Ceylon Tea Districts and Estates

Ceylon Tea Districts and Estates

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The Wilson family connections with Ceylon go back to the first plantations on the island, in around 1835.

By the late 19th century coffee had virtually disappeared, decimated by Hemileia Vastarix, a fungal disease of the leaf. Many plantation owners were made bankrupt and destitute. A few tried alternative crops and of course, tea eventually won through. A small area of tea was already growing on one of the family estates, Pen-y-Lan, in the 1840s.

By 1890 Robert Wilson and his brother Charles were involved in the replanting of the Blackett estates in Dolosbage (South-East of Kandy). By marrying the daughter of James Blackett of Dolosbage, Robert had become related to a large web of planting families from the earliest days.

The colonial era superseded the era of the Sinhalese Kings, during which time a very advanced society had been built 500 years before Christ. That society was based on another agricultural feat, the harnessing of the huge flow of waters from the hills that are now covered in tea gardens, in order to irrigate the dry Northern area of the country. This enabled large quantities of rice to be grown to support the population. Culturally and technologically they were a very highly developed and advanced nation.

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Relevant to Ambagasdowa, St. James, Uva Highlands, Iddalgashinne and Thotulagala.

Sri :anka has 7 major districts which contain a total of  42 sub districts, all contributing to the amazing variety of Ceylon teas.This district contains a number of sub districts within it. The sub districts of Uva are: Badulla/Demodera/Hali-Ela, Balangoda, Bandarawela, Ella/Namunukulla, Haputale, Koslanda/ Haldummulla, Malwatta, Madulsima and Passara.

The teas from Uva district have an international reputation for a distinctive  character created in July/August when the tea leaves contain concentrated volatile oils rather than excessive moisture in the rainy seasons. The manufacture has to be changed to deal with the volatility of the oils which create the pungent flavour & aromas at that time. Outside of the season, the teas are used extensively in blending.

The central highland mass runs from Matale in the North, through Kandy and Gampola, rising right up to the Nuwara Eliya heights and then on through the Horton Plains to Balangoda. It slopes  away down to Matara , a central mass of hills and deep valleys covered in a green carpet of tea that follows every rise and fall in the ground. Out to the east lies a long deep North-South running valley that divides the central massif from the undulating hills of the district of Uva. Uva lies in the broad bulge where the island is at it’s widest and appears as if broken away from the central mass. This is an  area of hills and valleys almost reaching to Bibile rRck and Moneragala to the East.

The world renowned district of Uva is a very different area from the other tea districts. It is a champagne tea area like Nuwara Eliya which reacts to the Western quality wind, whereas Uva experiences a very individual and different quality season which is influenced by the wind called the ‘Cachan’, a drying cool wind coming in from the North/East off the ocean. It traditionally arrives at the end of July to the middle of August. However with recent variability in weather patterns, 1997 saw the wind arrive in the first week of September. The wind has the effect of making the bush sense a state of drying and therefore the leaves close-up and the leaf chemicals concentrate into the lowered fluid levels in the cells of the leaves and when picked this concentration conveys a very concentrated high balance of flavour brought out in the rolling process. The prices of the teas at this time rise dramatically and are fought over by a number of international buyers. Outside this period the prices drop and flavour is very much lower in intensity. In order to produce the finest release of this flavour, the factories concentrate on BOP and BOPF grades during the high season and large grades are totally frowned upon by the estates and their management’s. It takes an enormous amount of pressure to change this policy. Making FBOP grades at this time badly affects the BOP manufacture and the price of that grade, requiring alternative marketing.

The ‘Cachan’ wind sweeps across Uva, then down and around the central massif expiring at Balangoda having brought it’s flavour concentrating cold breath to the bushes. Evocative names such as St. James, Glen Alpin, El Teb (Captain Gordon’s estate), Spring Valley, Kinross, Sutherland, Westmorland and Yelverton.

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The district is internationally recognised for the quality of its teas in the N/Western season when they exhibit very clean bright & brisk teas, with a good coppery red colour & in the case of the Golden valley area a hint of a golden hue. Brunswick, Laxapana, Chrystler’s Farm & Venture are located in this region. Depending on the grade that we use, these teas vary from the B.O.P. of Brunswick which creates wonderful quality breakfast and all day drinking teas to the whole leaf OP grade of Chrystler’s Farm where we can create a superb loose afternoon tea.

The districts contain a number of sub-districts such as the Golden Valley, Maskeliya, upper Kotmale, Ramboda & lower Dickoya. Up to the 1970’s Dimbula & Dickoya were considered two separate districts and Robert Wilson continues to consider them to be separate as the character of the teas is slightly different with Dickoya generally having a slightly lighter liquor.

The teas from this district have an international reputation for a very distinctive character created in Feb/March when the tea leaves contain concentrated volatile oils rather than being full of water. The manufacture has to be changed to deal with the volatility of the oils which create the wonderful flavours and aromas at that time.

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These are the highest elevation teas on he island of Sri Lanka. We work closely with Mahagastota (Lover’s Leap), Kenmare and two estates in Udapussellawa for specialist production.Uddapussellawa is really a separate district to the North of Nuwara Eliya and has the advantage of western quality influences as well as the Uva quality seasonal influences.

The district produces wonderfully balanced light aromatic teas in the Western quality season, with a BOP grade the flavours can be quite pungent but the liquors are of a light yellow colour, bright, clear & crisp. Our Lover’s Leap has won several Gold Good Taste Awards. The district also contains sub-districts such as the lower regions of Maturata to the North and New Galway to the South.

This is the great ‘Champagne’ tea area, with altitudes ranging from 6,000 to over 7,000 feet. It borders the South-western bulge of Dimbula, Maskeliya and Dickoya and extends across the central highland mass across to Uva in the East. It’s season comes in from January/ February for the great quality teas. The area often experiences heavy frosts around the end of December.

To reach Nuwara Eliya by car there is the famous Ramboda pass, a spectacular feat of engineering. To reach Nuwara Eliya by train one has to travel to Nanu Oya (oya = stream) and then travel on to the town. Nanu Oya is the most spectacular pass of all. It was at Nanu Oya that Alexander Brown, related to the Wilson Family, constructed a bridge before the railway arrived. At one point the line makes an ascent of one thousand feet in six miles. The winding curves to accomplish this are the most intricate seen in the island. It passes through a steep gorge through Edinburgh estate and eventually opens onto the Nuwara Eliya plain lying at the foot of the tallest peak in the island called Pidurutallagalla at 8,280 feet. At 6 degrees North above the equator, the temperature is 57 F degrees. The area supports a very varied flora & fauna including large numbers of elk, leopards which were the main predator of the elk declined from shooting many years ago but are now increasing in numbers again. The Nuwara Eliya plain has four gaps, one on the North East to Kotmale District, then to the South East to Uva Province, one to the West to Dimbulla district and finally one to the East to Uddapussellawa and then Kandapolla. Leading out to the East is a precipitous shoulder of mount Pidurutallagalla called Lovers Leap. Legend has it that a Kandyan prince became attached to a maiden of low caste and when the King heard of it they fled, pursued by the King’s soldiers. Seeing no hope, it is said that they embraced and leapt from the precipice.
The railway line used to cut through Udapusssellawa and Kenmare estate to Kandpola at the edge of the mountains overlooking the Uva slopes at 6,316 feet and had the distinction of being the highest point reached by the Government railway, sadly it is no longer in operation. It passed from Nuwara Eliya out through the gap past the military reserve up a steep incline sharing the carriage road for most of the distance. On the way it passed the famous estates of Pedro, Mahagastota, Lovers’ Leap. The bushes enjoy the cool conditions but the pluckers of Nuwara Eliya must think that they live in a land of considerable cold, rain and mist. They may perhaps yearn at times to be in Dimbulla or Kandy where once through the gaps the temperature changes and becomes much milder. The bushes seem to thrive passing through Kenmare and then St.John’s. Cave’s books on the island recorded having seen bushes measuring sixteen feet in diameter. Close to St.John’s and down to Brookside the line descends some 1,300 feet in four miles very suddenly. In the days of coffee, packs of hounds were kept to hunt elk up and down these steep rocky chasms. Here on the very edge of this mountain mass overlooking Uva and the lowlands beyond lies the Bintenne area half way to the Eastern coast, the home of the last remnants of stone age cave dwellers of the island who still live and hunt there, they are called Veddahs. Up until the 1950’s Sarah Wilson’s Grandfather recounted having met with pure blooded descendants on his visits with Spittel, however with increasing intermarriage it is now impossible to detect genuine Veddah descendants. Over half way to the coast is Westminster Abbey a large rock at a place called Govinda Hela, which stands out and can be clearly seen from the road that runs down from Bandarawela to Haputale.

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Relevant to: estates such as Uruwala & Dellawa.

Ruhunu & Morawak Korale District is internationally recognised for the quality of its teas in both the North Western season & the Uva season. The area, which encompasses Uruwala and Dellawa estates is low in elevation and the bushes receive very high levels of photosynthesis combined with a very hot & humid atmosphere which develops wonderful black, bright sheeny leaf. These conditions allow the tea-makers to apply less pressure in rolling and to slow the manufacture which cam allow the creation of large twisted grades of leaf with grades such as BOP Sp, OP, OP 1, FF 1, FF sp & FF Ex Sp. The slower light touch allows the tea buds to show in the final manufacture as silvery strands or golden tips. Prior to the 1960’s the area was not know for high quality liquors and mainly for the appearance of the leaf which were used to improve appearance in other teas. The liquors presented rather burnt tasting teas but with the advent of specialised cooling machines the area became known for quality and received high prices. Uruwala is one of the top marks for the area. The brews are a light red in colour, clear and brisk with a characteristic dryness on teh palate followed by a caramel or honey taste that lingers on the palate. with a good coppery red colour & in the case of the Golden valley area a hint of a golden hue.
The districts contain a number of sub-districts such as: Ratnapura, Rakwana, Kaltura, Matara & Weligama close to the Southern coast.

The teas from this area can be created in both the South/ Western quality season and the July/August dry season.

The area consists of many small family estates created from family inherited lands, some are small holdings, others larger units which have invested in factories and then serving as manufacturing points for the surrounding small holdings. It is vitally important that there is good communication between the manufacturing point and the small holders to maintain a strict plucking discipline which may require a special bonus system to encourage quality leaf.
The area contains large areas that were newly planted into tea in the 1970’s onwards and this has resulted in high yields combined with quality teas which attracted high prices from the Middle East and the former CIS areas during the period when much of the rest of the tea lands were in Nationalisation. The government then realised that if this area could be so successful when in private hands, then perhaps the nationalised estates should be allowed to be tendered for by private companies which is the basis of the 23 private companies who today run many of the former nationalised estates on a 50 year leasehold basis.

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Relevant to: Estates such as Giragama, Kenilworth, Elpitiya & Hellbodde.

The teas from this huge district are generally considered to be of medium elevation, running from approximately 2,000 feet  up to 3, 500 feet, with a few individual divisions on estates rising to 4,500 feet. Driving up from Colombo the road is slow to rise for the first 37 miles reaching only 212 feet in elevation, it then rises 400 feet in 12 miles but the significant rise is up to and through through the Kadagannawa pass where the tea scenery changes with a rise of over 1,000 feet in 13 miles and 900 of that rise is in a stretch of 6 miles.

The teas from this area are best made in February/ March and then again from July/ September, during the two dry seasons. The teas are red in colour, during the dry weather they posess excellent clarity and are brisk but do not normally exhibit character/flavour, being described as having taste. The teas were traditionally much sought after for blending, although naturally planters prized their own teas from their own factory, from which the tea-maker would make a blend for the bungalow of about 65 % B.O.P. & 35 % B.O.P.F (based on the historic grading system which meant the broken leaves were 2-3 times the size of these grades today).

The district contains a number of sub-districts such as Ambagamuwa, Alagala, Dolosbage, Galagedera, Hantane, Hewaheta, Hunasgiriya, Kadugannawa, Kelebokka, Knuckles, Matale, Nilambe, Pussellawa and several others. Matale could almost be considered as a separate area with a number of the sub districts and that area is famous for cocoa & spices.
Kadugannawa and Dolosbage evoke memories of the British occupation in 1800 when the British army used the Kadugannawa pass as an entry point to the Kandy King’s kingdom. Near Kadugannawa on the old pass there is a huge rock across the road which the British had to pass through on their journey to take Kandy. It is said that the Sinhalese believed that whomever made a hole through that rock would take the kingdom of Kandy. The other main pass being to the South at Ginigathena, close to Kenilworth estate.  The earliest coffee estates were established at Dolosbage and Kadugannawa in the 1830’s rising up into Pussellawa. Then came the transformation of coffee to tea virtually in the same area on the edge of Pussellawa and Hewaheta districts. This area was highly significant to the taking of Kandy and also to the start of the plantation venture to fund the development of the island in those early years. Dolosbage was the centre of the Wilson family estates.

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This district is sometimes combined with Uva in July/August or Nuwara Eliya in February/ March because depending on the strength of the ocean winds in those two periods it can receive quality production conditions in both periods.
The district lies to the North & East of Nuwara Eliya District, spreading out along the Northern boundary of Uva District.

Uda Pussellawa has two important sub districts in Halgranoya & Maturata. The word oya in Singalese means a stream, rather than a river. The estates running close to the Nuwara Eliya boundary exhibit a rosy red colour, rather than the light yellow colour of Nuwara Eliya and usually contain a bit more body. These sub districts within the major districts are extremely important as they are part of the 32 agro climates that create the amazing differences in Ceylon teas that have made them so desireable.


Source: The above information was compiled by Robert Wilson, of Robert Wilson’s ‘Ceylon’ Teas.U.K. and may not be used or copied without his permission and reference to source. 1998.