How and where to taste sri lankan tea
The Tea Plant Camellia sinensis, a variant of the Assam tea plant, can be found in the hilly tea-growing regions of the Sri Lanka. It has a lifespan of fifty years. Adult tea trees, if not pruned can grow as tall as twenty feet, making gathering leaves impossible.
The type and ranking of a particular harvest depends on the part of the plant that is gathered by hand.
Around the year, Sri Lankan women are employed at plantations pluck the leaves best suited for tea production. They pluck tender tea leaves using their index and middle fingers and collect them in a basket they carry on their backs. Leaves, shoots, flowers and buds are all greatly valued in the picking process. The best leaves are glossy on the upper face but dull on the back. The younger the leaf, the tastier the tea. Thus, the young leaves and shoots are highly sought after.
The flowers, white with a golden pistil, are used for their heady scent and their aesthetic qualities. The terminal buds (called “tips” in Sri Lanka) are covered with a fine white down (called “pakho” in Chinese meaning hair of the infant) and used in the Pekoe variety.
Picking is done several times in a year, and plants can be harvested up to four times a year. The young leaves are regenerated and ready in four to fourteen days. Historically, the “Imperial Collection” was carried out by virgins, who would select only the terminal bud and first two leaves of the plant. Because this picking requires a sharp eye and intuition, it is almost impossible to mechanize this step.
Once picked, the leaves are transported to the nearby factories where the leaves are processed according to strict standards. The steps here include withering, rolling, fermentation, drying and screening, where the broken leaves are sifted out from the whole. Fermentation is the variable step, and duration of the leaf fermentation depends entirely on the experience and wishes of the tea-maker. The quality of the final product depends on the quality of the leaves harvested, and hence no two batches of tea from the same garden will be identical.
Sri Lankan Tea Classification
Criteria for classification of tea include treatment, time of harvest of the leaves, quality of leaf and type of preparation. The old Chinese system classifies tea on basis of colour – white, green, yellow or red. However, Sri Lanka almost exclusively produces fermented black teas and so the Chinese system does not apply.
The grading of Sri Lankan teas is based on the type of collection and the taste depends on the degree of fermentation and variation in the manufacturing process. The most robust teas are made from broken leaves (labelled “B”), while Pekoe (“P”) indicates that the leaves used were picked from around the bud. “O”, short for Orange, was used by Dutch merchants in honour of the royals from Nassau, as these leaves produce a regal golden hue when steeped in water.
Aside from the use of tips, fine rolling of the leaves can produce a more refined taste. This contributes to some of the most highly priced teas.
Classification and cost also depends on the time of harvest and area of production. To ensure freshness of the tea, all manufacturing and processing units are located close to the plantation. If you are buying Sri Lankan tea abroad, remember that blending and addition of flavours may have been done later, after export from Sri Lanka.