Home From The Sidelines History of the Ceylon Tea

History of the Ceylon Tea

Around five thousand years ago, Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung is believed to have discovered tea when the wind blew tea leaves into a pot of boiling water. As the most consumed beverage in the world, every type of tea has numerous lovers around the world. Among those, the name ‘Ceylon Tea’ is often equated with finest quality. Its bold flavour profile and impeccable aroma has enchanted the taste buds of generations of tea lovers. 

The brand derives its name from Sri Lanka’s old name – ‘Ceylon’. Sri Lankan tea developed the brand name as ‘Ceylon Tea’ during the colonial period itself. Although the country changed name in 1972, it retained the brand name ‘Ceylon Tea’ because it was already a popular name around the globe. The authentic Ceylon tea features the famous Lion of Ceylon logo. Sri Lanka Tea Board strictly monitors the use of logo and the standard of tea using the logo. The tea using the logo has to be of 100 per cent Sri Lankan origin. Any mixed or blended  tea from other parts of the world with Sri Lankan tea will not get the certification as ‘Ceylon Tea’. Another requirement is that the tea should be processed and packed entirely in Sri Lanka. 

Tea Producing Regions

Various tea producing regions in Sri Lanka have different specialities. Sri Lanka has about 7 different tea-growing regions and each of them has varying elevation, climatic conditions, and terrain. Each region produces tea with a distinct taste profile. The tea from Nuwara Eliya and Dimbula or ‘up country’ regions is considered as premium tea. It gives out golden liquor and intense aroma. Tea from Kandy, Uva, and Uda Pussellawa or ‘mid-country’ have richer flavour. They are considered more suitable for blending flavours. The ‘low-country’ tea is known for its strong colour and flavour strength. 

Nuwara Eliya: It is the best-known of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts. This is a mountainous region, and has the highest average elevation. The low temperature climate combined with elevation produces teas of exquisite quality. This tea generally gives out the lightest (palest) colour of all the types of Ceylon Tea, with a golden hue and a delicately fragrant flavour. The whole-leaf Orange Pekoe (OP) and Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) are the most sought after tea grades from the region.

Dimbula: Dimbula lies between Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains. These teas are defined as “high grown” as all estates exceed an altitude of 1,250m (4000 Feet). The complex topography of the region produces a variety of microclimates, which produce differences in flavour. This tea produces a fine golden-orange hue in the cup, and which gives out aesthetically pleasant mellow colours.

Uva: The remote Uva district tea is characterised with a special, unmistakable character and exotically aromatic flavour. It was with tea grown on his Uva estates that Thomas Lipton persuaded Americans to drink tea. The mellow, smooth taste of Uva tea is easily distinguishable. 

Uda Pussellawa: The district is situated close to Nuwara Eliya, so its tea is often compared to that of its neighbour. But it is darker in the cup, with a pinkish hue, of greater strength, and exquisitely tangy. Colder conditions at year end supposedly add a hint of rose to the bouquet of a tea known for its medium body and subtle character. Heavy rainfall, though, tends to produce tea that is even darker and stronger-flavoured.

Kandy: In the Kandy district, where the industry began in 1867, the teas produced are described as “mid-grown”as cultivation does not exceed 1,300 m. They range in flavour depending on the altitude and whether the plantation is sheltered from monsoon winds. All are particularly flavoursome. Kandy teas produce a bright infusion with a coppery tone, and are strong and intensely full-bodied.

Ruhuna: The teas of the Ruhuna district are defined as “low-grown” as they are cultivated at an altitude not exceeding 600m comprising vast sub regions from coastal plains to Southern edge of Sinharaja Rain Forest. The soil, combined with the low elevation of the estates, causes the tea-bush to grow rapidly, producing a long, beautiful leaf. Full-flavoured black tea is a distinctively unique Ruhuna specialty. Ruhuna factories produce a wide variety of leaf styles and sizes, including prized “tips”.

Sabaragamuwa: It is Sri Lanka’s biggest district, the teas of which are low-grown as its estates range in elevation from sea level to 610m. Sabaragamuwa, sandwiched between Sinharaja in the south and Adam’s Peak wilderness in the north, produces a fast-growing bush with a long leaf. The liquor, too, is similar to that of Ruhuna teas, dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint. The aroma, however, is noticeably different from the Ruhuna products, with a hint of sweet caramel, not quite as strong: yet exceptionally stylish.

Types of Ceylon Tea

Ceylon tea is primarily available as black tea, white tea, and green tea.

First, Ceylon white tea – also known as ‘Silver Needle’ tea is one of the most expensive teas available. The white tea is also known as Baihao Yinzhen, White Hair Silver Needle, White Pekoe Silver Needle in other regions of the world depending upon its origin.  It has a refreshing, delicate, mellow and a little sweet aftertaste. It sometimes leaves a citrus undertone. It gives out brilliant ivory to golden pale colour and light, sweet, and floral aroma. The white tea has lower caffeine content and it is rich in catechins. It helps boost metabolism and blocks the formation of new fat cells while boosting lipolysis that breaks down fat.

Second, Ceylon Oolong tea from the Galle District in Sri Lanka is well known. Ceylon Oolong tea is fresh and mild in flavour and orange in appearance. It is known for its distinctive aroma and contains lots of antioxidants. 

Third, pure Ceylon Black tea from the famous Dimbula region of Sri Lanka is the perfect alternative to coffee, providing a healthy dose of caffeine to get going. It’s also known as ‘Royal English breakfast tea’. It has sweet, spicy, strong flavours and a lingering perfume aroma. 

History (needs revision and plagiarism check)

The story of Ceylon Tea begins with coffee. The tale begins in the early 1820s, barely five years after the surrender of Kandy, the last surviving indigenously-ruled state in Ceylon, to the British crown. By then, the rest of the island had already been a British colony for more than a generation. Its possession was considered vital to imperial interests in India and the Far East, but the cost of maintaining the military presence and infrastructure necessary to secure it was prohibitive. Attempts to raise revenue by taxation could not by themselves fill the gap; how to make the colony pay for itself and its garrison was a problem that had troubled successive governors since the first, Frederic North, took office in 1798.

Experiments with coffee may already have begun by 1824, when the fifth of Ceylon’s colonial governors, Edward Barnes, arrived in the island, but it was he who first saw in coffee a solution to the colony’s perennial balance-of-payments problem. The plant had already been found growing naturally among the approaches to the central hill country; sensing an opportunity, Barnes threw the weight of official support behind large-scale cultivation. Land in the central hills was sold for a few pence an acre, official funds were dedicated to research and experiments in coffee-growing, planters and merchants were provided with incentives and support. Most important of all, Barnes provided the infrastructure – a network of roads, including the all-important trunk route from Kandy to Colombo – that enabled coffee-planters to get their produce to town, and thence to market in England.


Barnes’ term of office ended in 1831. By then the coffee ‘enterprise’ (today we would call it an industry) occupied much of the country round Kandy and was spreading southward and upward into the formerly virgin forests of the central hills. Then, in 1838, the abolition of slavery in Jamaica caused the collapse of that country’s coffee industry. The resulting boom in Ceylon coffee opened up much that remained of the hitherto trackless hill country.

Despite setbacks in the late 1840s, the enterprise continued to grow. In the mid-1870s Ceylon became the world’s largest producer of coffee. Profits and revenues generated by the enterprise turned the colony into an imperial showpiece, prosperous, civilized and modern. Railways threaded the coffee-clad hillsides, roads plumbed the interior; the city of Colombo was gas-lit and its port had been developed with a breakwater and new quays. An effective government and civil administration kept things functioning smoothly, although the people of Ceylon had little say in either institution.

This idyll was to be short-lived. In 1869, the first signs of a new plant disease, coffee-rust appeared on a plantation in Madulsima. The blight took slightly more than a decade to wipe out the entire coffee enterprise in Ceylon.

Meanwhile, up in the hills where the Kandy and Dimbula plantation districts meet, a reclusive Scots planter named James Taylor had been experimenting with a new plant, planting it along the margins of the divisional roads on his coffee-estate, Loolecondera.

The plant was tea. Already in 1866 he had withered the first leaves on this bungalow veranda, trying to emulate the process used by tea-planters in Assam, India. By the time the coffee-blight struck, Taylor had twenty acres of Loolecondera planted in tea and had shipped his first modest consignment – 23lb. in all – to England. Soon, planters from all over the hill country were visiting Loolecondera to learn how to grow and manufacture tea. Ceylon and its plantation industry were saved.

early promotion copy

The first international efforts at promotion began in the 1890s, as soon as an adequate supply of tea for export could be assured. Ceylon Tea was heavily promoted at various British Empire trade expositions, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and, most effectively of all, at the Paris Exposition of 1900. In addition to these ‘national’ efforts, numerous manufacturers and exporters also promoted Ceylon Tea along with their particular brands.

The Tea Propaganda Board, a privately-funded industry initiative that was the earliest ancestor of today’s Sri Lanka Tea Board, was formed in 1932, and legislation to prevent the export of tea of inferior quality was introduced two years later. Another notable marketing initiative was the 1946 opening of the first Ceylon Tea Centre in London. But these were incremental improvements; it was not until well after Independence that radical change would come to the Ceylon tea industry.