Here we review teas from those parts of the world less well known as producers of good tea
Tea is famously grown in China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, but what of all those other countries which grow tea, especially in the Far East – are they any good? Essentially tea requires warmth, high humidity, high rainfall and acidic, well-drained soils. Plus, of course, a culture of producing good tea.
They have been growing Assam varieties since the late nineteenth century, mainly in the south around Mulanje. Now over 40,000 tonnes are exported each year. These strong teas are extensively used in blends. Malawi is second to Kenya in African tea production volumes.
Zimbabwe relies on irrigation for the successful growing of its teas. Again, mainly used for blends.
Whilst green teas have been grown here for centuries black tea was only first made in the 1950’s and the war of the 1970s disrupted production significantly. Much foreign investment has helped restore tea production. Teas are grown in the central tropical areas to the northern mountains. More oolongs are now also being grown in the south. We offer a good oolong from Vietnam.
Tea has been produced here since 1900 and especially since the 1920s but by the 1950s tea had become Uganda’s fourth largest export. The quality tends to be poor with lack of consistency and lack of investment. Most teas are CTC (Cut Tear Curl) and are sold at auction through Mombasa.
Most tea is produced in the southern highlands, again CTC. Tea production dates back to 1905.
Since 1877 teas have been grown in the Transkei, Natal and the Eastern Transvaal. Some single-origin CTC tea is grown at the Ntingwe Tea Estate.
Tea has been grown here for two centuries since the Dutch first planted it in Java, followed by Sumatra and more recently in Sulawesi. It is light and popular in its domestic market although much is exported. CTC teas are now produced alongside orthodox and comprises green, black and jasmine teas. Initially China stock, they are now Assam varieties which thrive better.
Black orthodox teas are grown on the Boh Estate in The Cameroon Highlands. Smooth and light, the teas compare with some Ceylons.
Some gardens date back to the 1850s when neighbouring Darjeeling was also planted although many date only from the 1970s. The best quality teas are high-grown orthodox. CTC teas are also produced on the lowland Terai, bordering the plains of northern India. We stock several high-grown orthodox teas from Nepal. They tend to share some of the muscatel properties of Darjeeling yet tend to be rather smoother.
Tea was first grown here in 1903 and now Kenya is the world’s third largest tea producer. Tea is produced high in the Kenya Highlands above Lake Victoria at altitudes of 5000-9000ft where there is sufficient rainfall. Marinyn is one of the most famous orthodox tea gardens which is represented in our selection of Kenyan teas.
Teas from this very low lying area are akin to the Nilgiris of southern India and have good colour and a slight spiciness. The vast majority of teas grown are black CTC.
In addition to these countries several South American countries also produce a little tea in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. They are primarily used for blending and instant teas.
Do explore teas from these lesser known tea producing countries. You may well discover some beautiful teas full of character and at remarkably good value. Be adventurous!
Japan has a formidable reputation for its tea – all of which is green. From the late nineteenth until the mid twentieth centuries Japan did produce some black tea but this ceased in the face of competition from new tea producing areas of the world. Originally, its tea making techniques and philosophy came from China but this has evolved over the centuries to become a distinct culture of its own as epitomized by Chanoyu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Japanese teas tend to be grassy, smooth and vegetal and hence are distinct from the Chinese style of green tea. This is often achieved having been at least partially grown in the shade. This increases their chlorophyll content making them smooth and low in tannin.
Japan puts much emphasis on the quality of manufacture of its teas and less importance is attached to where the tea is grown or the style of its leaf – both important aspects of Chinese tea appreciation.
Japan can trace its tea drinking expertise back to the eighth century when it sent diplomats to China to learn about the cultivation and making of tea. Tea seeds may have been brought to Japan from China by monks Kukai and Saicho who had lived in China for several years. In the Kamakura period (1192-1333) Myoan Eisai, founder of the Buddhist Rinsai sect, encouraged tea drinking for general good health. In the first Japanese book on tea ‘Tea Drinking Good for the Health’ he wrote that tea would remedy all disorders. Tea in Japan for centuries has however been promoted for its beauty and simplicity and the pleasure of the drinking rather than purely for health purposes.
How Japanese Tea is made
Almost all tea in Japan is steamed although a little is pan-fired. Steaming helps retain the flavour of green tea and enhances its distinct green colour. The characteristically straight, needle like leaf is produced by rolling the leaf over gently heated ridges.
Teas such as Sencha Gyokuro (Jade Dew) and Tencha, ground for the manufacture of Matcha, are grown in the shade for several weeks prior to harvesting. This increases the chlorophyll content of the leaf which results in a smoother drink with an obvious vegetal sweetness.
Which Japanese teas are best for Health?
The first picking of the new spring season throughout all tea producing areas in Japan is known as Shincha and is renowned for having the highest polyphenol content of any tea. This is concentrated in the tiny buds and leaves picked for Shincha, picked in April to early May, before the first flush teas are available. This exquisite tea is produced in small quantities and is correspondingly expensive and usually sells out by July.
The shaded teas such as Sencha Gyokuro, have experienced less photo-synthesis. This enhances the presence of the natural amino acid theanine. This is believed to have the benefit of making these teas more relaxing. The most famous area for producing Gyokuro is Uji, followed by Okabe and Yame.
Health Properties of Japanese Green Teas
In addition to Theanine green tea contains an abundance of antioxidants, specifically polyphenols, over half of which are flavonoids; vitamins B1, B2 and C, fluoride, minerals and proteins. Flavonols, a polyphenol, is rich in four catechins, especially EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) which is the most bioactive catechin in green tea. This is particularly rich in the vivid green teas for which Japan is famous. This is evident in the golden green colours of the infused teas and their vegetal flavour characters. EGCG is known to combat cholesterol and is considered to be anti-carcinogenic.
If you have yet to experience Japanese tea and love green teas start your journey of appreciating their fabulous tastes, aromas and special smoothness. It might well do your health some good too!
In the 17 century in England, tea was imported from China by sea. As the leaves were stored below the water line, the atmosphere was humid, black and warm. After several months of travel, the tea leaves had fermented and became black. That’s how black tea was born! It appeared that British people would prefer black teas than green. Now it’s the most popular tea in all Europe in contrast to China where green tea is the national beverage.
Black tea is a tea that undergoes a complete oxidation. It is commonly called red tea in China as over there black teas refer to semi-fermented ones (not to be confused with the red rooibos of South Africa). Outside China black teas are made according to one of two manufacturing processes: orthodox or CTC (Crush, Tear and Curl). Could you tell the difference between them?
The steps for making black orthodox teas
First of all the tea leaves are withered for up to one day in order to remove the humidity contained in them. Then producers roll them so as to break the leaf cells and release all the enzymes to ease the fermentation process. Fermentation consists of storing the tea leaves in a humid and warm room for approximately 3 hours. To stop the fermentation, the leaves are dried at up to 90° C, this is the firing process. Lastly, the leaves are then sorted with sieves into different grades and packed.
After withering, the tea leaves are torn and rolled in a rotating cylinder. In most of these cases, those teas are blended with others to obtain a regular flavour and they are then used for tea bags as they have a small leaf. This method was introduced by British producers in the 1950s. It is aimed at maximising output and reducing labour. These teas are mostly mass-market teas sold in supermarkets.
It’s important to note that orthodox methods differ between the tea producing areas. That’s why it’s easier to differentiate teas between two tea growing areas or even gardens (estates) as they will have local characteristics. There may also be subtle differences in the manner in which gardens make their teas.
Which black tea do I choose? Here is an overview of the various types.
China Black teas are found mainly in the south of China in the provinces of Yunnan, Anhui and Fujian. Green teas are mostly produced in China. Having said that, China black teas are stylish, fragrant and the quality is second to none.
The province of Anhui produces the Keemun teas in the growing areas of Huang Shan Mountains. The Keemun leaves are generally small, thin and slightly twisted giving a naturally sweet and refreshing character. The two highest grades of Keemun are Hao Ya A and Hao Ya B. Keemun Mao Feng has larger leaves and it is a special picking of two leaves and a bud that yields a rich flavour.
The province of Fujian produces the smoky black teas known as Lapsang Souchong. Its strong and substantial flavour goes well with hot and spicy food. However the Fujian Lapsang Souchong teas are softer than Taiwanese ones.
Yunnan province, grows much of the Camelia Assamica variety orinnating from nearby Assam in India. It produces lush, full bodied and refreshing black teas. The highest tea in terms of quality is the Yunnan Golden Needles composed of longs tips which create a creamy, malty but sweet- liquoring tea.
India is the world’s largest producer of tea and offers a superb diversity of tea-growing areas. The main ones are Brahmaputra and Barak valleys in Assam and Darjeeling in the north. The Nilgiri mountains provide the major tea-producing region in the South.
At the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, the Camelia Sinensis var. Assamica grows in the lush and dense jungles of Assam. This region produces both orthodox tea and CTC as it’s the biggest producing region in India. Assam has a humid, lowland climate with heavy rainfalls which produce a full-bodied malty teas.
Nilgiri teas grow in the lush forest and jungles of the Blue Mountains in southern India. Nilgiri benefits from a tropical climate similar to that of neighbouring Sri Lanka (Ceylon teas). As Nilgiri teas are plucked all year-round, most of them are produced through the CTC process. But some orthodox teas from Nilgiri have superb quality. Nilgiri teas are known as “the fragrant ones”. Our Nilgiri Thiashola is a good example of a high quality orthodox and organic Nilgiri tea. As a customer remarked: “This Nilgiri tea is one of the best teas I have ever tasted. Quite strong, and a very good alternative to Assam or English breakfast”.
Darjeeling black teas are known as the Champagne of teas. Contrary to Assam, Darjeeling teas grow at high altitude, from 2,000 to 7,000 feet. Thus, there is a great variation of climate and forest which give to Darjeeling its distinctive muscatel character. It has a worldwide reputation of an exclusive tea. In cup it is golden amber in colour, with a delicate flowery flavour and sweetness reminiscent of peaches and apricots.
Teas from Nepal
Nepalese teas account among the best quality teas in the world. Mainly produced close to the Himalayan foothills they offer an incomparable aromatic richness. Nepal is a young tea producing country as tea production has been developed only since 1980. Today there are five tea districts with 85 tea plantations. Located close to Darjeeling, Nepalese teas has a similar muscatel character. However they are smoother with woody, floral and fruity characteristics.
Sri Lanka was called Ceylon before 1972. Nowadays the term Ceylon is used to describe a tea from Sri Lanka. Ceylon is known to be the island of teas, famous for their floral character. The island used to produce coffee before the introduction of tea by the British in 1870. Coffee plantations were affected by a parasite in 1869 and then were replaced by tea plantations. Sri Lanka is now the world’s third major producer of tea and offer exquisite orthodox loose leaf teas, especially having enhanced the quality of their teas in recent decades. There are three distinctive types of Ceylon tea production: high, medium and low grown. Here are examples of each.
The Nuwara Eliya district produces teas at an altitude of over 6, 000 feet close to the highest mountain in Sri Lanka: the Pidurutalagala. High grown are thought to be the best quality teas of Sri Lanka. These teas are recognisable by their bronze colour. In cup it gives a bright and amber infusion. The taste is reminiscent of jasmine. Some say that Ceylon High Grown are the most exquisite teas comparable with Darjeelings.
Teas in the Uva district grow at medium altitude (2,800 to 6,000 feet) characterised by a season of dry winds from June to September. Thus these teas are rounded, sweet as well as aromatic. In cup they give a coppery red colour.
Kandy is a region of low altitude which produces good quality teas; more full bodied and astringent than other Ceylon teas. Kandy teas have large and dark tea leaves with exceptional fragrance and complex flavours.
Kenya benefits from an ideal climate for producing teas: tropical, volcanic red soils and well distributed rainfall with long sunny days. The main tea growing areas in Kenya are situated in and around the highland areas on both sides of the Great Rift Valley. Here are two superb teas from Kenya:
Marinyn is a well-known orthodox tea from Kenya. It grows at the foot of the Kilimanjaro and gives a full bodied, tangy, subtle nutmeg flavour akin to Assam tea.
Royal Tajiri is a rare and wonderful orthodox tea: it was planted over fifty years ago on naturally fertile soils at an altitude of 6700 ft in Gatundu District, amongst the foothills of Mount Kenya, alongside the Rundu and Mukengeria rivers. This gorgeous, orthodox, large leaf tea is neatly twisted and has a lovely appley and caramel aroma. In the cup it is deep bronze. It is full bodied, rich and smooth.
It has been said that it refers to the shape of oolong teas which resemble the silhouette of the mystical Chinese Dragon. They are mainly manufactured in China and Taiwan provinces. The latter is known as Formosa in tea terminology. Those teas are generally referred to as semi-fermented teas: they are partially oxidized between 20 and 80%. Oolongs teas have a fresh and smoother taste than black teas and less grassy than green teas. The leaves must not be picked too soon and the production process must begin immediately after plucking. Leaves are first wilted in sunlight and shaken in bamboo baskets to softly bruise the edge of the leaves. Then they are spread out to dry until the surface of the leaves turns lightly yellow. This fermentation last 1-2 hours and it is stopped by firing.
Wulong teas have been highly revered in China for centuries. Fujian is the home of most of Chinese Oolong which grown in the Wuyi Shan region in north-western Fujian. It is an area of rocky limestone peaks, winding rivers and lush vegetation. The tea bushes are grown at high altitude and they are shaded by clouds and mist. The best known Chinese Oolong include Ti Kuan Yin and Da Hong Pao (Royal Red Robe). The last is known as a “rock-oolong tea” as it grows in the rocky crags of the Wuyi Shan area.
Da Hong Pao is formerly known as tribute tea as it is picked from bushes around 360 years old from the Wuyi Sha region. This tea is oxidized 80% making it one of the darkest oolong teas of Fujian province. It is then charcoal-fired to give the tea a sweet aroma with a slight smoky flavour. Royal Red Robe refers to a sick Ming dynasty official who after drinking the tea recovered and in gratitude placed his cloak over the tea bushes.
Ti Kuan Yin is originated from Fujian province but it is also manufactured in Taiwan. It is translated as Iron Goddess of Mercy. The legend tell that “Guanyin” was an unmaintained temple of a goddess represented by an iron statue. A man was really desolate for the temple’s bad state and wanted to restore it. Once made, the Goddess give him a tea seed which would give him a lot of wealth. He planted the seed and the Ti Kuan Yin has grown. This tea has a floral aroma and a delicious buttery, nutty character and good body.
Chinese Monkey is a most celebrated tea and a most delectable oolong. Behind this curious name, there is an astonishing story. Many centuries ago, a Buddhist monk was picking tea leaves. His monkey saw his master picking leaves. Then, he climbed the tea tree and started plucking leaves too. The leaves collected by monkey brewed a unique flavour that those handpicked by monk himself. He was so impressed that he got his monkey to pick tea for him from the high mountains of Fujian province, unreachable by humans. Soon the practice was adopted by others. In cup this tea gives a deep amber infusion wonderfully peachy, smooth and satisfying with a glorious floral aroma.
Formosa Oolongs undergo a longer fermentation time, thus they are generally blacker than Chinese Oolongs. The best known Formosa oolongs include Pouchong, Dong Ding and Jade. They are harvested five time a year and the July and August crops generally receive the highest grades.
Dong Ding tea is grown in the high Formosa Tung Ting mountain of Nantou county. Its quality has been attributed to a continuous fog. It undergoes less fermentation than others Formosa oolongs. Leaves are roasted under charcoal during 40 minutes, that gives its special flavour with nutty and fruity elements.
Pouchong teas are lightly fermented between oolong and green tea. Once the leaves plucked, they dry in a paper wrapping and the term Pouchong refers to this manufacturing method. Those teas are usually not roasted and gives a delicious floral aroma.
Jade Oolong is a blue-green tea. The leaves are rolled into tight balls to yield a delicate golden infusion with floral aroma.
In oolong teas there is much variety within these fabulous Black Dragon teas. Whether a blacker or a greener style, you will find one to suit you.
In the China Dynasty of Song (960-1279), white tea was revered. Chinese people used to ground the white leaves into a silvery powder. This was an inspiration for the Japanese tea ceremony “Cha No Yu” with Matcha. This method had been abandoned in China for several years now.
White tea comes from Camelia Sinensis and grows primarily in the Fujian and Zehjian provinces of China. The main categories of White tea in China are the Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. They are lightly oxidized. After being picked, white loose leaves are withered and drying in the sunlight. The name “white tea” derives from the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the tea plant, which gives the plant a whitish appearance. In the cup it gives a yellow pale liquor and a smooth floral flavour. It must brew for 5 or 10 minutes in spring water boiled at 85°. Water too hot could ruin all the vitamins contained in white tea. This tea contains a lot of anti-oxidants and it’s renowned in China to cure cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes and arthrosis. White teas also help with weight management and hydration to the body.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen named as White Hair Silver Needle is acknowledged to be the best white tea in the world as he contains only top buds (a traditional budset white tea). This tea is low produced because of a manufacture process difficult to manage. To get only 1 kg of White Needles, producers have to pick 120 000 buds. They are generally picked in early April during the first flush of young buds. Then they are laid into shallow basket to wilt under the sun or in a warm chamber. Once lightly oxidized, the buds are given a low temperature bake-dry.
Bai Mu Dan (Pai Mu Tan), literally White Peony is a type of white tea which contains buds picked with two young leaves. It gives generally a more full-bodied character than other white teas. Bai Mu Dan gives a pale green or golden brew and has a floral aroma which remain the peony fragrance. You also will notice fruity and grassy flavours. It tastes fresh and mellow.
White teas’ production has also extended to Anhui, Zhejiang and Yunnan provinces of China. Famous growing areas of India such as Assam and Darjeeling have also developed considerable skills in the production of superb white teas.
The main Japanese tea producing regions are Shizuoka and Kagoshima in the south. Most Japanese teas are produced there: Sencha, Bancha, Gyokuro, Kabusecha as well as Kamairicha. Kyoto also called Uji is the region known for growing high-quality teas including Matcha and Gyuokuro. The Mie region produce mainly Kabusecha and Sencha varieties. Finally, the less famous teas of the Nara region including Sencha, Bancha and Kabusecha grow at an altitude between 650 and 1,650 feet on the Yamato plateau. Because the sea is only 75 miles away from the Japanese islands it gives iodized notes and a marine aroma to the tea leaves. The climate is cooler in tea Japanese producing regions, 50°F to 65°F and annual precipitation can be up to 60 inches.
In the 8th Century, under the reign of the emperor Saga, the tea culture in Japan became important. The Japanese began to make powdered tea in the 12th century under the guidance of the monk Elisai. The famous Matcha is produced in the Uji and Shizuoka regions. The soft leaves are steamed, dried and powdered using a small millstone. The first tea master in Japan was Sen No Rikyû, he introduced the Japanese tea ceremony called Cha No Yu inspired from Zen Buddhism. This ceremony is aimed at revealing the magnificance of the tea and also the importance of gestures we can all do daily. During the Cha No Yu, the tea master who wears a kimono uses a bowl, a boiler and a whip. He cleans his utensils in presence of his guests before preparing tea with a precise gesture. Then the host gives a bowl of tea to the guest of honour who will share it with all the other guests. Thus, each guest must drink only a few sips of the beverage.
Gyokuro means “precious rose” and is known as the highest grade of tea in Japan. It is made only with the first flush leaf and its special processing results in a tea with a sweet, mild flavour and fresh, flowery-green aroma. It contains less tannins and it’s rich in theanine which gives a smooth and umami taste. Gyokuro is a shaded tea, it means that the tea bushes are deprived of light during 3 weeks prior to harvest. This method confers to the Gyokuro its unique flavour and colour and its seaweed scent. Traditionally, the bushes are shaded by straw. This method would produce a better quality of Gyokuro.
Sencha is the most common variety of tea in Japan. “Sencha” could be translated as roasted tea, it refers to an older style of processing green tea inspired by Chinese methods. Today, Sencha is steamed instead of being pan-roasted to avoid oxidation. This tea is noted for its delicate sweetness, grassiness and flowery-green aroma. The first picking of the tea bush in April and May (known as ichi-ban cha), are considered to produce the highest quality Sencha. It produces a bright, luminescent green colour, strong aroma and pronounced sweetness.
Kabusecha is a type of Sencha shaded like Gyokuro during 2 weeks before picking. The Kabusecha tend to have a mellower flavour and subtler colour than sencha grown in direct sunlight.
Bancha could be translated as common tea. It is picked later in October from the same bushes as Sencha teas. Bancha is a lower grade of Sencha, it usually contains larger leaves and upper stems, which are discarded during the production of Sencha. It’s unique flavour is distinguished by a straw scent and it’s much appreciate for it’s more robust flavour. This tea must not be infused over 2 minutes.
Genmaicha is the Japanese name for green tea combined with roasted brown rice. It is sometimes referred to colloquially as “popcorn tea”. It gives a light and yellow brew and it combines the fresh vegetal flavour of the tea leaves and the nutty taste of the rice.
Earl Grey is the most popular blend of tea in the UK, so what is it and who was Earl Grey?
Earl Grey tea is a scented tea: a blend of black tea and oil of bergamot, extracted from the thick, oil-rich peel of an Italian citrus fruit, grown mainly in Calabria. It is thought to be to be a 17th century cross between sweet lemon and bitter, Seville type, orange. Bergamot is commonly used in perfumery and aromatherapy.
The Key: Oil of Bergamot
Many mass-market Earl Grey teas today contain nature-identical oil of bergamot for reasons of economy and to give them a longer shelf-life. Natural oil of bergamot has a more rounded, fresh flavour profile and more complexity. Synthetic oil is more one-dimensional. It is important that the right amount of bergamot is included. If it is excessive the tea will be soapy, if too little is used it will be unnoticeable.
The tea used in Earl Grey can be either a pure tea such as China Black or Ceylon or it can be a traditional blend such as ours, containing China Keemun and Darjeeling. Ones based on Ceylon have more tannins and body so can be taken with milk. Sometimes a little lapsang souchong tea is added which gives slight smokiness. Those blends based on China and Darjeeling teas are more traditional and should be drunk without milk. Lemon is best avoided. Rarely, Earl Grey tea can be based upon green tea and we produce a popular Green Earl Grey using pure China green tea. This is difficult to blend as both the tea and the bergamot have natural astringency. It is important that Earl Grey has a good taste of tea and that it is not ‘thin’ and dominated by the bergamot. For this reason sufficient time should be given to infuse the tea properly, especially so where loose tea is used but this will give the best all-round flavour compared to quick-brewing tea bags.
The blend is named after Charles 2nd Earl Grey, my four times great uncle. He was not professionally linked to tea in any way but was the British Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834. He is famous for passing the Great Reform Bill. He had the blend named after and presented to him by a Chinese envoy but beyond this there is little accurate information to confirm who gave it to him and for what reason. However, the earliest reference to the tea is to ‘Grey Mixture’ sold by Charlton and Co. of London in 1867 and as ‘Earl Grey Mixture’ in 1884. There are several anomalies in the story: one that Earl Grey saved the life of a Mandarin – he never set foot in China, and of more relevance to the tea itself, even an original blend could not contain any Darjeeling tea as none was grown in India at that time! One thing we do know is that Earl Grey was sufficiently non-commercially minded that neither he nor any of his descendants have ever made any money out of his tea! This explains why there are now so many competing brands of this admittedly attractive blend on the market today.
As an afternoon beverage Earl Grey is the quintessential tea. It should be have a citrus character yet be balanced, fresh tasting, bright and aromatic. As refreshing tea it is ideal with all those nice sweet things we like to indulge in when having a traditional English tea.
Recently the Independent of 31st March reported on claims that Earl Grey tea benefits the cardio-vascular system by reducing cholesterol due to the presence hydroxy methyl glutaryl flavonones enzymes in bergamot. So its appeal seams to show no bounds now that the doctors are behind it too!
Ceylon teas were planted in 1867, in what is now Sri Lanka, after a coffee blight wiped out all the coffee plantations on the island. Since then Ceylon tea (as it is still known) has not looked back. Sri Lanka is the world’s third largest tea producer and exports account for 19% global demand for tea. Ceylon tea is famed for its brisk, clear, fruity and fragrant tasting black teas. They tend to be self-drinkers – not requiring blending to ensure market appeal.
Coffee Rust, much feared by plantation owners, devastated 100,000 acres of coffee crop in the Central Highlands. Initially planters turned to the production of quinine in the fight against malaria but over-supply eventually led to this market going bust. Other crops such as cacao were experimented with.
James Taylor, a Scotsman, arrived in Colombo at the age of 16 and worked as a superintendent at the Loolecondera Estate in Kandy. He planted Assam tea seeds gained from the Royal Botanical Gardens on 19 acres of land and aimed to achieve more authentic China character. By 1885 he was cultivating 300 acres of tea and had devised mechanical rollers for his tea. This commanded especially high prices. The first auction of Ceylon tea was held in London in 1878. By 1889 28 million pounds of tea was exported to Britain. Succulent buds of Ceylon teas commanded enormous prices and a search for such teas brought Thomas Lipton teas to record prices and fame. Even today he is still synonymous with black tea in Sri Lanka.
Where Ceylon teas are grown
Most teas are grown in the beautiful south western part of the island where rich jungle remains on the steepest slopes and waterfalls shine in the strong sunlight. At elevations of 3,000 to 8,000 feet rainfall is between 45 and 70 inches each year. There are many variations in microclimate such as temperature, rainfall, humidity and wind which influence the character of the individual tea gardens. Whilst the first teas are picked from June to August teas can be picked year-round.
After experimenting with CTC (Cut Tear Curl) methods of production for the teabag market it was found that Ceylon teas could not compete with Indian and East African teas due to the labour required to harvest Sri Lanka’s steep terrain. Many tea factories have therefore converted back to orthodox tea production. Sri Lanka has now regained its worldwide reputation for its flowery, flavourful orthodox Ceylon teas. The best teas sold are graded OP or FOP (Flowering Orange Pekoe). Broken grades are denoted BOP.
Today around a million people are employed in one thousand tea gardens. The local Sinhalese people declined to work on the plantations so the workforce has largely been Tamils who originally came over the Palk Strait from southern India.
Broadly, there are three zones of tea production: high grown, medium and low grown teas. Nuwara Eliya is hot and humid and is the highest area of the central mountains. It tends to produce teas with the most character. Dimbula is situated to the west of these central mountains with Uva to the east. Kandy is the lower altitude area to the north. It is the high grown teas from 3,500 to 7,500 feet that tend to have the most distinctive character and tastes.
The best of these high-grown teas are picked in January to March. They are fragrant, bright and delicately perfumed with aromas of peaches and apricots. The liquor tends to be mellow and golden.
This area of medium elevation again produces the best teas in the dry season during the first three months of the year. Taking the full brunt of the monsoon Dimbula teas are renown for their good body and strong aroma.
Subjected to a different weather system to other areas. The best Uva teas are picked between June and September. The finest of these teas are known to be mellow with good, concentrated taste and aroma. This is brought about by the strong easterly winds which cause the tea leaves to close up to protect themselves from these drought-like conditions.
This mid-level area is located near the ancient capital Polonnaruwa. It produces a strong tea the most notable pickings being in February and March.
The cup that cheers
Ceylon teas are always picked as a flush (two leaves and a bud). This attention to traditional orthodox tea production and the perfect growing conditions present in Sri Lanka have ensured that Ceylon teas continue to be much in demand for their clarity, richness of flavor and wonderful floral aroma. The long standing advertising slogan of the Ceylon Tea Board is apt when it describes the island’s teas as ‘The cup that cheers’.
English tea is an ambiguous term as it has many quite different meanings over our long association with tea. So here we try to provide you with some definitions.
Apart from twenty acres or so on the Cornish Tregothnan estate no tea is grown commercially in England. Their tea is a highly expensive new production grown in the required wet and acidic soils yet without the warm climate generally considered necessary in all other tea producing areas of the world. They use their English grown tea in several of their blends. The pure, single-estate tea is available at Fortnum and Mason in London at £187.50 per 125grams.
A global reputation
For over a century England has gained a global reputation for the skill of its tea tasters in creating superb blended teas. This stems from its long history of importing black tea from China thanks initially to Dutch traders in 1658. It was not until 1689 that England was allowed to import tea direct from China. However, unable to gain a monopoly of trading with China itself, Britain then planted its own gardens in India: Darjeeling in 1859, Assam in 1823 and Nilgiri; in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon, first planted in 1866) and later in Kenya.
These Empire-grown teas were then blended to create teas with popular characteristics some of which then became well-known brands packaged and promoted throughout the Empire and today, across the world. These teas have names such as English Breakfast, Afternoon Blend and Earl Grey, named after the British Prime Minister at the time. England is one of the largest tea exporting nations yet virtually none of it is grown here! These blends are based upon black teas, for these oxidised teas are less perishable and can therefore be stored well. Today however shipping transit times are much shorter so blended green teas can be exported reliably too.
Of course England has been associated with tea for a not entirely positive reason. In 1773 the inhabitants of Boston in America revolted against tea imported exclusively from England and subject to high levels of taxation imposed by the Crown. The Boston Tea Party culminated in ship-loads of tea being thrown into the harbour with the refrain ‘no taxation without representation’!
The culture of English Tea
Tea became associated with England since the early 18th century when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford invited her society friends to enjoy tea, sandwiches, cakes and biscuits at that vacant stage of the day between lunch and dinner when she was feeling in need of a little sustenance and social company. While the presence of cucumber sandwiches and elegant pastries are now rare, a cup of good afternoon tea is still a mainstay of the English psyche. It is also an aspiration which keeps many good hotels busy and even a few famous for the quality and atmosphere of their civilised tea-time traditions. The Ritz, Dorchester and Claridges would not be quite the same without their celebrated tea institutions. Yet for most occasions English tea is consumed in vast quantities anytime, anywhere in a mug with milk and even sugar much to the disgust of the Chinese who have of course been consuming and growing tea for millennia – drunk green with neither milk nor sugar!
English Tea Abroad
English tea is best regarded therefore for its brands of blended teas. These can be mass-market bagged teas such as PG Tips, Tetley and Typhoo or brands of packaged teas such as Twinings, Taylors of Harrogate or ourselves, Grey’s Teas packed to order from a large range of loose, speciality and unblended teas. England is now a source of highly innovative tea blending bringing other flavours, with Chinese, Indian and other national influences to bear and so expanding the appeal of this traditional beverage. These can include jasmine, rose, masala chai and mango flavoured teas.
Today England is pioneering organically grown teas to internationally recognised standards such as the Soil Association. It is also active in ensuring that big brands and small packers alike source their teas ethically; from growers who pay their workers fair rates of pay and ensure that, especially in the often remote areas where tea is grown, their families have access to good standards of healthcare and education.
Loose tea makes the best tea. That’s a bold statement you say. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why. Loose tea is larger leaf. And if you choose large leaf teas they are even better than standard loose leaf teas. The reason is this: large leaf teas have a larger volume compared to the surface area of the leaf. So, when infusing they take longer to brew, giving time for the full balanced complexity to the tea to infuse. If you did this with a small leaf tea or the dust used in teabags the tea would become unbearably tannic and too bitter to drink.
Larger leaf teas also have the benefit of generally being made by the orthodox method, being carefully picked – two leaves and a bud, withered, rolled (not torn) and then fired. This gives an excellent flavour unlikely to be found in mass-market CTC teas (cut, tear curl).
My personal view about loose leaf – Audrey
Many people believe that tea bags are more practical, especially when you are hurry in the morning. However, having tea with loose leaf need not be messy, just tap the used leaves into the bin! Actually, you can’t make a really good cup of tea with tea bags. The tea leaves need enough space and time to brew and reveal all their flavour components. In most cases, when you buy tea bags you only get dust. Thus, you can’t brew your tea for a long time because it becomes really bitter. Even the new style infusion bags, some of which are bio-degradable, do not make as good tea as using loose leaf.
So, the best way to make a good cup of tea is to use loose leaf! You will get a wider choice of teas, better quality and value. You could also brew loose green leaf twice or more often. Then you will discover all the complexity of the tea flavour cup after cup.
Some might think that it’s a hard work making tea with loose leaf every day. In fact not! The only thing you need is a teapot or an infuser for a single cup of good loose leaf tea. Generally, you need to use one teaspoon per person and a spoon per teapot. Be careful with bulkier teas as you may need to add a little extra tea. A loose leaf tea usually needs to brew for 3 to 4 minutes. Then you can take the infuser out to stop brewing. Having said that, making loose leaf tea is not much mess don’t you think ?