Ceylon Tea
Photograph by Palitha Weerawansa

Ceylon Tea

Sri Lanka produces the world's best tea. Despite the island's name change in 1972, Sri Lankan tea is still branded and marketed as Ceylon Tea.

BY Palitha Weerawansa
PUBLISHED ON November 27, 2017 | LAST MODIFIED ON May 9, 2021

According to legend, the great Emperor and herbalist Shen Nong of China discovered the tea bush by accident while walking through the vast gardens of his empire over 5000 years ago. The golden brew gradually spread throughout the world infusing itself into the very culture and fabric of human civilization.

Centuries later, in 1867, it was pioneering Scottish planter James Taylor who changed the course of history once more by bringing it to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now known. Ceylon is where tea took a revolutionary turn, catapulting it into the global spotlight. This revolution began with the establishment of the country's first tea garden, Loolecondera.

Today, Ceylon Tea is prized around the world not only for its high quality and plantation fresh taste but also for its unique and beautiful diversity. Sri Lanka, a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean, has a vibrant, contoured landscape that changes dramatically from its cold central highlands to its scenic blue coasts. The country's distinct agro-climatic conditions contribute to teas with distinct personalities – flavor, color, strength, and aroma – that vary according to altitude and weather conditions, as well as the district in which it is grown. There are no two teas alike in Sri Lanka.

Our lush green tea gardens sprawl across these diverse terroirs, where the top two leaves and buds are carefully handpicked by dedicated pluckers and naturally processed to traditional recipes practiced and perfected over generations by experienced tea masters.

Sri Lanka is now a major producer and exporter of tea to the rest of the world. The Colombo Tea Auction is the world's largest tea auction, with over 6.5 million kilograms of tea sold each week. It is also proud to state that, according to recent FDA (Food and Drug Administration) findings, Ceylon Tea is the cleanest tea in the world. The trademarked Lion Logo on each pack of Ceylon Tea ensures 100 percent pure Ceylon Tea packed in Sri Lanka.

The 7 Regions

Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, the most well-known of Sri Lanka's tea-growing districts, is rugged and mountainous, with the highest average elevation at 1,868 meters (6,128ft). The air is cool and bracing, scented with eucalyptus and wild mint. The region's unique climate and terrain ensures a tea recognized by connoisseurs as among the finest – if not the finest – in the world, with moderate rainfall during the dry season and cold and frosty nights.

Nuwara Eliya has two distinct seasons: eastern and western. The balance between the two varies from estate to estate, with a short drive between them resulting in a complete change of weather. The tea has a rarefied and refined quality that distinguishes it from low-grown teas. A slow-growing bush with unusually small leaves that, when withered, take on an orange hue – just a hint against the blackness – is produced by high altitude and year-round low temperatures. The infused leaf is a pale greenish-yellow color, while the cup infusion has a subtle golden hue and a delicate yet fragrant bouquet. Nuwara Eliya teas are stronger and less subtle, made up of the most sought-after whole-leaf orange pekoe (OP) and the slightly less expensive but still expensive broken orange pekoe (BOP).

Uda Pussellawa

Uda Pussellawa is a region located on the eastern slopes of the hill country at an elevation of 1,600m (3,000–5,000ft). Despite its small size and sparse population, it is almost entirely dedicated to tea cultivation. Uda Pussellawa has a climate that is very different from that of the western regions due to its location. With the majority of its weather coming from the northeast monsoon, the climate here is mostly wet and misty, but it also gets some 'blow-over' from the southwest monsoon, giving it two quality seasons. In the cup, the tea produced in the region is darker, with a pinkish hue and a hint of strength. The dry, cold weather at the end of the year adds a hint of rose to the bouquet of tea known for its medium body and subtle character.

Dimbula

The tea-growing district of Dimbula, named after the valley at the heart of the region, is located between the two high plateaus of Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains. It is also a part of the true Mayarata, or land of illusions, which is said to be a haunt of demons and evil spirits that few have ventured into. Even though it is only 1,250m (400ft) above sea level, it is classified as ‘high grown'. The district's teas are known to have a distinct flavor that tea connoisseurs prize to this day. Dimbula produces the best teas from March to early April, when the weather is cool and crisp during the day and cold and windy at night. Dimbula teas have a fine golden-orange hue in the cup and a distinct freshness that leaves the mouth feeling clean.

Kandy

Tea grown in the Kandyan region is described as ‘mid-grown,' at an altitude ranging from 650m to 1,300m (2,000 - 4,000ft) above sea level. The chilly weather conditions here, influenced primarily by the southwest monsoons, produce tea that is stronger and darker in color than the rest of the region. Kandyan brews are thought to be deeply flavorful, with strength decreasing as elevation increases. Lower elevation tea produces a larger leaf with a stronger flavor, while higher elevation tea produces a smaller leaf with a more subtle and delicate flavor. Kandy teas have a beautiful coppery tone and a bright infusion.

Uva

Uva is Sri Lanka's most remote province, with access to the provincial capital Badulla via steep, winding mountain roads. The hills and winds of Uva give the tea that grows there an unmistakable character and flavor that traders and connoisseurs alike prize.

The distinctiveness of Uva tea is well known throughout the world, and it was with this tea that the great Victorian magnate Sir Thomas Lipton persuaded Americans to begin drinking tea. This distinct character is attributed to the Uva climate, which is exposed to both northeast and southwest monsoon system winds. Estates in the Uva region, primarily in the Idalgashinna area, also produce a significant amount of Assamese green tea.

Sabaragamuwa

Since the expansion of markets for Ceylon tea to the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, Sri Lanka's largest tea-growing region has grown in importance. The teas are mostly low-growing, with elevations ranging from sea level to around 800 meters (2,500ft). The Sabaragamuwa tea-growing district encompasses the majority of the western and southwestern faces of Sri Lanka's central mountains. The character of this tea varies slightly more than that of Ruhuna's other low-grown teas. In the dry season, it is a dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint. Due to its lower exposure to the monsoon, its aroma is noticeably different from Ruhuna, with a hint of sweet caramel and not quite as strong.

Ruhuna

The Ruhuna tea-growing district is located in Sri Lanka's Southern Province. The coastal plain with low hills towards the interior is mostly found in the province's western part, within the wet zone fed by the southwest monsoon.