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Insider guide to Ceylon tea

Visit a tea plantation to find out all about Sri Lanka's 150-year-old tea industry – and find the best brew on the island

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Renowned worldwide, Ceylon tea is one of Sri Lanka’s primary exports. It all started when British-born James Taylor first began developing Ceylon tea at the country’s first tea estate, Loolecondera, in 1867. Located in Kandy’s hill-country, the estate’s tea plantations soon spawned a tea factory and Sri Lanka’s tea industry has been growing ever since. As many as 28 different grades of Ceylon tea are produced at plantations across the island, from the country’s biggest tea-growing region, Sabaragamuwa, to the sparsely populated Uva province in the south east.

Kandy

As the birthplace of Ceylon Tea, Kandy is also referred to as the hill capital and belongs to the Central Province of the Island. Tea in this region is grown along the surrounding hills covering an elevation of 2,000-4,000ft. This is not the highest elevation for tea growing in the island and the tea produced in this region is thereby labeled as mid-grown tea. Since the strength of the liqueur reduces with elevation, Kandy generally produces a relatively stronger and deeper coloured beverage. However estates at higher elevations produce a lighter and subtler flavour. The best quality from the region is produced during the first quarter during cool, dry weather. 

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Nuwara Eliya

Another district in the Central Province is Nuwara Eliya, best known for its tea. Due to its geo climatic attributes, Nuwara Eliya is known to produce tea of particularly fine quality. With the highest altitudes at over 6,000 ft, cool climes, and moderate rainfall the region possesses a highly conducive environment for tea cultivation. There are two seasons that arrive here namely the eastern and the western, and the climatic conditions vary from one estate to another although located short drives apart. The liqueur produced from unusually small leaves characteristic of the region, is the lightest among the regionals varieties. 

Among the several grades produced from Nuwara Eliya the most popular is the whole-leaf orange pekoe (OP). 

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Uda Pussellawa

Like Nuwara Eliya, Uda Pussellawa, located between Kandy and Uva districts, enjoys two seasons most suitable for tea cultivation.  With no major towns to speak of Uda Pussellawa is sparsely populated and is nearly entirely dedicated to tea cultivation. The climate for the most part is wet and misty although dry spells are present. The regions elevations range between 3,000-5,000ft and its upper region borders Nuwara Eliya. Its liqueur is thus somewhat comparable to that of Nuwara Eliya, although appears darker and is of greater strength. 

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Uva

Uva Province is another sparsely populated region consisting of two major districts, Moneragala and Badulla. Admired for its natural beauty and untamed rugged terrain, cultivation of tea is a major income generator for the region.  As a result of the hilly terrain and winds of northeast and southwest monsoon systems the liqueur produced here is of distinctive character and flavour highly coveted by tea connoisseurs. While the typical Uva tea is mellow and smooth on the palate the region produces a wide range of grades and green tea as well.  

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Dimbula

Settled between two high plateaus in the Central Province is Dimbula, another district famed for tea growing.  With a very mystic and intriguing history due in part to its impenetrable terrain, the advent of tea in the region brought about a change of face in the 1870s. The tea grown here are characterized as high grown, with altitudes of over 4,000ft. While the climate is often wet and misty, the estates benefit from one quality season of cool, dry winds to yield their best quality tea.  The geographical complexity of the region means that variety of tea can be produced. However tea produced in any part of this region possesses the ‘Dimbula chracter’ defined by a fine golden orange hue and freshness of flavour. This quality intensifies with the elevation at which the leaves are picked and the aromatic qualities increase during the season between March and May. 

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Sabaragamuwa

While Sabaragamuwa might be a region best known for gems, Sri Lanka’s other famed commodity, the province is also the country’s biggest tea growing region.  Sabaragamuwa is known for producing low grown tea reaching altitudes of 2,500ft. Due to the lower altitudes the tea produced here are of a different character and flavour and some of the plantations receive the highest rainfall compared to any other in the tea growing regions. Sabaragamuwa as a tea growing region gained importance with the expansion of markets to Middle East and Russia. The liqueur produced her is characterized by a dark yellow-brown  with a reddish tint with a hint of sweet caramel in its aroma. 

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Ruhuna

The other low grown tea is sourced from Ruhuna, a district in the Southern Province of the island. A latecomer to the tea industry the district has many other attributes including a rich history and legends to its name. The demand for strong dark tea characteristic of Ruhuna grew along with the discovery of new markets in the Middle East that favoured the particular type of liqueur. As a result, Ruhuna along with its counterpart Sabaragamuwa, contributes to 60 percent of tea production in the island. Aside from the low elevation of 2,000ft, the soil also contributes to the growth of bushes with long leaves that produce the distinctive flavour. 

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