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Sri Lanka - Global tea exporter

26th February 2010

Sri Lanka may be only 25,000 miles square but its immense tea cultivation yields 298,000 tonnes of tea a year! Perhaps when you next make a cuppa the leaves in your bag will have come from the South Asian island?

Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is situated 19miles off India 's Southern coast. Although the country reverted to its traditional name in 1972 it still uses the name Ceylon when marketing tea. 

Tea has been grown in Sri Lanka since 1867 when James Taylor, a British tea planter, arrived in the country and introduced the crop. After planting a single tea plant in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, experiments were made with tea plants from Assam by the East India Tea Company to see if tea could become a viable commercial crop. It was and Taylor founded Sri Lanka 's first tea plantation of 19 acres at Kandy . By 1872 Taylor had set up a tea factory to process the leaves and the first shipment of Ceylon tea reached London the following year. More plantations followed across the island - by 1899 nearly 400,000 acres were given over to tea production with farms that had previously grown coffee being converted to lucrative tea plantations.

Sri Lanka's tea production has been growing ever since and by 1965 the country had become the world's largest tea exporter, accounting for for 23% of the globes total export. While other countries, such as China,Sri Lankan tea factory - on the UK Tea Council website produce many more tonnes, the majority of their tea is for the home market. Today Sri Lanka accounts for a significant 19% of world exports and the tea industry is incredibly important to the country's economy. As the world's fourth largest tea producer, tea is a significant source of income for residents and generates approximately $700million for the country per annum.

In 2002 the Tea Association of Sri Lanka was formed to represent tea producers, traders, exports, shareholders, brokers and factory owners. At the time, minister of plantation industries Laksham Kiriella said that the association "intended to transform the 135-year old industry into a global force". It's continuing to do so today!

Most of the workforce employed in the tea trade are young women (comprising approximately 80% of a plantation's workforce) and in the past the country has struggled to find enough labour to meet demand for tea! In the 1800s many Tamil people emigrated from India to work specifically on the tea plantations and they still work on Central Sri Lankan tea plantations today. Tea picker in Sri Lanka - on the UK Tea Council websiteTea workers often live on site in barrack-style accommodation and it's not unusual for young girls to follow their mothers and grandmother into the tea industry. 

Sri Lankan tea is grown using the 'contour planting' method where tea bushes are planted in lines to follow the contours of the sloped land. In some countries tea leaves are picked by machine but in Sri Lanka they arestill picked by hand to ensure the optimum flavour and quality. Pickers can pluck yields of up to 20kg per day which are then transported to the nearby tea factories for processing. The factories are multi-storeyed buildings where the upper floors are given over to withering the leaves to remove moisture. Then, depending on their destination as green or black tea, the leaves will be oxidised, rolled, twisted, fired or fermented. Once processed, the leaves are graded by being passed through different sized mesh. Finally they are packed, inspected and sent to auction. 

Sri Lanka operates a strict licensing system and the best teas carry the Lion Logo (which offers consumers assurance of the tea's origin and quality). The Lion Logo is only awarded when the tea producers have gained permission from the Sri Lanka Tea Board following a thorough inspection procedure. 

Other important Sri Lankan crops include cinnamon, rubber and coconuts and Sri Lanka is also an idyllic holiday destination with many hotels able to arrange Tea museum in Sri Lanka - on the UK Tea Council websiteday trips to tea plantations.

Ceylon tea is divided into High or Upcountry (Udarata), Mid country (Medarata) and Low country (Pahatharata) tea based on the altitude it's grown at. As tea grows best at altitudes over 2100m and the plants need more than 100cm of rainfall per year, Sri Lanka offers ideal conditions! Teas from each level have certain characteristics and the flavour is shaped by altitude, weather and temperature. Leaves from different levels are sometimes blended to offer a wider choice of flavour and colour but in general Ceylon teas are brisk with golden-coloured liquor. Sri Lanka 's humid climate and two rainy seasons (from May to August and October and January), along with the geographic situation provide perfect tea-growing conditions but it also means tea can be picked throughout the year. Luckily the mountainous terrain divides the country into micro-climates, meaning that when one region's picking season ends, another begins.

The main areas of tea production in Sri Lanka are as follows...


One of the earliest areas to be cultivated, the central Sri Lankan terrain ranges from 3500 - 5000ft. The South-Western monsoon weather and cold winter weather determine the tea's flavour which is crisp and strong, leaving a fresh and clean mouth-feel after drinking.

Map of Sri Lanka - on the UK Tea Council wbsiteUva

Tea from this region is widely used in blends. At between 2000 - 4000ft the tea develops a deep amber liquor colour and a characteristically distinctive brisk Ceylon taste.

Nuwara Eliya

An oval shaped plateau, 6240ft above sea level. Teas from this region have a unique fragrant flavour and are bright in colour with light delicate character. It's recommended that you drink them with lemon, rather than milk, to let the delicious fresh taste shine through.


The home of mid-grown tea, Kandy is also home to The Tea Museum, which was founded in 2002. The museum houses exhibits that show how tea was processed and manufactured in the early days of it's cultivation and visitors can see century-old machinery, the oldest known packet of Ceylon tea and a replica rolling room.

Low-grown tea

Originating in the Southern regions, these teas have a stronger flavour which stems from them being grown in fertile soil and warm conditions.


Types of tea include...

Ceylon black tea

A Sri Lankan delicacy with a crisp citrus aroma, Ceylon black tea is grown all over the country on estates of varying altitude.

Ceylon green tea

Mainly made from Assam tea stock in the Uva province. Combining the malty flavour of an Assam with traditional Chinese green tea properties, Ceylon green tea makes up for a tiny proportion of the country's export.

Ceylon white tea or Silver Top

Highly prized and priced, this tea is mainly grown near Adam's Peak in Nuwara Eliya. The leaves are harvested by hand and then dried and withered in the sun to produce a delicate liquor and a light honey flavour.


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