The Evolution and Dominance of Ceylon Tea

Posted on Saturday, February 5th, 2022

As Mark Twain registers in his renowned quote:

A favourite theory of mine [is] that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often that the history repeats itself”.

Historians in their findings galore, how many kingdoms, how many civilizations, how many cultures lived with this truth – The fall of one paves the way for the rise of another. This rule is no new when we munch over the emergence and history of the most popular Ceylon Tea.


The monster CLR fungus (coffee leaf rust) entered and began to eat up the coffee plants about 200 years ago, in the late 1800s, when the coffee plantation was still having its supremacy in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). The coffee was devasted by the CLR, nicknamed “The Devastating Emily,” and its demise was immediately visible, finally leading to the ashtray as the coffee fell slowly but steadily.


Sri Lanka was one of the island countries colonized by the British in the early 1800s when they took over from the Dutch. When coffee plantations were dwindling, the majority of the plantation owners were Scots. They were supposedly the ones who were encouraged by the British government to buy by providing them the incentives, and own coffee estates at the time. The catastrophe made these planters left stranded with no clue, or find a solution.  During those darkest periods, Brits think-tank came out with a game changer plan. They developed a scientific approach to counter the whipping of the CLR on coffee. Let may what come, no matter what, taking a risk, these Scottish coffee planters after a great hesitation, started to shift by moving on to planting Tea seeds that were imported from Assam, India. They knew not, the greatest and invincible design of mother nature’s contingency plan for them in Sri Lanka. The plan that was not to destroy but to prosper. Those tea planters did not plant the seedlings of tea, but an incredible plantation syndicate, or rather enterprises united for extravagant commercial advantage.


The man for the purpose, James Taylor, another Scott was hired in 1842 to experiment these tea seeds in the highlands of the island called Loolcondera Estate, Kandy. Having motivated to find the highlands as the tea-friendly chill climate and in furtherance to his endeavor, he invented his own innovative tea-rolling machinery which was truly promising and paying dividends.  The year 1872 witnessed the birth of a fully-equipped tea factory that shipped the maiden consignment of about 23 pounds of black tea to England. The black tea production appeared to be in its ascension ever since and the phenomenal growth was so astounding to a mammoth 23,000 tonnes cultivated across 400,000 acres within the few years. Taylor pioneered tea production and mastered the nitty-gritty of tea-planting and the know-how, which trumpeted aloud to the world – a new profitable business avenue. At the advent of this new technology and the quality of fine Ceylon Tea popularized the most abundantly-resourced pearl of the Indian ocean, Ceylon, to be a synonymous to Tea. James Taylor is vividly known as the Father of Tea in Sri Lanka, and the government of Sri Lanka built a museum in 1992 to solemnize his dedication, passion and services rendered to tea production and nation.


As Ceylon Tea grew in leaps and bounds, it became necessary to mediate the sales and monitor the progress. As a result, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce was founded. As of this day, the Colombo Tea Auction is regarded as the oldest and largest Auction Center in the world and stands tall as a living testament.  The Ceylon Tea Traders Association was formed thereafter in the year 1894, and virtually all tea produced in Sri Lanka was practically handled through this association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. These nationally-minded stalwarts who raised the bar of standards by all means and hoisted the flag of Sri Lanka fly high. By and large, these standards are still in practice even today shows the thoughtfulness with which it was created with one accord. Noticeably the actions followed by the resolutions made at the Chamber saw quite mesmerizing and remarkable tea growth in Sri Lanka. The Tea Research Institute was founded in 1925 to perform research into increasing yields and improving production methods, and the first clonal tea fields were planted in 1955. Meanwhile, the Tea production in the country had surpassed 100,000 metric tons by 1927 and total tea output and exports had surpassed 200,000 hectares and 200,000 metric tons by the 1960s.


Due to Sri Lanka’s diverse climatic conditions, the tea production is largely classified into High-grown Teas, which are cultivated in the highlands, the best suited chill climate (central province – from 4000 feet above sea level ), while the Low-grown Teas are cultivated in the south-central and southern provinces due to its different coil character, and these regions have a warmer climate.


Sri Lanka provided the official tea for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games, the 12th Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, and Expo-88 in Australia in 1987. The country began importing teas for blending and re-exporting in 1981, and began producing and exporting green tea in 1982. The CTC tea process was first established in 1983. Many of the government-owned tea estates, which had been nationalized in the early 1970s, were privatized between 1992 and 1993.


To meet the global demand, as is the current practice for becoming paperless offices, or to ease transaction, Sri Lankan Tea became online ready for selling Tea, which was launched and sold by Forbes & Walker Ltd at the Colombo Tea Auctions in 2001. It is mindboggling, to say the least that despite the invasion of COVID-19, with recurrent lockdowns that depleted the businesses around the globe, the Sri Lankan Tea Exports managed to amass approximately 212 million kilograms with a marginal increase in 2021 over 2020.  This is purely nothing but the quality of the finest teas produced in the blessed land, establishing the fact that the Tea and the land of cultivation is certainly like no other. This cumulative tea production included the orthodox black tea (both from high and low grown), CTC tea, bulk tea, tea in packets, in bags, instant tea and green tea.

Today, the aromatic Ceylon Tea has found a safe haven, making inroads across the globe and infiltrating into every tea-obsessed household.  As of date, tea production and hence tea export has been ear-marked as a decisive indicator in Sri Lanka’s economy. Tea exports have crossed all geographical boundaries to meet 19% of world demand. As it is a wonderful equalizer, requiring attention from the simplest diner counter to the world’s most elite tea-bars.