I’ve only drunk tea the way I know to make it, using tea bags dipped in hot water for a couple of minutes and then adding milk. Refreshing and satisfying it is. But is it necessarily the best tea I’ve had? That is open to debate.
While I’ve been drinking tea since I can remember, it was would always be a cup for breakfast and another one later that evening. However, once I got into university, all that went for a toss. Sitting in the canteen, it would be anywhere between 10 to 15 small glasses of tea through the day. Tea that was continuously boiled with milk. Sometimes sweet. Sometimes strong. Any sometimes just too weak. But sip it I did, daily.
When I moved to Dubai years later, I could always look forward to a refreshing disposable cup of kadak chai during the day. The extra dose of sugar perked me enough to continue until the end of the day, when another type of beverage would more than compensate for the day’s stress.
I have sipped on the occasional cup of tea while travelling. However, I’ve never enjoyed them, unless it was English Breakfast tea that one would occasionally order. Never chai latte that I ordered once in a reputed coffee shop – it was so weak and milky; I gave up after a few sips. One of the reasons why I opt for black coffee. You can’t go wrong with that order.
However, Sri Lanka turned out to be a different experience all together.
Heading to the tea factory
I didn’t know it until I was there. Turns out Sri Lanka is ranked as the fourth largest producer of tea – a staggering 300,000 tons of it each year. Kandy district, especially around around Nuwara Eliya and Kandy, has the lion’s share of tea estates – currently at 625, making it the powerhouse of the country.
When our tuk-tuk drier cum guide suggested a visit to the tea factory on the outskirts of Kandy, we readily said agreed, though at that point, I was sure I wasn’t going to buy anything. I had made a mental note of shopping for tea on our last day in Colombo a week ahead. Besides, I had no interest in lugging around that extra baggage.
As we drove through the crowded street, am not sure if it was intentional on his part, but the driver instead suggested we stop at another tea factory minutes away. His reasoning was that the factory we were initially heading to was still quite a distance away, and by the time we wrapped up our visit and headed back, it would be late in the evening, when traffic in the city is at its peak. I’m glad we did.
Pilimathalawa tea factory
Turns out Pilimathalawa tea factory, is a family run business, and has been around since 1974. As soon as we were parked, we were introduced the manager of the factory. A short while later, a young lady came across, introduced herself and proceeded to show us around.
What followed was a step by step guide on the process of making tea – from the moment the right tea buds are plucked, all the way to the seven stages of tea production, including withering, rolling and sorting. A nod here and a question there made it sound like I knew what she was talking about, which I didn’t. It was only later, when I checked to confirm the authenticity of the tea factory, did I realise the amount of information she had provided.
The tea shop
After about half an hour or so, with the heat from the machines slowly beginning to soak my tee, I was glad when we finally headed upstairs and into the comforts of the air-conditioned tea shop. Once we were seated, she excused herself and shortly came back with a tray of eight varieties of tea – from green and flavoured, to black tea. As she encouraged us to sip each of them, starting from the green tea and leading up to the darkest of the black teas, she would continuously ask us for our tasting notes, while simultaneously elaborating on each of them.
At the end of the exercise, she looked us in the eye, and with the confidence of someone who had done this a million times, asked us for our orders. Now, I don’t know about my friend, but all those thoughts of shopping on the last day went out of the window. Was it her persuasive skills or her warm, mesmeric charm, I’ll never know. What I do know is that I now have three gift boxes of tea powder – all eight types and a tin full of black tea powder.