Tea: Harvest for the world

The English first brought tea to Sri Lanka back in the 1870s. Since then, this tiny island in the Indian Ocean has been exporting it back to us, and across the globe. Matthew Sweet follows the trail from colonial-style tea plantation to factory to high-street supermarket shelf. Photographs by Dominick Tyler
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The Independent Online
he story of tea begins with an old Japanese legend. A devout priest, Bodhidarma, was engaged in a seven-year, sleepless contemplation of Buddha. After the first two years, he began to get a little drowsy. Frustrated at his lack of discipline, he tore off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Where these almond-

shaped slivers of flesh fell, two bushes sprang up. Bodhidarma popped these leaves into his water bowl, and made himself the world's first cup of tea. Invigorated, the next five years of meditation were a piece of cake. Not literally, of course, or Bodhidarma would also

have to take the credit for inventing elevenses.

As far as most of us are concerned, this story might as well be true. Although 3.3 cups of tea are downed each day for every man, woman and child in the UK, we are woefully ignorant about how it gets from the bush to the bag. We have adopted it as our national drink - so much so that American and mainland European blends are marketed under names like English Parlor and Winston Churchill - but we're not connoisseurs. As long as it's hot, brown, comforting and cheap, we're not fussed about where it grew, who plucked it, or the pains they took to get into our teapot. Some of us - whisper it - souse it in three spoonfuls of sugar.

All this may be set to change. There is talk of a revolution in tea-drinking habits, with tea-bars opening to give the cappuccino joints a run for their money. Last October, Whittard of Chelsea opened its "t-bar" on Baker Street, and then, three days ago, "t-zone" began trading on Carnaby Street, where customers can create their own blends from a variety of single- estate leaves, fruits and exotic oils. "It'll transform the image of tea from old and stuffy to cool and hip," says Whittard's chief taster Giles Hilton. He admits, however, that "if you showed some people tea leaves they'd think you'd offered them cuttings from your privet hedge. Which is a shame, because as with wine, there are immense regional differences."

As his name indicates, Stephen Twining is on intimate terms with most kinds of infusion. His family have been elbow-deep in tea for 10 generations, and began trading from their premises on the Strand in 1706. But their market research suggests that our nation has colonised the idea of tea so comprehensively that it has forgotten how the beverage got here in the first place. "I've heard people say they don't like foreign blends like Ceylon Breakfast, and that they prefer the English sort," he observes. "I think they imagine that Yorkshire tea grows somewhere in the Dales."

Until global warming really kicks in, Harrogate is unlikely to export much tea to rival its toffee. For the foreseeable future, Sri Lanka will maintain its monopoly on Ceylon Breakfast. And a good thing, too. In Sri Lanka, tea is more than just an industry. It is a culture unto itself, a leafy principality with its own customs and traditions, its own health service, its own education system, its own class structure. Around 750,000 people are employed in the business, and the country's economy would founder without it. This dependence is a colonial legacy: the British brought tea from China to Ceylon in the 1870s as an emergency measure when the colony's coffee plantations were almost wiped out by disease. Tea has now covered the hills with its own contours, giving the land the look of some huge green coral reef. To harvest the crop, the British imported Tamil labourers from southern India, and the descendants of these people work the plantations today. Drive up-country along the curlicued roads, and you can see them from miles away - white-clad figures moving through tea bushes, plucking leaves that may one day turn up in your caddy.

The best Sri Lankan tea comes from the region around Nuwara Eliya, a mock-Tudor British hill-station where, if you go earwigging on lunchtime conversations in the Grand Hotel, you can still hear the odd pearl-wrapped memsahib discussing the merits of a long-dead maharajah.

Tea production is as tricky and delicately tuned as wine-making, and just as vulnerable to the weather. It is the variation in climate and altitude that produces different varieties of tea - the difference between Assam and Darjeeling, for instance, is largely the work of geography. And like the vine, the tea bush has to undergo a mild form of torture to produce something worth drinking. The higher and drier it grows, and the warmer the wind that blows over it, the less water the plant absorbs, and the more concentrated the flavour in the leaves. With this in mind, crop-processing factories were built in precarious eyries over the fields, and elephants were used to drag the gigantic flywheels into their housings. As Sri Lankan hill-roads have more hairpins than Ena Sharples, this task demanded the combined skills of Hannibal and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Visit a tea plantation, and you'll get a snapshot of a culture renegotiating its relationship with the colonial past. On the road from Nuwara Eliya to the holy city of Kandy is the Hellesbode estate, managed by Vernon and Marlene Tissera, who have been 50 years in the business. Walk into their immaculate bungalow and you enter a world of Anglicised gentility that has, over the past 30 years, faded gently away from England itself. Waistcoated attendants flit about with plates of tiny biscuits. A gardener works on the closely razored lawn, then takes a rest in the shadow of a jam tree. A large collection of Hello! magazines is fanned out on an occasional table in the second-best bedroom. In the morning room, Marlene pours the tea. Traditionally, this is too delicate and important an operation to be trusted to servants, and falls to the female head of the household - a practice that gave rise to the expression, "Shall I be mother?" The Tisseras run a discreetly hierarchised household. Marlene has an electric bell under the dining table to summon her houseboy in with lunch. Vernon's deputy, a quiet, smiley man named Elmo, observes the pecking order carefully, always making sure he's served last.

Elsewhere, the tone is very different. On the 1,550-acre Great Western plantation, manager Maithr Liyanage has mixed socialist rhetoric ("The Great Leap Forward" is the estate slogan) with a Japanese management theory called The Five S's. He has put up notices asking, "Are you satisfied with working conditions?" and commissioned a new ergonomically designed basket that takes the strain off the plucker's forehead. Maithr has painted workers' names on the sides of the machines they operate, and given them all personal lockers. He also publishes the price their teas are fetching - so the staff can work out whether they're being paid a fair wage. Companies like Twinings are in the process of setting up a system that would kite- mark the produce of such plantations.

The Pedro estate, just outside Nuwara Eliya, is somewhere between these two extremes. As you drive through the gates you notice inspirational slogans on every available surface. "Health is wealth", reads the notice outside the medical centre. "Our money grows on trees", declaims another. Pedro is overseen by Roshan Rajadurai, a former hockey ace and, it emerges, a confirmed fan of Only Fools and Horses. At 35, he is one of the youngest managers in the business. The walls of his office are covered with inspirational texts such as "Honest labour bears a lovely face", Kipling's If and something entitled "To Weed or Not to Weed" - the famous soliloquy rewritten as a rubric on the production of Orange Pekoe.

Roshan struts around with the confidence of an English country squire. He's not above the odd bit of finger-clicking, and his employees address him with an air of practised deference. In the old days, pluckers would throw themselves down on their bellies if the plantation manager passed by on his horse. And even today, there are workers who have scarcely ventured beyond the boundaries of the plantation. "Certainly," says Roshan, "many of them have never seen the sea." The paternalist past is still in evidence: "We look after the workers from womb to tomb," he insists. Roshan is, however, keen to assure the visitor that life on the estate is more equitable than it used to be. The workers now hold a 12 per cent share in the company, and Roshan has to work to persuade them that toiling in the fields and factories is more attractive than selling produce from their own smallholdings. "Our biggest problem now is attendance. The workers have been to the towns and been exposed to different ways of life via television, and they aspire to those now." A plucker's wage is about 120 rupees (pounds 1) a day. Not bad by rural Sri Lankan standards, but hardly generous.

In a way, Roshan is lucky that the so-called "Hill Tamils" who populate the estates have not politicized themselves after the fashion of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka, home of the Tamil Tiger separatists. The government - which represents the Sinhalese majority - has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Tigers for over a decade. Roshan is acutely aware of the political dimension of his job. Being a plantation manager, he argues, is like being the mayor of a small town. "If there is a problem or riot, they come to me to arbitrate. The British inculcated this culture, but our new concept is self-help. We are trying to educate them and add dignity to their work. And it takes time and heartbreak." At the end of my visit, I notice another of his slogans, pinned up in the tasting room - "Pain nourishes courage. You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you".

Although the leadership styles of plantation managers may vary widely, the process of making tea remains strictly uniform. Pluckers harvest their patch, taking only the new growth from the top - two leaves and an unopened bud is the perfect pick. The tree naturally reaches a height of 20-30ft, but the plants (which are grown from cloned stock) are pruned to remain at a comfortable level - otherwise the pluckers would have to resort to the stilts once worn by their British hop-picking counterparts. They work with both hands, keeping a swatch of leaves wedged between their thumb and forefinger until no more will fit. Then, they whip it over their heads into a wicker basket - held steady with a strap supported by the plucker's forehead. The PG Tips box offers a stylised version of one of these women at work - her features are suspiciously Anglicised, and the chunky leather basket strap has been whittled away to a thin white cord, but it's an essentially accurate image. Plucking is tough work, but these women seem able to gather up their good humour as speedily as their leaves. If you stand there goggling at their dexterity, they'll generally flash you a gappy, indulgent grin.

After weighing, the plucked leaves are taken to the factory, where the men take over the process. The yield is loaded into withering troughs - immense bays that run the whole length of a factory's upper floors. Warm air is circulated through the leaves to remove excess moisture, then gloved factory officers scoop and turn them by hand. As they do so, the harvest billows around them like green confetti. This is a crucial stage: underwithered tea will be swamped in its own juices; overwithered tea will turn fibrous.

After about 10 hours in the trough, the leaves are fed into the rolling apparatus - a huge gyrating machine like a cross between a bacon slicer and a wine press, which smashes up the leaves' cell structure and activates the enzymes and essential oils that will give the tea its flavour. What emerges is a warm compost with a cut-grass aroma, which is then tipped into the rotovanor machine, where an array of rotating brass teeth break it down still further. The rotovaned tea is then sifted, and any unacceptably large chunks sent back to the beginning of the process. The mulch that has graduated to this stage is spread out on a tiled dais where, exposed to warm air, it begins to oxidize. If you want a green tea - a group which includes Chinese varieties like Oolong and Jasmine - you arrest the process here. But like most of the blends popular in the UK, Ceylon is traditionally a black tea, the product of the next stage of the operation.

Once it has been swept up, the green tea is loaded into the firing chamber, where it is blasted with hot air. It tumbles from the maw of this machine in a hard, black, granular form, and when cooled, is ready to be sifted into grades. Orange Pekoe is the fraction with the largest leaves - this makes for a bright, delicate brew that's popular in Scandinavia. The finest fraction has the less glamorous name of "Dust", which isn't as derogatory as it sounds. These small particles produce a darker, stronger beverage that suits the Arab palette, and are also used in British tea bags - where their more "explosive" infusion helps flavour negotiate the bag's paper membrane. After more fine-tuning, the tea is packed in foil- lined crates, from which samples are taken for tasting.

The trick to tea tasting lies in making the kind of noise that would get you banned from any self-respecting restaurant. The day's grades are brewed in little pots, turned out into bowls and allowed to cool. Tasters move along the line, sucking the tea off a soup spoon, thrashing it about in their mouth and then gobbing the backwash into a spittoon the size of a milk churn. It's an art, but it's not a pretty sight.

If these samples pass muster, more are dispatched to tea broking firms in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. The tea is tasted by the brokers in exactly the same fashion. Their job is to judge whether a new batch can be blended with tea from other estates to match the exact requirements of foreign clients. This is one of the strange ironies of tea production: the produce of individual estates is not allowed to stand on its own merits. Its marketability is measured by its closeness to the buyer's usual order, which ensures that every cup made from your usual blend tastes exactly the same.

Tea auctions take place in the Chamber of Commerce, where security is tight. Soldiers patrol the driveway, rifles slung over their shoulders. The civil war in the north has taken its toll on Colombo. In 1996, a group of suicide bombers blew up the Central Bank, killing 80 people and injuring over 1,000. The tea trade is an obvious terrorist target.

Bidding takes place in a steeply raked lecture theatre in which each buyer has his regular perch. The man from Liptons, Michael DeSoyza, is one of the stars of the show. He's a bull of a man, given to bellowing out his bids and peering forbiddingly over his spectacles. In this room - where five to six sales a minute are completed - the health of the Sri Lankan economy can be made or broken. There are even mutterings that the big players get together to fix prices. "It can be the only reason why tea prices have stayed more or less the same over the past 40 years," argues Phil Weells, director of the London-based Fairtrade Foundation.

Sri Lankan tea men are also dissatisfied with the auction system. "Tea is affected very seriously by any changes in the world markets," explains Tunku Inye, an industry expert. "If anything like the rouble crisis occurs, the price of tea falls. And as the plantations' profit margins are so narrow, that inevitably means that plans to improve workers' conditions are put on hold. The world has got the idea into its head that tea should be cheap, regardless of its production costs." Stephen Twining is well aware of these problems. "Tea isn't just tea. We want people to be aware of where and how it is produced, and to take it as seriously as they would a wine."

In the Twinings factory in Andover, tea from Sri Lanka is being unpacked. The chests are trepanned open and their contents tipped through a series of cleaning systems. Magnets and blasts of air are used to remove foreign particles, and if Twinings' chief buyer Syd Mumford detects something slightly below par, it goes straight in the dustbin. A tea man since 1957, he knows his stuff. "A good Assam is like Guinness, Darjeeling's like a half-decent lager," he explains. "They lay on the palette in different ways."

Once Syd has verified the quality, the tea enters the blending process, in which precisely controlled combinations are whooshed up inside a metal drum. The finished blend is collected in wheeled tote bins, from where Heath Robinsonian tubes suck it down into machines that either pour it loose into packets, or seal it into bags. More machines gather boxes into groups of eight, and pack them into cardboard trays. A robotic arm swoops down and drops the trays on to pallets, which are stacked up on the warehouse floor. Finally, a forklift loads them into lorries, in which they make their way to supermarkets all over the country.

Twinings' research indicates that most of us spend around 30 seconds of our weekly shop in the tea and coffee aisle. Since the Seventies, supermarkets have been using non-speciality tea as a loss-leader, enticing customers in with offers of discount tea bags. "Tea is treated as a cheap product," argues Whittard's Giles Hilton. "Manufacturers get told that they're going to sell their tea bags for, say, 90 pence - so they have to find some dodgy African or Argentinian tea that gives everybody a profit margin. The poor Sri Lankans are working flat out for quality, but if the price goes up too far the English won't buy it from them. We'll spend a tenner in the pub without even thinking, but we won't spend more than a quid on our tea. It's not the traders who are taking the Third World for a ride, it's the public which is failing the producers." Until British consumers recognise the value of the stuff in their teapot - rather than simply obsessing on the shape of the bag - this seems unlikely to change