Sri Lankan Tea

by AFP/Amal Jayasinghe, Aug 19, 2003 | Destinations: Sri Lanka / Colombo

Sri Lanka is the world's largest tea exporter, hosts the world's largest weekly tea auction and yet it is struggling to earn a name as an upmarket tea maker and become what France is to wine. After a costly experiment in producing mass-market teas known as CTCs -- a nondescript tea used in cheap bags akin to table wine -- the country is going back to its British colonial roots to make "orthodox" teas.

Eleven years ago, the Tea Board gave cash subsidies to factories to give up making traditional teas and convert to CTCs (cut, tear and curl) and took away the romance of tea in a pot. During the first year of the subsidy alone, the Tea Board gave 2.77 million dollars to "modernise" 12 factories to make the cheaper CTC teas. The scheme is now acknowledged as a mistake. At least 40 factories have reconverted to making the good old orthodox teas.

The labourious process of turning tender leaves and buds into aromatic black tea has been practiced for more than 135 years since Scotsman James Taylor introduced tea in this former British colony. "It was a mistake to go into making CTC teas," says the chairman of the Colombo Tea Traders' Association, Mahen Dayananda. "We can't compete with East Africa in CTC teas and in any case our strength is in orthodox teas." Lallith Ramanayake, director at John Keells Limited, a leading tea broking firm here agrees. Ramanayake says CTC production is good for a country like Kenya where the cost of tea production is low.

However, Sri Lankan tea is among the most expensive and to put it into the low-end of the market would be suicide for the island which depends on its green gold for foreign exchange. Ramanayake notes that 75 percent of the tea made in India, the world's largest producer of black tea, is in the form of CTCs and Sri Lanka cannot compete with it either. Trade association chief Dayananda says Sri Lanka should not just merely try to increase export volumes, but increase the value of its exports by trying to secure an international niche for its speciality teas.

At the top end are "silver tips" and "golden tips" which are claimed to boost the libido and are popular among Japanese and Arab connoisseurs who are willing to fork out 25 to 30 times more for the pleasure of drinking the exotic brew. The more down-to-earth recent entrant had been "organic tea", made entirely without chemical fertiliser or pesticides.

Better known by the island's former name, Ceylon, the country's tea is identified in the industry for its unique aroma and character. In recent times, several local companies have begun pushing a "single brand" of "Pure Ceylon Tea" tea as opposed to cheaper blends sold in Europe and Southeast Asia. A typical blend will have a large percentage of cheaper Kenyan and Indonesian produce to give it body, Indian tea for appearance and Ceylon's to give it quality and character.

The tea industry here is also engaged in a perennial debate on the tea bag versus the traditional tea pot. The bags are usually filled with cheaper CTC teas while the pot requires higher quality tea. It is not just the flavour of tea that is important. For the discerning drinker, the appearance of the black tea leaves and the colour are important factors in his or her daily cuppa. Those who argue against the bag point out that tea drinkers could squeeze out an extra cup from a bag and thereby reduce consumption. The traditional brewing method takes up more tea.

The industry is also plugging the health aspects of tea, noting that anti-oxidant properties in tea help prevent cancer.

It is also good for the financial health of Sri Lanka. Tea is Sri Lanka's main export commodity, bringing in 660 million dollars last year from the export of 292 million kilograms (644 million pounds). Nearly six million kilos of tea is sold at the weekly auctions here which make Colombo the world's largest tea auction centre.

After failing with its conversion to the mass market, the Tea Board is now pushing for a "specialitea" and "diversitea" campaign to encourage producers to export value-added tea rather than sell tea as a raw commodity. Teas grown at different elevations between 2,000 to over 6,000 feet (600 to 1,800 metres) above sea level have unique characteristics similar to the wine produced in different regions of France.

The Nuwara Eliya tea grown on picturesque mountain slopes at an elevation of 6,000 feet give a lighter colour, but have a rich and unique aroma and are popular in Britain and Japan. The thick-bodied low-grown teas are more popular among tea drinkers in the Middle East. The Colombo tea traders association is organising a competition to choose the best speciality tea of the year. Colombo is hosting two international tea meetings this month, all aimed at bringing cheer to a struggling industry.

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