The tea plant, known as Camellia thea or Thea sinensis, is not indigenous to Sri Lanka. It comes in two varieties: the Chinese (Bohea) and the Indian (Virindis). The former has a hard leaf and grows in the shape of a low bush or hedge, while the latter can develop into a forest tree with a large glossy leaf. A hardy plant, it thrives under the most diverse and intense conditions of soil, climate, elevation, and treatment.
No one really knows how tea originated. Legend has it that a Chinese Emperor, Shennong, decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it. Somewhere in 2737 BC, leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water, and the Emperor, so it goes, was pleasantly surprised and proceeded to drink the concoction. A variant of this has it that he tested the medical properties of herbs and found tea to work as an antidote; in any case, there’s no denying that it was an Asian, specifically a Chinese, beverage.
It came to Europe around the same time Europe discovered alcohol, and it came, Fernand Braudel tells us, with two other beverages: coffee from Arabia, originally Ethiopia, and chocolate from Mexico. Importing was difficult, since leaves, pots, and porcelain cups had to be imported as well.
The first cargo of the beverage reached Amsterdam somewhere in 1610 on the initiative of the Oost Indische Compagnie. Even then, it took a long time for other parts of the continent to acquire a taste for it: in France, the drink was not mentioned until 1635, and it provoked hostility to such an extent that in 1648, a medical student had to defend a thesis he’d written on it. 10 years later though, another thesis, written this time under the patronage of a tea loving Chancellor, extolled its taste.
The British East India Company began importing it from Asia in 1669. Until direct trade between Europe and China resumed in 1720–1730 (in the reigns of Yongzheng and Kangxi), however, tea consumption didn’t become significant in Europe, and when it found its way to London, England overtook the Dutch. The figures Braudel quotes seemingly testify to this: in 1766, exports from Canton amounted to 15 million pounds, and of them, six million were to Great Britain. A popular legend has it that the drink became more addictive than gin, the poor man’s alcohol, and became an antidote to drunkenness during the reign of George II.
In any case, it gained widespread popularity, especially after gin was subjected to heavy taxation in 1751 and grain prices began to rise soon afterwards; both these factors may have favoured the newcomer.
I am not, however, inclined to believe everything Braudel writes, in particular because he writes, in the first volume of Civilisation and Capitalism, that the first shrubs in Ceylon were planted in 1877, after coffee had been destroyed. It is true that until tea took over, coffee monopolised our economy (or rather, the economy the British had instituted here). But it was not planted here for the first time (as a commercial crop) in 1877; it was planted in 1841 by the youngest of three Austrian brothers related to the Rothschild family, though because of the monopoly coffee exerted over the economy, along with high labour and production costs, the venture did not succeed and become profitable. Even if we discount this historical fact though, 1877 is still the wrong year; 1867 would be more correct, since that is the year in which the other two brothers opened a clearing in Ramboda, at the Labookellie Estate.
The Labookellie Estate was a venture of the de Worms brothers, Solomon and Gabriel. (The third brother, who had tried to plant tea in 1841, was Maurice.) At the same time, clearings were made at two other places: the Penylan Estate in Dolosbage and the Loolecondera Estate in Hewaheta. James Taylor was in charge of the latter site, which became the first commercial plantation of the crop in the island.
Teas from Loolecondera were sold in 1872, and the first consignment reached Great Britain around one year later. In 1876, the first broking firm in Ceylon, John Brothers and Co., was established, and in 1883, the first public auction, held under the guidance of the Chamber of Commerce, was unveiled in Colombo.
Demand picked up very rapidly thereafter. From 10 acres in 1867, production expanded to 4,700 acres in 1878, 32,000 acres in 1883, 364,000 acres in 1898, and 418,135 acres in 1924. By the turn of the 19th century, more than 384,000 acres had been cultivated, mostly by individual proprietors. Once these proprietors retired, they sold their estates to limited liability companies; by 1924, more than 71 percent of the total tea acreage was owned by these companies, with more than 67 percent of them registered in Great Britain. The most prominent local entrepreneur who had opted to venture into production during this time, moreover, happened to be the wealthiest Ceylonese of the 19th century: Charles Henry de Soysa.
The 19th century did not face many challenges when it came to tea’s monopoly over local and regional trade. The 20th century was a different kettle of fish altogether. The first challenge came from a glut in the market due to supplies from other countries. Ceylonese tea, which writers from Mark Twain to Conan Doyle had extolled, enjoyed an unassailable position in the world market, but even this was not enough for it to withstand the shock of prices falling down to unprofitable levels.
The fall led to an increase in the tea drinking habit among Europeans, a trend that was aggravated by a successful propaganda campaign carried on by a group of merchants and traders that called itself the Thirty Committee. Owing to the work of this Committee, consumption overtook demand, the glut was addressed, and prices began to pick up. A cess that had been imposed on the export of the product was, owing to the resurgence of the product, discontinued on December 31, 1908.
Barely 10 years passed, however, before another problem presented itself. Stocks of tea accumulated in the United Kingdom in the war years were suddenly released in 1920, which exerted a severe downward pressure on prices. Ceylon’s growers, as a response, restricted production, and as before, the industry recovered: by 1921, the quality of the product had risen considerably, thanks to advances in cultivation.
Because of the tremendous pressure on Ceylon’s growers to keep up with other tea producing countries, science was resorted to, facilitating improvements in plantation and cultivation methods. This went hand in hand with the establishment of various societies: the Tea Planters’ Association in 1854, the Tea Traders’ Association in 1894, the Tea Research Institute in 1925, the Ceylon Estate Employers’ Federation in 1944, and, following the change of government from the capitalistic UNP to the more left-of-centre SLFP, the State Plantations Corporation in 1958.
All this bolstered the position of Ceylon tea, and in 1965 (the year of reversal from the SLFP’s state led industrialism to the UNP’s plantation capitalism) the country became the world’s largest exporter of the crop for the first time. By this time, local growers had begun to cultivate the vegetatively propagated (clonal) variety instead of the seedlings, shortening the maturity period from five to three years.
A period of intense political shifts followed, which had a say in the evolution of the industry: a spate of takeovers of local and foreign enterprises by the government of the seventies (which limited land ownership to 50 acres), and, partly under a government headed by the daughter of the prime minister who had sanctioned and overseen those takeovers, the restoration of estates to private management in the nineties.
Today, the tea industry is not faring well, since it has consistently failed to keep its share of overseas markets, particularly black tea, despite global demand rising by five percent per year. More than anything, this has to do with the fact that replanting was abandoned after the Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga governments privatised the estates. Obviously then, the future does not look that rosy.
In the tea industry, the tea taster reigns supreme. Yet strangely enough tea tasting begins with the plucker. This is because the taster’s judgment depends on how the leaves have been plucked. There are two forms of plucking: fine and coarse. The former is essential to a good cup of tea, and as a rule it involves the plucking of the leaf and the bud. Coarse plucking, as the name suggests, on the other hand produces teas of inferior quality.
Once this stage is done, the tea leaves pass through five phases before reaching the taster: withering, rolling, fermentation, firing, and sifting or grading. All these have a say in the taster’s judgment. For instance, if the tea has not been fired properly, it will get either mouldy or burnt within a few weeks, and the taster will be able to tell this.
While this is underway, the tea also has to be marketed, which brings it into contact with three distinct but related groups: the seller, the broker, and the buyer. The taster falls into all these groups: he is the producer, the broker, and the buyer. He is, in short, a specialist able to distinguish not just between different kinds of leaves but also between different kinds of the same leaf. The final objective, as always, is to ensure that customers get the cheerful cup they ultimately pay for.
What does the taster look for? First and foremost, the taste and texture. He is there to ensure that the tea is unadulterated and that it has been measured properly. He is there to ensure that the tea is made well enough to merit a shelf life of more than two years. He is there to ensure that it is neither too dry nor too mouldy, and that it conforms to the leaf variety it has been extracted from. In that sense a major challenge he has to meet is to ensure that it meets the standard set for the countries to which it is to be shipped, since different regions demand different varieties of Ceylon tea: low grown teas for the Middle-East, and high grown teas for Europe, especially Britain.
There are other factors that need to be taken into account. For instance, water. More than coffee, tea is susceptible to water, and for the taster, this means that when he is assessing a sample, he has to be precise about the amount he uses. A standard rule is to put in about two grams of the power to about 100 millilitres of hot water. If milk is required (since in markets like Britain, there is an immense demand for milk tea), he will have to add five extra millilitres of hot water. These are precise rules, and by not adhering to them the taster will not be able to ascertain the sample quality. In this respect the training he receives must be in top form.
To be sure, the training regime of the taster has drastically changed from what it used to be more than 25 years ago. Back then he was subject to a rigid course whereby he had to pick up not just the art of tasting, but prior to that the tasks of plucking, weeding, and cleaning as well.
As one experienced taster implied, training now has become more relaxed and specialised, and more focused. One can of course make the argument that without enough skills in other departments of the industry, he can’t graduate as a fully qualified taster. But the opposite argument also holds valid: he is, in this scheme of things, the arbiter of the quality of the product, and must exercise skills that are strictly relevant to that role. This is true whether he “belongs” to the plantation, the broker, or the seller.
Sometimes the forces of nature conspire to make the final product unpalatable to the unwary customer. It all depends on the climate and weather, since climatic conditions can differ from season to season and weather conditions can change all of a sudden for no real reason other than the will of God. This is especially true with regard to the quality of water in different parts of the country: water in Nuwara Eliya may go well with tea leaves plucked from there, but once those leaves (or powders) reach, say, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, the difference in quality of the water may render the product undrinkable. If there are such gradations in a country like ours, one can imagine the immense pressure on tea manufacturers to account for gradations in water, climatic, and weather changes across the world, from hot and temperate regions to colder regions.
This is of course one challenge that coffee never faced, since coffee does not depend so much on water. But water is essential to tea, and tea tasting accounts for the changes in water level, taste, and quality from one region to another. After water we come across the other factors: the colour of the leaves, the firing the leaves have been subjected to, whether they have been rolled properly, whether they have been weeded in a way that makes them satisfactory to the typical customer, local and foreign.
Mark Twain writes in his travelogue Following the Equator of a fellow traveller who observes that tea has a return of investment of 40 percent: typical of the golden era of cultivation in Sri Lanka perhaps, but a far cry from today’s statistics. Whichever way you look at it though, the beverage remains our only true export brand. To abandon it and focus on other crops, as some market-oriented economists have recommended, would be (as a friend of mine recently put it) unwise and short-sighted.