by kate on April 8th, 2015
Sri Lanka is famous for tea, the country’s former title, Ceylon, gave its name to the island’s most famous crop. But it is little known that before tea, Sri Lanka was primarily famous for cinnamon and coffee, not tea. From 1825 to around 1867, the country experienced a ‘coffee rush’ – deforesting enormous areas in the mountains to plant the crop – and nothing else. This created a monoculture of coffee plants, and in 1869 pretty much all the coffee crop was destroyed by a coffee leaf disease, nicknamed “Devastating Emily”. By this time, tea had been growing in the country for about 45 years – and was ready to take the spotlight.
The first tea plant was brought from China to Ceylon in 1824, by the British, but only planted for non-commercial purposes in the botanical gardens at Peradeniya. It was another Brit, James Taylor, who arrived in Ceylon in 1852 and created the first fully-equipped tea factory at Loolecondera. It took him almost 20 years to develop his estate and send home his first shipment of tea – just 10kg – in 1873. But by the late 1880s, almost all of Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations were producing tea instead.
As demand for tea grew, so did the production of the crop in Sri Lanka. Tea became big business. By 1960 Sri Lanka was exporting over 200,000 metric tons of tea annually, becoming the world’s largest exporter of tea in 1965. Tea has always been cultivated on a large scale here, today the estates generally are 300 or more acres. By comparison, The Amba estate is just 20.
Amba is located near the mountain town of Ella, and straddles one of the ancient trade routes once populated by teams of elephants transporting salts from the flats of Kirinda to the Kingdom of Kandy. From Amba’s fields you can see the famous Lipton’s Seat, named after the man who really made Ceylon tea world famous. His ‘Seat’ is the place where he would take his guests for rather windy picnics overlooking the luscious green scenery.
Ironically, both Lipton and other British plantation owners looked down on the Ambadandegama Valley from their own estates, but never got as far as planting tea in the valley. Amba’s founder was an illiterate, impoverished stone cutter from Tamil Nadu, who, initially working as a labourer on a British estate, decided that he needed his own business and, starting in 1900 built the entire Amba estate from scratch, ultimately becoming one of the richest men in Sri Lanka. 90% of the building was done by hand, no machinery, and, seeing the importance of processing his own tea instead of just selling leaf to the nearby factories, he built an entirely renewably-powered factory on the banks of the nearby river. Today you can still see this water-powered building, a short walk down the valley from Amba’s current location, which was in use up until the 1970s.
From the 1920s onwards, Amba flourished and the family made their fortune, but after the founder’s death in 1953, family feuds and overspending eventually lead to its decline. By 1975 Amba was bankrupt and the factory was forced to close.
When Beverly and Neil arrived at Amba in 2010, the estate had been redeveloped by a doctor from Colombo and later, a team of four friends from the international development community, who decided Amba was the perfect place to create a local enterprise to benefit the valley’s people and environment. Tea was growing again, but as I noted in the previous blog, the leaves were simply plucked and sold to other nearby factories for processing. Now the new factory (which is entirely wood-fire powered, the only piece of electronic machinery being a moisture tester to ensure the tea is stable for storage) is in full swing, the workers are multi-skilled, not just tea-pluckers.
Amba’s small-scale production is coupled with a focus on and care for their staff that would be unlikely in larger plantations. Sudumenike, one of the older workers (and one of the ladies who introduced Beverly to Vangei Pekoe, if you remember from the last blog) is an example of Amba’s dedication to its people. Formerly a tea picker, an injury to her leg would have meant Sudumenike losing her job had she worked for a larger estate, but Beverly moved her to working on Amba’s vegetable garden, which not only meant she could keep her job, but also enabled her to better grow food for herself and her family at home. And Sudumenike has taught Beverly as much as Beverly has taught her: it was Sudumenike who showed Beverly how to tea pluck in her early days at Amba.
It might be tempting even for Amba estate to try and produce as much product as possible in order to make profit. But Beverly has ensured that their focus is always quality, not quantity. She is not afraid to completely write-off a batch of tea if it is not perfect. And, since it takes 5kg of fresh leaf to make 1kg of tea, their output is tiny compared to the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. It must be said that Amba is lucky to have the financial support of its owners, whose interest is in supporting the community as well as the business. Without this support, Amba tea might not exist. Happily, in 2014, Amba just tipped over into financial sustainability, and we hope that this can continue for them. Even with financial help from the owners, Amba is still an amazing achievement. “I do think it’s incredible that we actually did it”, Beverly says to me, “especially since Nigel Melican quite candidly said at the start that he thought Amba was a ‘basket case’ “.
Amba, with the exception of perhaps one other estate on the island, is the only artisanal tea producer in Sri Lanka, but if they can produce these excellent quality teas, so can others. Unfortunately, since the 1970s Sri Lanka has a developed a reputation for standard quality high-volume tea. Beverly recalls that during her first months at Amba she would travel back to the UK with a suitcase of Amba tea, trying to find customers. Most would simply disregard it, thinking that Ceylon tea is just factory tea, so prevailing is this legacy from the large factories. Even though great tea can be made in Sri Lanka, the majority of even the top restaurants and cafes will still serve bog-standard factory tea. But Amba is definitely doing something right – and if others can follow, perhaps Sri Lanka can put itself back on the world tea map – for quality tea, not quantity.