, hand-made products and offer guests authentic tourism experiences, while preserving the natural environment.

Today, AMBA Estate covers 50 ha of total land. Approximately 10 ha is used for tea cultivation, 5 ha for other crops (fruit and vegetables for the farmstay, coffee, cinnamon, pepper, and other spices) and the remaining 35 ha are maintained as a natural forest reserve. The agricultural sector is managed by Rajagopal Karunanithy, the great-grandson of the original founder, Pillai.

The current sponsors of AMBA restarted production of teas in another restored building on the estate in 2011. The mini processing facility stands at an elevation of 1000 meters above sea level and received formal registration as HT0004 from the SLTB in June 2018. Most of the tea bushes are over 70 year-old seedlings, and nearly 2000kg of green leaf a month is hand-plucked. However, only 10 percent of it is suitable to produce their handcrafted teas such as the TGOP, black tea gems, slow withered green, white tea stars etc. Therefore, they can make about 40kg of handmade tea per month, and nearly 100 percent of it is directly sold to their domestic and overseas customers. With the rest of the green leaf they make the Vangedi Pekoe (pounded tea, vangedi means mortar), mini-rolled BOP and the various chais and flavored teas.

Promoting Ceylon artisanal tea

It seems that the most challenging aspect of handcrafted teas is securing constant demand from the market, which enables those highly costly teas to remain economically viable long-term. The main goal of the CATA is to promote artisanal teas by conveying their philosophies, stories, backgrounds, complexities, creativities, and all efforts behind the teas so consumers are willing to try them and pay premium prices for them. The CATA started streaming its webinars in December 2020 to introduce each member’s estate and teas.

Restaurants or foodservice establishments that serve handcrafted teas can play an important role by drawing interests or recognition of consumers directly and efficiently. A good example is bills Ginza in Tokyo, a popular all-day dining that has served AMBA’s tea since 2018. The restaurant was established by Bill Granger in Australia in 1993 and has opened eight branches in Japan since 2008. Three of them, the Ginza, Osaka and Fukuoka stores, serve ‘Afternoon Tea Set’, and only the Ginza branch has Tea by AMBA Estate in the tea selection for the Afternoon Tea (hand-rolled Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe, a black tea, and lemongrass tisane). The partnership between AMBA Estate and the restaurant was initiated by an accidental encounter in London between Simon Bell and the buyer of the bills restaurant who was looking for a special tea that could add charm to their Ginza Afternoon Tea. When their customers order the Afternoon Tea, restaurant staff suggest AMBA’s tea, which is served in bills’ attractive original tea ware. They offer not only tea but also memorable experiences and awareness. It is clear that every effort from ‘leaf to cup’ is significant for the future of handcrafted teas.

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