Stories from Sri Lanka - I
The Terroir Component in Tea.
The term terroir is widely embraced by the world of wine, referring to all environmental and human factors, that has an effect on the taste of this enchanting drink. Discovering the importance of terroir in other agricultural crops is a way to gain new perspectives on this topic. In Sri Lanka, my motivation was to figure this out by looking at the tea plant, which has created an astonishing scene throughout the country.
My first stop was Ella, a small town in Uva Province surrounded by the greens of tea. The General Manager Sivanathan Sellaiah welcomed me at Halpewatte Tea Factory, on the very first day of the year. “As a tradition, our workers are at the temple to pray this morning. That’s why our production will begin in the afternoon,” he said while brewing black tea for us.
“Our factory was originally built in 1940, during the British rule and bought by the current owners Mr. A.P.D. Abeyrathne in 1971. We pride ourselves in being internationally recognized with our quality and in welcoming numerous tourists who are curious about the varieties of tea in our region.”
Halpewatte Tea Factory is one of the known players in Sri Lanka, equipped with modern technology in the factory. I ask Sellaiah about why Uva is an ideal environment to produce tea. “Our plantations are around 1700 meters above the sea and high elevation is an important factor in developing rich flavors and high concentration,” he says referring to Uva district that is exposed to the winds of both northeast and southwest monsoons giving the tea a unique character.“Nuwara Eliya is another important district,” he adds, which is the most mountainous area with the highest average elevation.
The tea plant is not extremely selective when it comes to soil type though. It needs a pH level between 4.5 – 5.5 and enough nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium. These nutrients are crucial for the live of vine as well, however, the soil pH in the range 5.5 to 6.5 is considered optimum for grapes. Rainfall needed for tea plantation is rather high. “We have around 1500 – 2000 mm per year,” says Sellaiah, “combined with sunshine, it creates perfect conditions for the plant.”
200 km southwest from Halpewatte Tea Factory, in Ahangama, the conditions are relatively different. “This is possibly the closest tea plantation to the sea in the world” says M. Herman Gunaratne, the owner of Herman Teas. Together with the gentle wind, he produces mellow and rich flavors in these tropical Southern parts of the island. Some people are natural storytellers. We recognize them the moment they start speaking. Mr. Herman is one of them. “We produce a large amount of black tea in this country that you people are accustomed to drink. But we make one tea that we like to think that we are the only people in the world to make it and that’s white tea” he adds, getting ready to start telling his story, that brings out the human factor of terroir: “It is like a fairytale. You are allowed to laugh at me, because I laughed at the guy who told me the story.” He starts explaining that, 5000 years ago, during the Song and Tang dynasty in China, Chinese Mandarins would only employ virgins to cut the white tea with golden scissors that would fall into a golden bowl. Apparently, the only part of the human anatomy that touched the tea was the lips of the Emperor as they would avoid any human contact during production. “It sounded like a fairytale to me,” says Mr. Herman. A British colleague of his was a tea historian and he told Mr. Herman to consider recreating this ritual in Sri Lanka. Well, only without the virgins. However, Mr. Herman saw no logic in this. He was fascinated by the story but he did not understand the reason behind it until he visited Grasse in France, the perfume capital of the world. “There, quite by accident, we met a very old man, around 82 years old who was a perfumer” he says. While he was talking to him, he saw 10-15 small packages of jasmine flowers, marked from different parts of the world such as India, Rajasthan, Algeria and so on. He asks him “Sir, why do you get the same flowers from different parts of the world in such small quantities. Why don’t you buy them from one place?” The old man tells that the flowers are botanically and genetically the same, however, they are distinctly different from one to another. When Mr. Herman asks the reason, the old man claims that the difference is in the smell of the sweat of the workers. Mr. Herman is unconvinced at first. The old man dares him to mix the flowers and tells him that he would still distinguish them by smelling them. Mr. Herman refuses to do so, but he tries to understand the reason. The perfumer tells him that: “Our sweat is a manifestation of our food habits. We exhale what we consume. Inevitably, we leave a trace of that in whatever we touch. If the flower is from Tamil Nadu, it will have an aroma of curries and spices. If it comes from Rajhastan, it will be very pleasant smelling because they are vegetarians” he adds.
“It made sense to me” says Mr. Herman. “1000 years ago, there was no Jesus, no Allah, no Budha. Emperor was the God. And the moment he said that, I knew that the Chinese Mandarins were seeking to give their Emperor, the world’s most uncontaminated thing. That was the logic I was looking for. And yet today, here in our plantations, our worker’s wear special masks and gloves and use special scissors to harvest the tea plants without touching them directly with their hands.”
When Mr. Herman launched their white tea with this concept, there was a big presence of the world media and the story went wider all over the world. After a while, he received an enquiry from a Middle Eastern royal house for a sample of this tea, which sent these samples to SGS in Switzerland for quality analysis. The results showed that this white tea had 10.11 % antioxidants, which was known as the highest naturally occurring antioxidants in any tea. “I don’t believe that because you can’t come to that conclusion until you test all the teas on the market. However, it would be safe to say that, out of those that have been tested, this has the highest occurring antioxidants.“
Is it really possible to understand the difference when a tea is produced without any human contact? The question does not have a straightforward answer. Honestly, it is not that important. What matters is the story and the delicate taste of the Mr. Herman’s tea. In the end, he started selling his white tea exclusively to Mariage Frères, which is the most famous wine merchant in the world, based in Paris. “The team of Mariage Frères came and visited us here” says Mr. Herman. “And they decided to buy all white tea we produce. It is rather like the wine industry,” he adds. “ There are special wines in special places and tea is not dissimilar to this culture”.
PS: Apart from Mariage Frères, one can directly order from Herman’s Tea and they deliver all around the world. I did and it arrived safely :)