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History of Ceylon Tea

History of Ceylon Tea

A tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya. (non commercial)

Establishment of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce

Establishment of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon

James Taylor planted the first 19 acres of tea in Loolecondra Estate near Kandy, Ceylon and this marked the birth tea industry in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

First sale of Loolecondra teas in Kandy

Export of Sri Lanka’s first tea consignment of 23 lbs from Loolecondra Estate to London

Founding of the first Broking firm John Brothers & Co.

Manufacture of first “SIROCCO” tea drier by Samuel C. Davidson

Manufacture of first tea rolling machine by John Walker & Co.

The first public Colombo Auction was held at the premises of Somerville & Co.on 30th July, 1883, under the auspices of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce

Construction of a Central Tea Factory on Fairy land Estate (Pedro) in Nuwara-Eliya

Ceylon Tea established a record price of £36.15 per lb at the London Tea Auctions

James Taylor, aged 57 years, died in Ceylon on 2nd May, 1892

Formation of the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association

Colombo Brokers’ Association was formed

Mr. Thomas Amarasuriya, first Ceylonese to be appointed as Chairman of the Planters’ Association

Establishment of Tea Research Institute

Sri Lanka’s tea production exceeded 100,000 metric tons Sri Lanka’s tea exports exceeded 100,000 metric tons

Formation of The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board Export of poor quality tea was prohibited

World’s largest tea bush was found in Ceylon at Battawatta Group, Madulsima. It had a diameter of 24 feet and a circumference of 67 feet. Four pounds of green leaf were plucked from it on one day

Set up the International Tea Market Expansion Board (ITMEB) in which Ceylon was a founder member

The Tea Research Institute commenced work on vegitative propagation at St. Coombs Estate, Talawakele

Biological control of the leaf eating Tea Tortrix Caterpillar by the Tea Research Institute

First Ceylonese Tea Broking house, M/s Pieris & Abeywardena was established

Ceylon Estate Employers’ Federation was established

Export Duty on tea was introduced from 1st October, 1951

First clonal tea fields came into bearing.

Formation of the State Plantations Corporation

Ad Valorem Tax was introduced on 1st June 1959 for teas sold at the Colombo Auctions


Sri Lanka’s registered tea extent exceeded 200,000 hectares Sri Lanka’s tea production exceeded 200,000 metric tons

Sri Lanka’s tea exports exceeded 200,000 metric tons

Production and exports of Instant Teas commenced

Sri Lanka became the World’s largest tea exporter for the first time

First International Tea Convention was held to celebrate 100 years of Tea Industry

State take over of privately owned estates

Nationalization of Rupee and sterling companies

Sri Lanka Tea Board was established Formation of Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) Establishment of the Tea Small Holding Development Authority (TSHDA) Exports of tea bags has commenced

Sri Lanka’s participation at Moscow Olympics as official supplier of tea


Import of teas for blending and re-exports was introduced

Production and Exports of Green tea commenced Sri Lanka’s participation at 12th Commonwealth games at Brisbane as official supplier of tea

Centennial year of the Colombo Tea Auctions
Production of CTC teas commenced in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s participation in ‘Expo 88’ as official supplier of tea in Australia

Sri Lanka completes 125 years in her Tea Industry. An international convention was held in Colombo to mark the occasion
Formation of the Tea Research Board Abolition of the Export Duty on 21st December, 1992 Abolition of the Ad Valorem Tax on 21st December, 1992

Privatization of the management of Government owned tea estates

Sri Lanka’s tea production exceeded 250,000 metric tons

Tea Exports reached 250,000 metric tons

Tea production exceeded 300,000 metric tons

Commencement of on-line sales of tea by Forbes & Walker Ltd., at the Colombo Tea Auctions Establishment of a Tea Museum at Kandy

Tea Association of Sri Lanka was formed (source: Sri lanka tea board)

The Beginnings of Tea

Nothing predisposed the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a British crown colony since 1802, to such a fate, for tea plants did not figure among the local flora. Yet from the early nineteenth century, several enthusiasts used their estates as experimental plots. In 1839, Dr. Wallich, head of the botanical garden in Calcutta, sent several Assam tea plant seeds to the Peradeniya estates near Kandy. This initial consignment was followed by two hundred and fifty plants, some of which went to Nuwara Eliya, a health resort to the south of Kandy, situated at an altitude of 6,500 feet. The Nuwara Eliya experiment produced entirely satisfactory results. Seeds of Chinese tea plants, brought to Ceylon by travelers such as Maurice de Worms, were also planted in the Peradeniya nurseries.

11 Tea cultivation nevertheless remained a minor activity for twenty years. The island’s prosperity in fact derived from coffee, whose quality rivaled that of Brazil. This situation changed dramatically in 1869 with the outbreak of a parasite fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, that systematically destroyed coffee plants. Tea then appeared as a godsend, and the entire local economy shifted to the new crop in a matter of several years. This rapid substitution owed a great deal to the fruitful initiative of a man named James Taylor. Back in 1851, near Mincing Lane, Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon. This sixteen-year-old Scot, son of a modest wheelwright, would never see his native land again. But throughout his life he sent letters to his father back home, providing a unique description of the daily life of a planter in that epoch. Five years after he took up his post, his employers, Harrison and Leake, impressed by the quality of his work, put Taylor in charge of the Loolecondera estate and instructed him to experiment with tea plants. The Peradeniya nursery supplied him with his first seed around 1860.

Taylor then set up the first tea “factory” on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary setup. Historian D. M. Forrest quotes a description provided by Taylor’s neighbor, planter E. G. Harding: “The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables on the veranda by hand, i.e. from wrists to elbow, while the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves over charcoal fires, with wire trays to hold the leaf.

The result was a delicious tea which we brought up locally at Rs.1.50 per lb.” The factory soon became famous throughout the island. In 1872, Taylor invented a machine for rolling leaves, and one year later sent twenty-three pounds of tea to Mincing Lane. Taylor trained a number of assistants, and from that point on Ceylon tea arrived regularly in London and Melbourne. Its success led to the opening of an auction market in Colombo in 1883, and to the founding of a Colombo Tea Traders Association in 1894.

Taylor continued to test new methods and techniques at the Loolecondera estate (which he would never own) until the end of this life.

He was well-liked by both European planters and native workers, yet remained somewhat solitary. He never left the estate, except for a single short vacation in 1874 – spent at Darjeeling, needless to say, in order to study the new tea plantations.
His talent and determination were officially recognized when Sir William Gregory, governor of Ceylon, paid Taylor a visit in 1890 to congratulate him on the quality of his tea. The Ceylon Tea Growers’ Association, founded in 1886, gave him a silver tea service engraved with an inscription citing his pioneering work.

But the rise of the tea industry nurtured by James Taylor was also the cause of his downfall. Rapid growth was accompanied by a concentration of capital in the hands of large corporations based in Britain, and a wave of property consolidation forced out smaller planters. Taylor, like other planters, was dismissed. Terribly disappointed, he decided to remain on his estate despite an order to quit; not long afterward, in 1892, he died suddenly of dysentery at the age of fifty-seven, on his beloved soil at Loolecondera.

The 1884 and 1886 International Expositions held in London introduced the English and foreigners to teas produced in the British Empire. But it was at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that Ceylon tea made a tremendous hit-no less than one million packets were sold. Finally, at the Paris Exposition of 1900, visitors to the Ceylon Pavilion discovered replica tea factories and the “five o-clock tea” that became so fashionable. As a contemporary chronicler put it “The charming colonial house with bright shutters, the deliciousness of the beverage, the beauty of the Singhalese people-living statues of bronze wrapped in shimmering white loincloths-everything contributes to the success of this delightful stand at Trocadero…”

The planters’ association supported this propaganda campaign by organizing various publicity events. In 1891, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Alexander III, Grand-Duke Nicolas, the Queen of Italy and Emperor Franz-Josef all received sixty coffers of tea accompanied by an illustrated album on Ceylon.

The promotional policy was so effective that by the end of the nineteenth century, the word “tea” was no longer associated with China, but with Ceylon. The island’s prosperity sparked covetousness on the part of British companies and London brokers, who wanted to acquire their own plantations and cut out the middlemen. This marked a turning point in the saga of tea-pioneers gave way to merchants, whose name or label would soon become more important than the country in which the tea was grown.

( Extracted from “The Book of TEA” by Antony Bugess)


Tea Grades

Ceylon Teas

Tea from Sri Lanka (Ceylon)


Sri Lanka has over 188,000 hectares under tea cultivation yielding about 298,000 tons of “made” tea, and accounting for more than 19% of world exports. In 1972, the island then known as Ceylon reverted to the traditional name of Sri Lanka, but retained the brand name of Ceylon for the marketing of its teas.

Tea from Sri Lanka falls into three categories: low-grown (on estates up to an elevation of 2,000ft); medium grown (on elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 ft); and high grown (elevations above 4,000 ft). Each level produces teas of unique character. By blending teas from different areas of the island and at varied elevations, Sri Lanka can offer a very wide range of flavor and color. Some are full-bodied, others light and delicate, but all Ceylon blends will have brisk, full flavors and bright golden color.

Because of its geographical location, tea can be plucked in Sri Lanka all year round – the west and east of the island are separated by central mountains so that as each region’s season ends, the other begins. Below are descriptions of the three high grown regions.

Dimbula Region

Probably the most famous of Ceylon teas, Dimbula is cultivated on estates first planted with tea when their coffee crops failed in 1870. Grown 5,000ft above sea level, all Dimbula teas are light and bright in color with a crisp strong flavor that leaves the mouth feeling fresh and clean. Today, it forms part of the high-grown zone of central Sri Lanka which includes Dickoya and Nuwara Eliya.

Example – Kenilworth Estate This tea has long wiry beautiful leaves that give an exquisite, almost oaky taste with good body and strength.

Uva Region

Uva is a fine flavored tea grown at altitudes between 2,000ft and 4,000ft above sea level on the eastern slopes of the central mountains in Sri Lanka. It has a bright, deep amber color when brewed, with the brisk and crisp, strong Ceylon flavor. These teas are also used in Ceylon blend and make an ideal morning drink or an after-lunch tea.

Example – St James Estate This is a copper-colored infusion with a very smooth, pronounced taste and a wonderful aroma. It is a perfect breakfast or day time tea.

Nuwara Eliya Region

Nuwara Eliya teas are light and delicate in character, bright in color and with a fragrant flavor. Their flavor is heightened when taken with lemon rather than milk.

Example – Nuwara Eliya Estate This tea has a bright brisk flavor and a wonderful perfume, good to drink at any time of day with just a dash of milk.

Ruhuna Region

The southern part of the country has an exclusive condition in the soil which gives blackness to the leaves as well as strength and character in the cup. The unique features of these teas grown from sea level to around 2,000 feet are their appearance and special taste. The stylish range of whole leaf teas are enhanced by attractive golden and silver tips produced from a range of tea bushes that thrive in the futile soils and warm conditions. Ideal for those who like a thick, sweet brew or without milk.

Main Sub Districts


The Sinharaja Forest Reserve, south of Ratnapura offers a congenial atmosphere for plantations in this region. The parochial winds of the South-West Monsoon, which can cause much damage to the tea bushes, are kept at bay by this forest belt. The brighter varieties of tea produced in these areas have found a niche in most European countries.


Located south of Ratnapura, Deniyaya has the same elevational characteristics as that of Ratnapura and Balangoda. The liquors produced here are lighter than most conventional low grown teas and are much brighter in the cup.


South of Deniyaya is Matara, which is another region well known for its tea production. Here the plantations are situated at almost sea level. The cool springs of the nearby hills and the Nilwala river have brought fertility to these plantations.


Galle offers teas which are much wanted in the Western and Middle East markets by conoisseurs. Strategically placed on the sea routes, Galle has remained the chief port of call from early 14th century. It has regained its significance with the cultivation of tea.

Ceylon Blend


Ceylon teas span the entire spectrum of tea production, from low to high grown teas. Ceylon Blends was a tradition established at the end of the 19th Century and some companies still market blended Ceylon tea as Ceylon Orange Pekoe or Ceylon BOP. A good blend will produce bright, rich, coppery liquors with a brisk fresh flavor. To ensure that a pre-packed tea is indeed 100% Pure Ceylon Tea, look for the Ceylon Tea Board Lion logo.

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