Home Feature Articles National Tea Day: A visit to the home of Ceylon Tea

National Tea Day: A visit to the home of Ceylon Tea


Which countries come to mind when you think of tea? Perhaps Britain, where its consumption is a national obsession? Or a country where tea is grown, such as India or China? I recently took my camera to one of the most celebrated tea-growing regions in the world – Sri Lanka – to see how one of my favourite brews is grown: Ceylon. Coincidentally, today is National Tea Day. So make yourself a nice brew and read on….

The language of tea

As a devout tea drinker, I have, for many years, carefully selected my tea. Be it “loose-leaf” for the purist experience or in a tea bag for convenience, I prefer a full-flavoured dark nutty tea (with milk). I have therefore gravitated mostly to Ceylon or Assam teas. I’ll be sitting down on National Tea Day for a very special brew, just as I like it.

I do not add sugar to my tea, preferring to savour its natural taste. However, many tea drinkers prefer their “cuppa” sweetened. So, with one or more teaspoons of sugar, served in a mug, we have a very different drink: “Builders’ tea”. It is the favoured choice of the nation’s building and factory workers, consumed in industrial quantities throughout the day.

As you might expect, considerable vernacular has grown up around tea drinking. The British penchant for “Cockney Rhyming Slang” has given rise to the expression “a cup of Rosie”. Rosie is a shortened form of Rosie Lee (rhymes with tea). The phrase’s origins are obscure but could be related to the name of the 1920s American burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee.

The home of Ceylon tea

I just returned from Sri Lanka, where I spent some time in the Hill Country, visiting tea estates and factories. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the tea manufacturing process, of which I now have a fuller appreciation. Later this year, I will spend time in Assam and visit one or two tea estates.

Generally, Indian and Ceylon teas are similar; both are high-grown teas, considered to be of superior quality. Both Indian and Ceylon tea plantations were established by the British in the nineteenth century. In Sri Lanka, coffee was originally planted, but the initial crops failed.  Attention turned to tea, which was much better suited to the damp and cool climate of the Hill Country.

The tea plant is a type of camellia, similar to but smaller than the ornamental garden camellias. It is thought to have originated in the foothills of the Himalayas. For the production of Ceylon tea, camellia sinensis dominates, whereas camellia assamica is predominant in India. The tea leaves are harvested every ten days or so, preventing the plant from growing into a tree. Only the top four leaves are picked, usually by women (mostly Tamil) whose smaller hands are generally considered more nimble.

National Tea Day: Let’s get picking

The pickers usually start at around seven o’clock in the morning. They take a break at ten after their pickings have been weighed, often at an impromptu weighing station. The leaves are emptied onto a tarpaulin for inspection and then onto the scales. Each picker has a passbook in which the weight is recorded and against which they are paid. Picking continues throughout the day with several breaks and weighings.

The sacks of Ceylon tea leaves are collected and taken from the plantation to an assigned tea factory. On arrival, they are transferred to withering trays, where 40 per cent of the moisture is removed. This normally takes between 12 and 18 hours.  They are inspected regularly, often in the early morning, and turned to ensure moisture is removed from all leaves.

The partially dried leaves are then transferred to rolling machines. In more automated factories, they are transferred to a conveyor and chute, which feeds the rolling machine. In many cases, the CTC (crush or cut, tear, curl) process employed for Ceylon black teas still uses original machinery, installed when the factories were built. More recent equipment is built on the same principle and often employs a feed hopper above the machine.

The role of fermentation in producing Ceylon tea

Most of the production is for black tea, which is 100% fermented. For green teas, the fermentation is halted depending on the type of tea required. The fermentation process is manual; the tea is spread onto racks and allowed to ferment before being transferred to the drying process.

Drying the tea for flavour enhancement has two processing methods: finish-firing and roasting. Roasting changes the flavour of the tea to yield a more nutty taste with burnt notes. Conversely, finish-firing, more gentle lower temperature heating of the leaves, ensures full flavour without changing the nature of the tea.

Arguably the most important aspect of the tea process is sorting. Two methods are employed: vibratory sieving or a series of electrostatic rollers. The tea is separated by size, and stalks are removed for ultimate use as fertiliser.

Tea classifications do vary but, for black Ceylon tea, are generally:

  • Pekoe (P) – small short leaves
  • Orange Pekoe (OP) – longer, thin, tightly rolled leaves.
  • Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) – long, thin, less tightly rolled leaf.
  • Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (GFOP) – FOP with some golden tips.
  • Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) – GFOP with added golden tips.
  • Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (FTGFOP) – TGFOP with improved quality.
  • Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) – broken OP leaves.
  • Flowery Broken OrangePekoe (FBOP) – broken FOP leaves.

This is a fairly comprehensive listing, and in the factories and estates I visited, the grading was simplified to OP,  BOP,  and FBOP.

The final steps

The final stage of the tea process is packing. As soon as the leaves are graded, they are transferred to large foil-lined paper sacks where they are rapidly sealed, pending shipment to tea auctions in Colombo. Gone are the days of the iconic stencilled tea chest.

My visit to this world-famous tea-producing region was rewarding on many levels. In effect, I travelled back in time since the process I witnessed has changed little in over a hundred years. Additionally, my greater understanding of these foundational steps in its production will greatly enhance my enjoyment of my favourite beverage. I hope you also better appreciate where your cup of Rosie started its journey to your teapot. And raise a cup to National Tea Day.

Images from the Leica SL2 and Leica SL Vario Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0

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  1. Super article! I feel much more equipped for discerning tea-drinking in the future. Danes are more of a coffee-drinking nation, so I buy packets of Indian tea (not more closely defined) and Earl Grey from our local Co-op. I then do a fifty-fifty mix and that gives me a combination of dark with a twist.
    You say you drink your tea with milk. So do I. Are you a pre-lactarian or a post-lactarian? And do you think it makes a difference?!

  2. That first photo ..the close-up of the leaves, with distant blurry highlights.. that was taken with a Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4.0..?

    But what nasty bokeh. I thought that Leica lenses always give such soft, melt-in-your-mouth out of focus blur. (My M-versions do.)

    How weird to see all those hard-edged overlapping circles ..more like a Konica ..or a ..maybe an over-corrected Zeiss, perhaps.

    A three-and-a-half-thousand-pound lens does THAT?

    I wonder what a third-of-the-price Sigma version does ..I’d better go and have a cup of tea to recover.

  3. What a wonderful article, Dennis, and lovely images. A fascinating read at the beginning of the weekend. I never thought much about tea production and found your contribution very instructive. I will try to recall as much as possible of it when I have a cup of tea next time. Which will not be in the next few days. I spent a year at Glasgow as a Uni student and drank tea in masses there (with milk, no sugar), but it was over somehow after coming back. Only this winter I started again with some Darjeeling to replace some of my rather massive coffee consumption. Maybe tea and me will become friends again. If so, your article was a step in this direction. So thanks again, Jörg-Peter

  4. Thank you Dennis for this very informative and nicely illustrated article. I have always wanted to visit the tea estates in Ceylon having done so in Malaysia.

  5. Thanks Dennis for this brilliant series of images and article. The construction of the article from the raw material to the finished manufactred product is excellent. My favourite is Himalayan Nepalese masala tea (or chai). On a sadder note, I remember visiting some tea plantations in Sri Lanka back in 2013 and was appaled by the working and living conditions of the people who worked on the plantations and factories. After being in Kandy, travelling through the tea estates is an amazing experience.

  6. I have watched many British TV shows and still find it odd that people add milk to tea. Coffee yes, tea, no!

    • Martin. Yes we are on odd lot on the other side of the pond to you. We put milk in black tea but not in green tea or herbal teas.

      • We Americans still drink tea, but coffee is more common. It seems our tastes changed after the disagreement 1775- 1783. [:-)

    • As Chris says, we are an odd lot. Actually, tea with milk is the default choice in Britain, especially in greasy spoons where it will come ready-milked. Builders’ tea, as Dennis says in his article. Drinking ordinary tea (as opposed to green or herbal teas) without milk is considered rather eccentric. But about 20 years ago, I suddenly decided to stop using milk (and sugar — two or three teaspoonsful of which is de rigour for a mug of Builders). I can’t now contemplate tea with milk. However, I can’t drink coffee without milk. À chacun son goût.

      • À chacun son goût

        Indeed. My problem is, while I really like coffee, I like it really strong, or what’s the point? At the office, no problem, I make the morning coffee for my employees, and I just catch the first fruits as it comes out of the drip basket.

        But out in the world, to get coffee strong enough for my taste, I have to order espresso. And then I only get a tiny amount! Such are the deprivations of life.

      • When travelling in the northeast, I have what is locally known as “lal chai”, a CTC red tea. No milk but with sugar. It is served in a little drinking glass. You hold the brim firmly with the tips of your fingers and raise it to your lips or risk your fingers being burnt. At home though I revert to a cup of tea with milk and sugar.

      • Where I come from a ‘cup of tae’ has to be so strong that you can stand a spoon up in it. Back in the day you got milk and could add sugar, but these days you are given the option to add what you want. While I was in the Middle East we had a chap called the ‘Tea Boy’, who was usually Nepalese or Sri Lankan. I would start the day with coffee with milk in it, but two of those were enough for me and about half way through the day I would switch to mint tea and the ‘Tea Boy’ would put his head in the door and ask “Time for mint tea , sir?”, to which I would usually indicate “yes”.

        Here, Coffee used to be ‘for foreigners’ but the sight of Irish people queuing up for speciality coffees would have amazed my late mother and father. When I am in coffee shops I usually don’t know what half of the items on the menu are. When we are travelling abroad my wife usually judges the success of a holiday by how well the tea water had been boiled. The quality of the local coffee is of much less interest to her. On a holiday in Greece some years ago we met an Irish couple who brought their own tea mugs on holiday with them. I hope that the tea still tasted the same for them.

        Going back to the ‘Tea Boys’ they always served red tea at meetings, sometimes just called ‘Lipton’, in a glass, alternating with Arabic Coffee, mint tea and zathar or za’atar, a herb drink which was served if someone seemed to have a cold. During a meeting, involving the Minister, you would often get all 4 drinks in succession along with dates. You would not be asked what you wanted, the ‘Tea Boy’ would just put the drink on front of you. In your own office you could have any drink you wanted. All about culture and custom, I suppose.

        Lovely photos and article, as usual, Dennis. We missed you at the Leica Society AGM last weekend. The tea at the hotel was just OK.


  7. Dennis. Thank you for this interesting article together with its illustrative photographs. I am just about to have my afternoon cup of tea, brewed in a pot with one PG Tips pyramid tea bag.

    I put my milk in first as apparently one get a better flavour this way. But many years ago, if one put one’s milk in first, one was considered to be lower class by those who could afford expensive china cups. Peasants couldn’t afford best china cups and they cracked when hot tea was poured directly into the cup without the milk there to cool it. I know my status.

    I don’t know how much of a class divide still exists in the UK on when one adds milk to tea?

    However never put the milk in first when using a tea bag in a cup. That’s just common sense.

  8. Thank you for this article! First thing I thought of was an article here on Macfilos by Farhiz with his new M11 of a tabletop full of tea cups! My favorite is black Chinese Lapsang Souchong!


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