Our Sri Lanka tea learning January 2016
This tea learning experience was organsied by Beverly-Claire Wainwright who has been advising us and providing consultancy help throughout our TGS journey. Without Beverly’s contacts and years of work in Sri-Lanka in tea we would never had had such an insightful trip.
We arrived at Colombo Airport at 7.00am in January and it was 26C! It had been 6 degrees when we left Scotland. We stopped near Ratnapura for coconuts at the road side and arrived at Serenity Hotel by the lakeside. This was so beautiful as we were surrounded by their tea garden.
The next morning we had an early depart to see Hidellana Tea Factory who market under the name of Sithaka. This is a huge factory and the tea comes in from many estates into grading boxes to check leaf size and stem before it is withered. They manufacture black tea and provide the production facilities for a huge area of Ratnapura, producing many grades of tea, including Orange Pekoe and BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe).
They also showed us their nursery with seedlings in their sleeves. Here these seeds were pure chinese jat for green tea which is at the experimental stage currently.
On the return journey we passed a plantation with tea staked with sticks on an angle so it doesn’t interfere with the tea roots. All good helpful stuff when looking at the high winds we can have in Scotland.
We then continued to Amba tea estate and the next morning we had an early walk to climb high and over look Amba tea estate and the tea processing centre. We were then taken around the estate and shown the difference between a cloned tea bush (VP Vegetatively Propagated cuttings) which has a single stem and a seed bush which is more shaggy as several seeds used to be chucked in in one go in the old days when planting
Then on to the factory where we discussed the arresting of oxygen on green tea as white and greens are all about stopping oxidation taking place. You can steam green tea to stop oxidation or pan fry it. The best way to describe oxidation is like cutting an apple open which goes brown and this is what you avoid in green tea – but encourage with black. We were shown the rolling table for course picked tea that is not hand rolled. Also the pestel and mortar for the ‘illegal tea’ which was traditionally made this way and banned by the British who didn’t want workers stealing the tea and making it at home. Beverly has worked with Amba tea estate for so many years and her innovative ideas in artisan teas mean Amba has a range of beautiful teas. Their ‘star’ tea is silver needles tied with thread to make a white tea beverage. They also have balls of tea that are compressed at the wither, rolled, oxidised and dried specially to get all the moisture out.
Our trip then took us to the TRI (Tea Research Institute) at Passera. This was a full on day of tea learning covering rainfall figures, issues, optimum temp for tea growing, soil pH and how to correct it. We then moved on to their cuttings in sleeves and how to prune them.
To prevent soil erosion after uprooting tea bushes they need to rest the land for 18 – 24 months under grasses. There are 2 types, Mana grass and Coltamala grass which have fibrous roots to improve soil structure and soil carbon content.. However it will be a very long time before we are uprooting tea bushes in Scotland, but very interesting nevertheless!
We also did a workshop on planting and centering out so you can produce a bush with maximum plucking points. When pruning the starch level in the roots needs to be right so it is sensible to test this first.
It was a very comprehensive day covering also shade establishment and common diseases which are mainly fungal except in the higher areas. Most common is blister blight (fungal) and there is grey blight and brown blight. Also stem canker as in the photograph here.
They have different fertilizers for different years in the tea plants growth (or if tea is a mother bush or not meaning cuttings are taken from it). Different fertilizers are for different requirement so if encouraging root growth they go for a mixture with magnesium and potassium (but no nitrogen) as after first planting out the root growth of the plant is most important. The nitrogen comes later.
We also had a pruning demonstration on bushes that were mature and needing pruning back to reinvigorate.
After this exhausting but fascinating day, we returned to Amba and the next day spent more time in the factory with the ladies Beverly had trained while they were rolling leaf.
Then the next stage of our trip: We drove to Galle, but stopped at Handanugoda Tea Estate – home of Virgin White Tea and met Herman Gunerathne who was such a kind host to us. He showed us his tea shading to keep the moisture in under leguminous shrubs. His tea estate is only 1 mile in from the sea but evidently the salt in the air is not a problem. His speciality white tea is picked by white gloved ladies, so the tea is not touched by human hands from the start of the process to the finish. The post script to this is that Herman then came to visit our TGS project in Scotland which was such a privilege.
Then we travelled back to Colombo and visited Mels tea academy owned by Niraj De Mel and his wife Anne. Niraj told us that tea from tall trees pays a premium. They are also finding that China is importing more tea from Sri Lanka as the demand for black tea in China is increasing but the remark to stick in my head was ‘Tea bags are like eating chocolates with the wrappers on!
We had a comprehensive workshop with tastings from teas grown at different elevations in Sri Lanka which was a lovely experience to end our trip on.