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Terroir And The Science of Taste - Episode 2

Episode 2 : Sri Lanka

For our second article focused on the impact of terroir on the quality and profile of tea we are heading to wonderful Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) - an island nation South of India in the Indian Ocean. Its diverse landscapes range from rainforest and arid plains to highlands and sandy beaches. The tea from Sri Lanka is called ‘Ceylon tea’ as a hangup from the time when it was a British Colony. This was when the tea trade began and since independence the name has been retained.   

Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world, with Orthodox black tea accounting for 95% of the country’s tea production. Tea is grown and picked all year long due to the favourable climate with characteristics being defined by the altitude where at which the tea is grown. Low grown tea is from sea level up to around 600m. Mid grown tea grows from 600m up to 1200m and High Grown tea is above this up to about 1800m. As the altitude increases the tea becomes more delicate as the growth rate slows bringing out lighter flavours. These are fine teas to be savoured and enjoyed without milk and extremely popular at our Tea Houses.  

First a little history. Tea did not get to Ceylon until 1867 when a planter named James Taylor marked the birth of the tea industry by starting a tea plantation in Loolecondera Estate near Kandy. However, it was not until the 1870s that an unfortunate event meant that tea became a major crop. It was at this time that the numerous coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix or coffee rust, better known as "coffee leaf disease" or "coffee blight".  After experimentation with other crops it was found that tea cultivation was the best alternative to coffee. The tea industry had begun.

We move on 150 years through a complicated history of British occupation as a colony and the issues that this brought, to independence and then post-independence. Throughout this period tea was grown and of course highly dependent on one of its greatest assets - it’s fertile soil. Caring for the soil in Sri Lanka has had its challenges and one of the most interesting references we have encountered highlighting this plight is the book ‘The Plantation Raj' (reprinted 2012)’ by Herman Gunaratne who worked in the Sri Lankan tea for his whole life.   

Working his way up from the entrance 'creeper' position in a small estate to the top of the tea industry in Sri Lanka Gunaratne talks openly about many of the issues in the Sri Lankan tea industry and concentrates a great deal on soil management. One of the main factors in this is soil pH. In fact, when writing about his then Tea Research Institute duties he states that their most important function was 'maintaining the soil at the correct pH to ensure that the tea plant not only thrives but also flourishes in favourable condition'.

He goes on to explain that for tea to thrive economically the soil pH should be maintained at 4.5-5.5. If it dips below 4.5 it cannot support tea as a monoculture, or most crops for that matter. Gunaratne indicates that in the twenty years before his 2012 publication this area had been badly neglected by many estates.  What is the impact of neglecting this maintenance? Well, increased acidity reduces productivity and as in many agricultural stories this led to farmers trying to reverse the decline by adding government subsidised fertiliser. This actually made the problem worse, increasing acidity further. The solution is in fact to stop fertilising, add calcium magnesium carbonate and make an analysis before taking further steps.

Another large issue in Sri Lanka (and undoubtedly other countries) is that of viable soil depth. Weeding can often result in the top layer of soil being scraped away. Gunaratne states 'The wealth of any plantation lies in the top two feet of soil'. This is where the roots of the tea plant sit. Weeding involves using a hoe like implement to dislodge the weeds. Guarantee writes of his experience working for a planter in the early sixties who would not allow any weeding scrapers with anything larger that a 1 1/2 inch base and 2 inches in length. He goes on to describe that in the 10-15 years before his publication larger and larger implements were being used. Without a good top soil yield will decline until the tea estate will not be viable economically. 

In the last blog we talked about placing pruning between the tea bushes as one of the ways to overcome this issue. This improves the soil structure, nutritional content and fertility. According to Gunaratne 'Economic burdens inflicted by short-term planning policies' meant that this practice was stopped in Sri Lanka as well as the mulching of green matter for the same purpose.

So on to today and while there are undoubtedly areas where good agricultural practice is ignored there are many examples that we have seen on our tea trips where tea growers are taking the right steps [in our humble eyes] and as a result producing great tasting and sustainable tea. One such estate is Idalgashinna in the Uva district, in the central highlands of Sri Lanka and the rest of this article will focus on some of the specifics of our trip to visit the team there.  

Idalgashinna began life as a tea estate in 1984. It quickly became one of the pioneers of organic tea farming and was certified Organic back in 1989. This pioneering nature was further exemplified by it being categorised as Biodynamic since 1999. More on what this means exactly later.

Rob visited this estate a few years ago and was shown around their Biodynamic production area by the highly knowledgeable and generous manager Gnanasekaran Rajaratnam. This began at the compost area, which we are certainly not ashamed in saying was very exciting to us as soil enthusiasts. This is where the quality starts, this is the food that the tea plants need to thrive. Each pile is assigned a number and has the start date of its existence followed by the date of each time it is turned carefully written on its sign. A mixture of chopped up green material and cow dung, each pile is left for 3 months to mature, being turned every two to three weeks, before it is is used on the land.

Next we stopped at the CPP Hut (Cow Pat Preparation Hut). This was where the manure collected from cows was placed in special pits and developed. By controlling the conditions only the 'good' bacteria were allowed to develop. Good bacteria doesn't smell, bad bacteria does. We can vouch for this as a handful of aged dung was handed to Rob to smell. It smelt slightly floral. When this dung is ready it has egg shell powder and rock dust added to it along with the bio preparations I will explain next. It is then added to water and sprayed in the leaf, to both protect and nourish it.

Rob was also treated to a visit to the Liquid Manure Hut. Again, no smell greeted him when the lid was removed. His attitude towards cow waste was changing…

Then the tour thrust Rob headlong into a new world. We had previously researched Biodynamic farming in a broad sense but had not seen it in such detail first hand.  Before we dive in - a little explanation is needed first. Biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920s and is based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The Biodynamic Association website describes it as follows:

"Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised. Biodynamic practitioners also recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health."

The manufacture of these 'preparations' was what Rob was just about to be immersed into. He was first shown to a shelter where various preparations had been buried to again develop this ‘good bacteria’. Cows horns filled with manure, cows bladders filled with yarrow flowers, cows intestines stuffed with Valerian flowers plus many more combinations are buried for 6 months according to the Biodynamic calendar (buried in October, dug up in March). This calendar takes into consideration the interaction of the planets and constellations with the earth. This covers a wide range of effects - from simply day, night and the seasons of the year to the more subtle effects such as the effect of the moon on the tides and ground water rising to the surface when there is a full moon. The latter leads to a greater amount of sap in the tea leaves when plucked at full moon, which has a positive effect on the flavour. 

It is undeniable that all the methods above do much to counteract the problems discussed earlier. Using composted prunings to fertilise the land, creating natural pesticides and solutions to fight disease, all mean that the soil is maintained - allowing it to do what it does best - support the growth of some of the finest black tea you can drink. Come by the Tea House and taste for yourself!