Sri Lanka, Tea from Leaf to Laser

The next morning, I was disappointed that the monkeys did not make an appearance before I had to head off for the day.  I had to content myself with watching a family of Palm squirrels show off their acrobatic skills leaping from tree to tree with fast and furious abandon.

Lucien had suggested I visit a tea processing factory today which, when I thought about it, I realised I knew nothing about how the leaves get from the plant into the teabag I happily plonk into my mug back at home.  ‘OK’ I agreed ‘provided I see the process from start to finish’.  They are very proud of their Sri Lanka tea and as a happy tea drinker it seemed a good idea to see the process. Procuring a tuk-tuk for the day we rattled off back down the dirt track with me hugging my cracked rib at every bump and pothole.

Arriving at the Pallegama Sri Lanka tea processing plant I was to realise it was a far more complicated process than I could have imagined. Sri Lanka takes its tea very seriously and the quality must be top notch as it is exported all over the world and they have a reputation to uphold – think Ceylon Tea of yesteryear.  So here it is for you:

Sri Lanka Tea Processing

Stage 1 : Withering

The leaves are brought in and spread out on mesh frames which then have hot air blasted through them to wither the leaves.

Stage 2: Rolling

The withered leaves are then passed down by a chuteto the huge roller machine below where they are ground for 20 minutes and emerge crushed smaller.

Stage 3 : Shaking

The leaves are now passed along a shaking conveyor belt with holes in it. What passes through the holes is put into piles for any water to drain away and are small enough to jump to stage 5.

Stage 4 : More Shaking

Anything that doesn’t pass stage 3 gets put under another roller (roller 2) and this process is repeated with differing rollers up to 5 times. Anything left after this is discarded

Stage 5 :

The ground leaves that have made it through now get heated and dried.  I checked the temperature and got shown the furnace that generates the heat – it was 252c and the guys were working in and around this with only electric fans to keep them cool!

Stage 6 :

The now dried leaves pass over static electric rollers to get rid of any chaff

 

Stage 7 :

The girls start to grade the quality of the processed leaves via a series of different size sieving benches.  Apparently different countries prefer different grades.  We in the UK like medium grade B, grade A is almost exclusively drunk by the Russians (who knew!).

Stage 8 :

Everyone was very excited about this machine.  It is a multi-laser camera thing that can scan the leaves checking their grade and ejecting any inferior ones before the end product is then bagged up ready to be sent to the trader’s floor in Colombo for sale. Sri Lanka tea commands a good price as it is such high quality.

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I watched the entire process and happened to mention how quaint it all looked.  Oops, apparently everything was state of the art and up to the minute technology – OK I got that with the laser camera machine but hadn’t realised about the rest.  The owner explained that sometimes the traditional ways produce the best results in terms of flavour and quality.  I like that, if you can’t improve things then don’t try re-inventing the wheel.

Sri Lanka Tea Plantation

Climbing back into the tuk-tuk we then sped off several kilometres to a Sri Lanka tea plantation owned by the government.  The countryside scenery on our way was breath taking and as we climbed higher and higher it got more so.  After about an hour we reached the top of the final hill and I was confronted by a dilapidated building that used to be the UK superintendents place in colonial days.

We were met by the assistant to the now Sri Lankan governor, Mira, resplendent in white shirt, white shorts, knee length white socks and trainers.  “The road would have been a lot better during British days” he chortled while organising cups of steaming tea to be brought out to us.  Knowing how our roads are these days I didn’t wish to disabuse him of such a notion.  He oversees the 57 hectares of government plantation spread out on the seemingly vertical hillsides. Jabbering into 2 phone handsets at the same time he then rattled us off back down the dirt track we had just come up to meet up with some of his pickers returning from their lunch break.

Having met the team of all female pickers (men do pick but according to Mira they are not as quick or efficient as the women) we clambered into one of the fields of tea bushes.  The women donned their bags which were secured to the tops of their heads by a strap and began to pluck extremely quickly.  They use their wooden sticks to lay across the top of the bushes, the young leaves above this level are the best to pick for flavour whilst preserving the rest of the bush.  Once their hands are full of leaves they deftly chuck them over their heads and into the bag.

One of the ladies invited me into the field and I duly obliged.  Gingerly climbing down the slope a little way (how they do this in flip flops is anyone’s guess) they attached a bag to my head and I gamely tried to pluck the leaves the way they showed me. Being inept at the task I think I massacred poor Mira’s plants rather than cosseted them. When I was clutching a few bunches of leaves I imitated the way they throw them into their bags and missed by miles! Amid much laughing from both the women and the men stood above us watching I kept on trying but if anything just proved that I am not cut out to be a Sri Lanka tea picker.

Having spent much of the day watching how tea gets to our shores we stopped off on the way back to enjoy a cup of the stuff with a snack of samosa’s.  Egg and potato not a combination I had tried before but very nice. And while I remember, when driving along you will see hundreds of signs saying ‘hotel’ on them with no accommodation in sight.  ‘Hotel’ in Sri Lanka is often applied to places where you can stop and get some refreshment rather than being a place to stay and sleep.

Sri Lanka advice to women travelling alone

There is a point I feel I must include if you are a woman travelling alone in Sri Lanka. I have felt entirely safe and secure at all points and with all the men I have met so far on my travels.  However, the manager at The Weir House did make me feel uncomfortable.  Don’t get me wrong he is entirely kind and helpful to an extreme degree however he does have some mannerisms (probably totally unconsciously done) that can be little trying.  Think back to the 1980’s and the leery boss or uncle who talked to your chest rather than your face and you’ll catch my drift. In the UK we would not have to tolerate such behaviour any longer, but this is a different country and when travelling solo you must be careful how you handle such situations.  I used my mettle and avoided putting myself in situations, (or changing the subject if the conversation was getting too personal), which could be misconstrued by him. This in no way diminished my enjoyment of the experiences in Ulapane. However, I will relax more once I have left for my next stop.

Tomorrow I head off for the second largest city on this island, historical Kandy.

If you have missed any of my adventures in Sri Lanka you can find my previous articles here:

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Perseverance and bruises

Finding answers – within yourself

Sri Lanka Travel tips