It is not particularly hard to make tea grow. As long as it gets plenty of rain and temperatures do not vary much year-round, Camellia sinensis is a robust shrub, able to tolerate a fairly wide range of more or less tropical climates, altitudes and soil conditions.
It flourishes happily in the wild, in China (where it originates), in Assam and elsewhere. Untended, the bushy shrub that covers the hills of central Sri Lanka in manicured, contour-planted swathes becomes a shaggy, gnarled tree that can grow up to 9m (30ft.) tall. It was from such trees that the original seed-stock of Ceylon tea – in fact, of all tea – was derived. Growing tea worthy to bear the famous Lion of Ceylon logo is not at all easy. Every permutation and combination of such variables such as plant stock quality, soil, weather, altitude and exposure has a discernible effect on the quality of the final product.
So sensitive is the tea plant to such effects that samples of tea picked from different hillsides or ‘fields’ on a single estate, or even from the same hillside on different days of the week, will appear different to an experienced Tea Taster. Today, when much of the island’s output is grown on smallholder farms, the potential variation within even a single sub-district can be even wider.
Such extreme variability was a great handicap to pioneer Ceylon Tea planters, who could never be sure of a consistent product. Advances in the art and science of tea production, together with such processes as bulking, delivered greater consistency, but tea cultivation remains, much like viniculture, a business of regional and seasonal variation, of vintages delectable or disappointing. Modern supermarket brands, which are made by blending teas from many sources of origin, tend to eliminate this exciting variety in favour of a predictable, homogenized ‘consumer experience’; Ceylon Tea, on the other hand, proudly emphasizes its unique, variable yet always recognizable character. The differences between the various tea-growing regions of Sri Lanka are marked, and the flexibility of the orthodox black tea process enables many adjustments to be made at the manufacturing stage.
Less common now than in the pioneering days, a sloping hillside is cleared of trees and scrub for planting with tea. The heavy timber, often valuable, is removed and the remaining cutting is burnt off, the resulting ash helping fertilize the soil.
In preparation for planting, the land must be surveyed, ‘lined’ to mark the future position of each bush, drained and ‘holed’ to receive the plants. Proper drainage is vital; the ideal is a clean runoff with a minimum of erosion.
Originally grown from seed, either in situ or at a nursery, tea is now reproduced by vegetative propagation or ‘cuttings’. The traditional pattern of planting, with bushes arranged in geometrical clusters, was superseded in the 1960s by contour planting that closely follows the line of the hillside. Trees are planted amid the tea to provide partial shade and further control soil erosion.
Early planters weeded their fields clean, losing tons of topsoil with every shower of rain. Today, only weeds that can harm the tea are picked, the rest left in to help ‘bind’ the soil. Topsoil loss remains a problem, however; how to overcome it is a subject of much controversy, study and experiment at Sri Lanka’s national Tea Research Institute and elsewhere.
While the proportion of organically-produced Ceylon Tea harvested increases annually to keep pace with demand, conventionally-grown teas must also pass the Tea Board’s stringent rules on chemical content. This not only results in a safer and healthier product, but also helps protect the environment.
Tea-bushes, like vines, respond well to periodic mutilation. Pruning, which begins before the plant is mature enough for plucking, is repeated every couple of years thereafter, causing the bush to grow horizontally instead of vertically. Performed using a special knife, pruning is a strenuous and difficult manual operation that resists automation. Human skill is an essential part of the process.
Picking the tea, or ‘plucking’ as it is known in the trade, continues all year round, though different regions produce their best teas at different times of the year due to the climatic variations associated with them. The pluckers, mostly women, restrict themselves to the two tenderest leaves and the ‘bud’ that grow at the very top of every stem. Coarser picking results in poor-quality tea.