By Tomislav Podreka
from Fresh Cup Magazine


Sunday, June 23, 2002
Five-thirty a.m., cruising through the almost deserted streets of Colombo on the way to Bentota, mostly comatose from sleep deprivation and flight oxygen, I watch through opaque eyelids as the city begins to awaken around me. As time moves toward true light, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and trucks and buses overflowing with bodies appear on the streets in droves. Sri Lanka is waking slowly from 11 years of Tamil Tiger activity, waking from the fear of terrorism to a new world where police barricades have been dismantled seemingly overnight. There is a tangible trust and hope, maybe best exemplified by the planefuls of expatriates arriving daily to rejoice in being home.

Sri Lanka is a constant contradiction. Driving is legally English, occasionally American and conveniently Sri Lankan. You drive on the left side of the road, unless someone is in your way, in which case you drive on the right. If there is someone on the right, you drive in the middle. No matter what, you always drive fast, and there are never traffic jams.

Sri Lanka's tea industry reflects this manner of movement. Finally settling into
privatization after a long spell as a nationalized concern under Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation and the Janatha Estate Development Board, the Sri Lankan tea industry has maintained stoically English production values that produce marvelously consistent tea. Conversely, the industry has been actively assimilating information to determine how to best conform to an expanding marketplace—especially the American market. Sri Lankan tea companies have aggressively pursued, and mostly succeeded, in leading marketplaces around the world.

I have been invited by Stassen Natural Foods Pvt. Ltd. to celebrate the company's
15 years of organic tea production. As it turns out, much of the reason for the invitation is the opportunity it provides to discuss the development of social initiatives among tea garden workers and cultural assimilation between Tamils and Singhalese communities.

Monday, June 24
Driving back from Bentota, I share a car with an Australian tea buyer, Ian Murry of Virgin Garden Tea of Australia. Between us, we run the gamut in production values. He purchases teabags for the Australian market, while I purchase only leaf-grade tea for the American market. We stop briefly to purchase breakfast-roti wrapped around curried vegetables—a meal that costs the equivalent of about 10 cents. In Colombo, Ian and are met by the rest of our party, Manik Jayakumar, a tea planter who founded the organic projects we were to visit and who is visiting Sri Lanka for the first time in 11 years; Richard Guzauskas of Leaves Pure Teas; and Alex David, a tea taster with Stassen. We promptly head to the Stassen office, and after introductions, we tour the cleanest tea-bagging facility I have ever seen-actually, the cleanest facility of any sort that I have seen. The compactness of this factory, the phenomenally low waste percentage and the impressive display of recognizable client box art hints at an efficiency that will prove to be a hallmark.

In the Stassen cupping room, there is line after line of cupping sets awaiting us, arranged on long white trays by grade, strength and color. Green tea is a relative newcomer to Sri Lanka, but it is successfully forging its own niche with a sweeter, if a little naive, palate. It is a more successful green tea than, say, a Darjeeling green, which simply mocks the flavor of its black tea sibling. A crescendo of slurping, gurgling and spitting evolves, and a mechanical fluidity emanates from the tasters that is natural, efficient and primal.

Tuesday, June 25
The amphitheater at the Colombo tea auctions is full. The speed of bidding and selling is mind-boggling, and I understand little other than the mechanics of the process. Watching this and realizing that buyers have tasted all the teas that interest them, constructed their price ranges and built in their ability to waiver from preferred pricing is impressive. After half an hour, we are on our way to the first of the tea estates we will visit.

There are no straight roads in Sri Lanka, at least I didn't seem to be on any of them. But the landscape is amazing. Tea crops blanket the hillsides and valleys like a verdant moss, with shade trees dotted throughout. After four hours on the road, the bus stops in Haldemmulla so that we can stretch our legs. A short walk leads me to what look like stables but what are actually housing form tea pickers. These primitive shelters are about as wide as a stall and twice as deep, and they typically accommodate two adults and a child. There is no real ventilation, and there is an open cooking fire in the front of the "house" and a bed in the back. The cooking fire is an obvious health risk, and the outhouse is completely ignored, used instead to store firewood. There is a sad lack of urgency displayed by the owner of this estate to educate pickers about a better living standard.

Back on the bus and five minutes up the road, we arrive at out destination, the Idulgashinna Biodynamic Tea Plantation in Haldemulla in the Uva district. The joyous welcome we receive is overwhelming. Unaccustomed to such warmth from strangers, my American tea colleague and I almost run back to the bus. After the customary pottu facial adornment and presentation of floral garlands, we learn about the garden's biodynamic practices.

The garden tour is short but dense with information. It seems that everything is hewn from the earth, and nothing is at odds with the environment. Climate and soil seem to enjoy a seamless relationship. Steps between garden tiers are cut from the hillside, and baskets cradling fresh tea leaves are woven from bamboo.

We walk down the path toward two men who are at work shredding vegetation pruned or removed from the garden. Behind the men and their machine are orderly piles of compost in declining levels of decay-a perfect illustration of the process of moisture evaporation. These piles are hand-turned every few days to aerate and accelerate the composting of the organic matter. The result of this rejuvenating process is a deep black soil the color of coal with a soft, fragile texture of chenille.

There is a shed covering what look like fly-breeding barrels, but what are actually cow manure bins breaking down the waste into a usable liquid concentrate. At the appropriate point in the lunar cycle, this concentrate is mixed with water and then sprayed across the tea leaves to provide reinforced nutrients. We watch a display by a garden worker of how the water is generated into a vortex or whirlpool to create the energies required to accept the concentrate.

Next to this is another shed where the manure is mixed with crushed crystals, quartz specially selected for its ability to facilitate plant productivity. The manure is then placed into shallow beds in the floor of the shed, some of which are lined with brick. These cow pat pits, or CPP's are basically holes in the ground that allow worms to work their way through, turning the patties into soil. The resulting soil is, again, exquisite. If this kind of attention is given to the soil alone, I can't help but think that nature will reward farmers for their perseverance. Charts of the astrological cycles are displayed on the walls, and astonishingly strict records are kept of everything. I become incredibly insecure about the state of my work desk back home.

As proud as managers and officers are of the organic structure of the gardens, there is a stronger pride in what has been achieved with the people of the garden, from those who pick and sort to those who man the factory machinery and load the chests to be shipped abroad. The worker facilities here are a far cry from what we saw on the neighboring estate. Idulgashinna provides a school for children, including a computer center that would be the envy of many American schools. Thereis also a bank for workers-previously unheard of on the estates-as well as a medical center. The educational process emphasizes the value of savings and the concept of interest accrual.

Wednesday, June 26
Sitting on top of Pidurthagale, a mountain about 8500 feet above sea level in the Nuwer Eliya district, I am surrounded by a lush, textural blanket of tea bushes nestling around the peak like moss on a still rock. Lunch is impeccably presented, and an extensive discussion ensues about tea agriculture, the nature of nurture within a community and the responsibility of corporations to their workers.

Our hosts have illustrated not only the incorporation of an organic brand, but also the integration of an organic social program that extends back to the garden in a symbiotic circle. Make the people happy and they work happily. Botanists talk about plants being happy or sad depending on their environment. If there is any credence to these theories, this crop raised by a cheerful community has every reason to be vibrant in the mid-day sun of Haldummulla.

The remnants of lunch are packed, and we board the bus to be guests once again at Idalgashinna. We tour the new housing being built on this estate, the same initiative that we will see the next day on the Venture biodynamic tea garden. At around 700 square feet, these freestanding structures have two bedrooms, a general room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. There is also a little land provided for residents that many households have planted with edible and decorative plants. Most astonishing is the fact that the families are allowed to be property owners. The pride and loyalty engendered by such a gesture result in consistent labor and a trust between the company and the workers. There is an earnestness on Stassen's part to make a better life for garden workers. I would be skeptical if not for the genuinely happy people surrounding me.

Thursday, June 27
Like idalgashinna, the Venture tea garden incorporates both biodynamic and social agendas, and it is another beautiful garden with a magnificent cupping room. We learn that these biodynamic projects are not yet fiscally viable, although they are moving in that direction. It seems that without the support of the larger organization of Stassen Natural Foods, talking these initiatives would be much more difficult. The rate of improvement has been carefully monitored by the garden managers and closely scrutinized by the Stassen officers with the rate of projected fiscal viability as an investment. The success of these projects is also measured by the degree to which they can be used as examples for other gardens. For instance, Stassen believes that not encouraging vocational and social educational and skills would not encourage other estates to convert and incorporate a social agenda. The teas from the Indulgashinna and Venture estates are pleasant. They show a depth of promise that belies their present cup. As these estates develop and refine expertise in production values and quality, I am sure that they will exceed even the best Sri Lankan gardens in cup quality.

Friday, June 28
Kirkoswald is a non-organic garden in the Stassen family, and beautiful and lucrativeon at that. It has lush, mature plants that blanket the ever-rolling hills, and greens abound in more shades than I thought possible. The Kirkoswald bungalow nestles among a sea of tea bushes planted with a beautiful array of decorative plants, including an extensive variety of roses.

For the first time, we see garden workers spraying tea plants with copper, a mild fungicide. Our host explains how easy it can be to fix problems with Mother Nature's help if we do it intelligently. For instance, blister blight. If the air reaches a certain temperature, the sun will "burn" the blight and no spraying will be necessary. If, however, heat is elusive for a couple of days, growers need only spray enough to ensure plant health until nature is able to take over.

The Kirkoswald Factory will be fully automatic within a year of two, eliminating excessive handling and human error and increasing cost-effectiveness. Even so, the garden is already considered highly profitable due to its vast planting and efficient labor practices. Today we observe how the factory processes several tea grades alongside each other. As we watch the process, Kolandavelu, a factory manager, makes a few suggestions, such as a light condition roll (to shape the tea) and minimal use of a rotervane (to preserve the fullness of the leaves). The process is tweaked accordingly, and the resulting teas are delightful. These are Ceylons in all their malty, flavorful, bright glory.

Had this trip been simply a visit to tea plantations, I might not bane struck me with so much wonder. But the celebration of differences and the cohesiveness of community was so unforgettable that even now I am taken aback for a moment or two. It is comforting to know that the purchasing choices tea buyers make can contribute to such strong social programs. But this trip humbles me each time I think I am doing my part to help and realize that more can always be done.

Buying conscientiously should not simply yield great tea; it should also positively impact a tea-growing community, either directly or indirectly. Anyone involved in the tea world should visit a producing origin at least once to understand how tea workers live and what they do for 75 cents a day or less. To realize that these people smile more often than we do is truly enlightening.


Tomislav Podreka is the founder of Serendipitea, one of the largest independent importers of fine and specialty teas in the United States. He is the education chairman of the American Premium Tea Institute. A popular speaker on the history and philosophy of tea, he travels across the country lecturing and giving tea tastings. He lives in Connecticut. For more information, visit serendipitea.com.

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