COLOMBO, Sri Lanka
Instead of immersing themselves in the accomplishments of the past 150 years, Sri Lanka’s tea industry shared its vision of a bright future.
Led by the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) the year-long festivities culminated last week in an International Tea Conference, the Ceylon Tea Festival, a successful exposition and media tour that drew international press. The week began with a major speech by the prime minister and ended with an elegant banquet atop the Mount Livinia Hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Thousands of tea executives, traders, academics, and suppliers traveled to Sri Lanka to share in discussions about the future of tea, visit gardens and tea factories, and to buy tea at the Colombo Auction. There was also time to soak up sun, view the latest processing equipment at the CRT Trade Exposition and enjoy the debut of a dance choreographed in honor of the women who pluck tea.
On Saturday in the glow of a fireworks display everyone sang happy birthday to tea after a dinner with delicacies like stone crab with coconut coriander and Ceylon tea infused jelly followed by a main course of brined and smoked earl grey duck breast with shitake catsup and honey aubergine.
Early in the year the country dedicated a bust of visionary James Taylor, a Scotsman credited with uplifting the entire country from despair following the catastrophic collapse of a thriving coffee industry in 1867. His introduction of commercial tea production swept the island from coastal Galle to mountainous Dimbula and Kandy.
The famous Ceylon tea from the island’s seven producing regions has only gotten better with time. Once the province of colonial land holders, tea in modern times combines a cottage industry and state-supported industrial venture. Producing hand-plucked, hand-made teas is the pride of a million workers. Since 1992 production is organized by region with 230,000 small growers tending the land. Acreage under tea continues to expand and the country’s commitment to ethical employment practices and “clean” pesticide-free sustainable tea remains firm.
What has changed is the world beyond its shores. The teas of Sri Lanka are quite remarkable for their variety, quality and unique combination of aroma and taste. The teas immediately brought the highest prices at the London Tea Auction beginning in the late 1880s and retained that status for a century.
Today the U.K. is no longer the primary export partner which is why Sri Lanka welcomed the world to its birthday party. Exports to Russia, the Middle East, and to Asia and North America accounted for most of the $1.5 billion earned annually from overseas. The country’s many factories are designed to produce large quantities of orthodox black teas for use in blending and in tea bags. What is emerging is a global demand for specialty leaf teas from growers with global ambitions that include brands Dilmah, Akbar, Mabroc, Gaf, and Lumbini.
Participants in the festivities were treated to innovations in processing, packaging, and promotions designed to showcase the country’s exceptional tea.