One of the most famous things about Sri Lanka is its tea. Ceylon Tea, black tea, green tea and white tea are all exported from Sri Lanka, and accounts for about 2% of the annual GDP. Tea production was introduced in Sri Lanka by the British during the colonial period, and it has absolutely flourished since then. By the latest count, the tea industry employs about 1 million people in Sri Lanka (directly & indirectly) and it is one the largest producers of tea in the world.
I have wanted to visit a tea plantation for a long time. I had this bucolic vision of women in cooperatives picking tea on these beautifully green terraced mountains. I had seen pictures online of the plantations, and was enamored by the peacefulness of it all. However, after seeing it in person, it’s not quite so nice. The fields are largely worked by women, as the tea needs to be picked delicately by hand, with few labor rights or protections. This leads to a very poor life for these women. They make as little as 100 rupees a day (less than $1) and are required to pick for up to 12 hours a day. Many are forced to lived on the plantation with up to 1,000 other workers in low-income housing establishments because there are no other close options available.
The plantation we visited was quite picturesque, all the green and mountainous landscape I was hoping for. But that was where the beauty stopped. The women came running up to us begging to have their picture taken, so we would tip them a few extra rupees. They were not wearing shoes, had very ragged clothes, and had clear posture issues in need of physical therapy from carrying the heavy bags on their heads and backs all day. As always, it is important to know where your products are sourced from, and whenever possible, please support fair trade or sustainably sourced products. These women live a hard life, and if the market paid them with a fair price and a fair wage, they would be much better off. Please remember this when buying tea from Sri Lanka, as there are reputable companies growing here.
With that little rant over, we continued on to the tea factory to see how the tea leaves are processed to their final consumer state. The first step is drying the leaves to reduce their moisture content by 50%. They are placed on a massive drying machine which blows hot air on them for about 2-4 hours. Then the leaves are rolled in a massive machine to reduce the size and squeeze the oils and flavors to the surface. This room smelled absolutely amazing with the earthiness and floral fragrances of the tea soaking into your nostrils.
Black and green tea originate from the same plant. The only difference is that black tea is left to ferment for several hours after it is rolled, while green tea is simply left in its raw state. Both teas are then heated in a large oven to finish the drying process. They will bake for about 1 hour, and then it is sorted into various sizes and flavors. There are various varieties that can come from the same plant, based on the amount of time fermented and fired. The highest quality teas are in the loose leaf variety, while the finest consistency are saved for tea bags, often the lowest quality. The stems from the leaves are recycled and used as fertilizer back in the plantations. And the rest winds up steeped with water and in a mug!
It was so interesting for me to see the process from start to finish, although I was quite disheartened by the working conditions of this particular plantation. After seeing the process, we got to sample a medium strength black ceylon tea, which was absolutely delicious. It wasn’t bitter, but still packed a punch of flavor. When mixed with a little crystallized honey, this was a tasty way to start my day.