A history of Sri Lankan tea

As well as its scenic landscape, beaches and fascinating history Sri Lanka is renowned for its tea. Although it’s a relatively small island, Sri Lanka is one of the biggest growers and exporters of tea in the world. In places as far afield as the Middle East, Russia and the UK, Sri Lankan tea has been enjoyed for over a century.

The island’s relationship with tea dates back to when it was part of the British Empire and known as Ceylon. Its location in the Indian Ocean was extremely important strategically for trading interests in India and the Far East. As such, it was seen as vital that the island had a strong military presence and infrastructure. This was expensive to maintain though, so in the 1820s ways to make the island financially self-sufficient were discussed.

Sri Lanka's boom and bust journey with coffee

By 1831 many of Sri Lanka’s hills and forests had been cleared to make way for huge coffee plantations and by the 1870s Sri Lanka was thriving as the biggest coffee producer in the world. The island was prospering and invested by modernising its railways

The dawn of the tea industry

Sri Lanka’s tea industry really began with a Scotsman called James Taylor. He’d been experimenting with growing tea on the island since the mid 1860s and by the time the coffee blight had taken hold, he had 20 acres of healthy plants and had shipped his first tea leaves to England.

It didn’t take long before local coffee farmers went to him for advice. Growing tea wasn’t a quick cure though, as over 300,000 acres of dead coffee-plants had to be ripped up and the land re-planted. It was costly and laborious but eventually large tea plantations were created, some of which are still growing today.

Bringing Sri Lankan tea to the masses

In the early 1800s tea was an expensive beverage which was sipped exclusively by the wealthy. Another Scotsman, entrepreneur Sir Thomas Lipton, thought he could change this and decided he would invest in making tea an affordable drink.

In 1890 he began buying up tea estates and selling his own tea, calling it Lipton’s Tea. Although there are several other successful tea growers in Sri Lanka, Lipton’s Tea remains the world’s leading brand and is sold in more than 150 countries.

Visiting Sri Lanka's tea plantations

Today there are tea plantations all over Sri Lanka’s landscape, which you can visit to see first-hand how the leaves look when they’re picked and how they’re dried. You can also sample the subtly different flavours of various varieties of tea.

Kandy province is one of the larger tea plantation regions and is just under three hours’ drive from coastal resorts such as Negombo. Here you can visit large estates such as the Geragama Tea Estate and take in the stunning views over the rolling hills.

We also recommend making a trip to Lipton’s Seat, reputed to be where Sir Thomas Lipton would stand to survey his tea domain. As well as the incredible scenery it’s a superb area to do some hiking.

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