Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo.
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Mountain culture, certainly in North America, is all about recreation and the call of the wild. In other countries, however, particularly those that are equatorial, it's about agriculture and crops that benefit from tiered exposures and climates that swelter in the day and cool at night. Sri Lanka fits with the latter, and our time there taught us much of a mountain culture that revolves around one of our own daily staples: tea.
Our first exposure came via tuktuk on a back road near the mountain town of Kandy that had left traffic madness, foul air and noise behind for the real Sri Lanka. Here, where people strolled roadsides with umbrellas as rain picked up, we spooled through the greenest landscape imaginable, much of it in tea. It seemed only natural to stop at the Kadugannaw Tea Factory to learn more about it.
Sri Lanka's tea industry owes its genesis to a wily Scot named James Taylor. Arriving in then British Ceylon in 1852, Taylor settled at Loolecondera estate in Galaha. Working with wealthy benefactor Thomas Lipton (yes, that Lipton) he planted the country's first commercial tea, whose first recorded export was a mere 10 kilos in 1872. In 1877, HMS Duke Argyll was the first steamship to carry Ceylon tea to England; by 1890 exports had soared to 22,900 tons. With tea still the county's biggest export, tiny Sri Lanka ranks second only behind India in world tea production.
(Tea eventually wholly replaced coffee in Sri Lanka. A huge industry until it was ravaged by a blight, 50,000 tons of coffee were exported in 1860. But by 1900 a quarter million acres had been converted to tea, dropping that number to zero. Only now is the country producing a small amount of coffee again. If you're interested in the fickle, centuries-long global seesaw between coffee- and tea-trading I recommend Coffee: A dark history, by Antony Wild. But back to tea...)
On plantations, once Camellia sinensis seedlings take to the soil they're cut back to grow as shrubs in meticulous rows that follow the land's contours in large geometric patterns visible from afar (part of the charms of a train ride through tea country). So favourable is Sri Lanka's climate that each bush is harvested once a week on a rotating basis. The tip removed from each branch is called a pekoe, Chinese for "white down" in reference to the hairs on young leaves; no more than a five–three-leaf arrangement is allowed for more expensive teas known as golden- and silver-tips respectively. Ceylon tea (as it's still called) grows from almost sea level to 2,200 metres in six different climatic zones that have a marked effect on flavour and quality.
The hand-picked tea (machines aren't used as in China and India) is spread out to wither on a drying rack. The pile is turned regularly and after 20 hours dumped into a large, ancient roller (all the factory's machinery is over a century old save one colour-sorter from Japan with cameras in it). After a first gentle rolling, the material goes successively into three rollers of various pressures for 20 minutes each of "bruising." The resulting bits are separated by size, then oxidized in wooden boxes for a few hours (the biggest pieces make the weakest teas; medium-sized is most common in black tea and the smallest — tea dust — considered too strong even to be sold). Now stem and leaf fibres are removed, to go back onto tea plants as natural fertilizer. The tea is then dried in an oven heated by firewood that passed by outside the factory's window on a banana hoist reminiscent of Whistler's old chairlifts.
Nuances to this process yield various types of tea. All tea is withered first: the simplest, white tea, then merely dried; green tea is fixed then dried; yellow tea fixed, heaped and dried; both Oolong and black teas are rolled/bruised and oxidized, with black tea directly dried while Oolong is fixed then dried; finally, fermented tea is fixed before rolling, then fermented. After these lessons it was time to sample some. Our favourite (and most people's) was a medium-grain black orange pekoe, orange referring to the brew's colour. We also tried golden tips, an acquired taste and a bit of a different animal — apparently an expensive one.
A few days later, on a hike to a small peak near Ella, we met some of those at the frontline of the region's culture — tea-pickers. Laughing, good-natured ladies who lived in a shanty town on the estate where escaped cows chomped on trailside tea and we imagined the hopped-up bovines later running wild, they couldn't imagine why we would be climbing up a mountain for fun.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.