Maxwell Fernando was born in 1935 and studied at St. Joseph’s College in Colombo, after which he went on to complete Part 1 of a B.S.C. in Economics. He entered the tea industry in 1960, when he joined Heath & Co., one of the most prestigious tea trading companies in the world. In 1974, Maxwell switched from a trading environment and joined the leading tea brokerage company, Forbes & Walkers Ltd. In 1978 he was appointed by the Ministry of Plan Implementation to explore the feasibility of using existing rail capacity for the export of tea from the port of Trincomalee by coordinating the services of the Sri Lanka Railway, Food Ministry, and the Trincomalee Tea Administration Company.
Maxwell held numerous honorary positions within the Colombo Tea Traders Association (CTTA). He was also appointed as a consultant on many fronts that are nevertheless too frequent to mention. He died in 2005.
“Tea grows in winter in the valleys by the streams and on the hills of Ichow, and does not perish in severe winter. It is gathered on the third day of the third month and then dried. It quenches the thirst, it lessens the desire for sleep, and it gladdens and cheers the heart.”
– Unknown, December 18th, 2737 B.C.
Tea has been imbued with a medicinal and mysterious character since antiquity; today, after a history rich in adventure and ritual, it is seen fit for king and commoner alike. However, in the west, tea was initially only favored amongst aristocrats on account of its rarity: To serve tea was to demonstrate generosity of the highest order. In fact, the appropriate execution of teatime, imbued with rigid social rules and rituals, earned the Victorian woman cultural affluence and esteem.
As tea trickled down to the populist rank and file, it did not lose the sophistication of its flavor, nor the sanctity of its social role. Whether at a Japanese tea ceremony, in a Bedouin tent, or an urban café, tea plays a central cultural and communicative role, albeit in very different aesthetic ways.
General character of the tea plant
Tea plants enjoy very vigorous growth and are capable of flourishing under extreme weather conditions: In the long, severe winters of the province of Georgia in Russia, and as far south as Natal in South Africa where conditions are, conversely, dry and hot. While tea can grow in these climates, extreme weather conditions are not conducive to growth and flavor.
Sri Lanka, however, has an extremely hospitable climate for tea. The general conditions that prevail in this country are as follows:
It is clear that the topography and monsoons of Sri Lanka play an important part in the propagation of tea in this region. Furthermore, these conditions play a vital role in the very quality and character of the Ceylon tea produced.
Sri Lanka’s average mean temperature ranges from 79° F to 82° F in the low country and 58° F to 75° F in the hill country. During the heavy cropping months of March, April and May, general quality levels drop, but pick up rapidly thereafter when the Southwest monsoons blow dry. The quality of tea is affected during the wet period from November to January, due to the influence of the Northeast monsoon, as tea prefers a cool, humid climate—although cool conditions at higher altitudes could either retard growth or produce a high quality product, depending on circumstances. In Ceylon, an acre of tea in full production will draw from the soil, under normal weather conditions, about ten tons of water per day. This calls for a rainfall of about 0.1 inches per day.
The husbandry of any land depends on its topsoil, which must, at all times, be well preserved from the wasting influence of the sun, rain and wind. Tea, as it is a shade-loving jungle plant grows best under a fair canopy of forest trees. The trees should not, however, be permitted to compete with tea for plant food. For steady growth, tea requires an average rainfall of at least 100 inches. Since its root system is mostly in the top three feet of soil, the plant could wilt and leaf production can reduce drastically under very dry conditions. It is best grown in acidic soil.
Seed culture and propagation
Tea was originally propagated with seeds, resulting in a vast variety of different types of bushes. This produced an inconsistent product that often did not meet consumer expectations. It has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that tea plants generated from seeds do not produce progeny true to type, that is to say, plants bearing identical characteristics of the parent seed bearer.
Today, tea is propagated by “vegetative propagation,” grown from leaf cuttings taken from selected mother bushes of a high-yielding and disease-resistant strain. This method produces a uniform and consistent final product. The subsequent bushes grown from the leaf cuttings are known as “clones.” This method was innovated in Japan in the 1880s, as well as in India in the 1930s.
Today, science has advanced to such an extent that it is now possible to produce a “super tea plant” that grows with vigor, has correct form and is capable of producing a large harvest of high quality tea.
All the attributes of the motherbush used in cloned, or vegetative, propagation, are produced genetically. The characteristics of a sought-after motherbush are:
Nurseries to accommodate the cuttings taken from selected motherbushes should be prepared well in advance. In selecting the location, care should be taken to ensure that there is sufficient supply of water within easy distance. Acidic soils rich in humus are the best, while water-logged areas should be avoided.
The first commercial planting of tea took place on Sri Lanka in 1867, on an abandoned coffee estate in the Kandy district. Before long, the tea industry in the country expanded, becoming one of the leading exporters in the world. Today, there are 188,971 hectares under tea cultivation, which represent about 3.8% of the land area of Ceylon. This area is broadly subdivided into four major climatic zones, where the agro-ecology exerts a profound influence on the chemistry of the tea plants and their subsequent tea.
For commercial purposes, the tea tree is grown as a bush, but if left to grow wild it could extend to a height of thirty feet and above. To maintain a continuous flush, the growth of the plant is artificially retarded by regular cutbacks. This helps to maintain the bush at a height of about three feet, for convenience of plucking. Pruning promotes growth during the period of recovery, while the plant replaces lost foliage. Tea is produced from the two leaves and the unopened leaf. Pruning promotes the growth of additional plucking points, which in turn increases its yield.
Under normal conditions, a person could collect about 25 kilos of tea a day, producing about 11 kilos of made tea. This amount could, however, reduce drastically during the dry season. A kilo of made tea may require about 6,000 shoots of picked leaves. Japan has devised robotic cutting shears with pouches attached, enabling the user to collect about 275 kilos of tea a day. This method has also been tried in other countries including Ceylon. Unfortunately, it is generally agreed that machines cannot discriminate sufficiently enough to select the two leaves and the bud, the cutting considered ideal for the manufacture of quality teas. Further, the topography of the tea land in Sri Lanka is not conducive to mechanical harvesters.
First Commercial Tea Plot
James Taylor was born in 1835 in Monboddo, Kincardineshire, Scotland. He was one of six children; his schoolmaster described him as “a quiet, steady going lad.” His mother died when he was nine years old. His father married again, but James did not take kindly to his stepmother. It may have been this setback that prompted him to seek his fortunes in a strange land at the tender age of sixteen.
At that time the owners of coffee plantations were looking for “sons of soil” in Scotland for their properties in Ceylon. In 1851, young James signed the form of engagement to G. & L.A. Hadden, the London agents for Loolecondera estate. The contract was for three years as assistant manager, for a salary of pounds sterling 100 a year, from which he had to pay his fare to Ceylon.
On October 22nd he set sail for Ceylon, never to return home again. He was made manager of Loolecondera, responsible in all for about 1,100 acres after two years. The early proprietors of Loolecondera Plantation at Hewaheta were G.D.B Harrison and W, M. Leake. This property was subsequently sold to Anglo-Ceylon and General Estates Company Limited and its produce in the early 1880s, came under the careful management of James Taylor.
His initial success at Loolecondera was freely spoken about in planting circles and the teas he produced acquired a high reputation among Ceylon teas in London.
The first batch of tea manufactured on Loolecondera was marketed in Kandy.
A more scientific evaluation of Leake’s tea, along with other Ceylon Company’s teas was made in 1871. The result was most encouraging, and the London Brokers did not hesitate to place a valuation of 3 shillings 6 pence. This prompted owners to extend further cultivation of tea with special attention being paid to its manufacture.
By 1871, Taylor had mastered the art of tea cultivation, but was not proficient in the making of good tea. A brief visit to India helped him to learn the art of tea manufacture. He also had free access to the expert knowledge of Jenkins, considered a knowledgeable tea planter from Assam, who was given charge of the Company’s operations in Ceylon. Jenkins provided assistance to Taylor, and, above all, inspired confidence in him. Before long, Taylor was able to produce teas equal in all aspects to Assam teas. His success was integral to the success of Sri Lankan tea cultivation.
He died on the estate that he loved on May 2nd 1882.
Essential pre-requisites for a tea estate
A well-founded, self-contained tea estate forming an economical unit in Ceylon must have a resident manager, a permanent resident labor force, and a fully equipped factory with ancillary plant and buildings. Tea estates have been established in plains and valleys, on steep hillsides and on wide high plateaus. Within limits, the tea plant is known to grow on soils of any texture, but jungle land is considered best of all. Tea is considered a wild plant, and the jungle provides a more natural habitat that is usually rich in the plant food that tea requires.
An Efficient Labor Force
An efficient staff, as well as a good and loyal labor force, is no doubt a real asset to an estate. This art of management is inherited from the Europeans that pioneered this project in the country of Sri Lanka, although social relationships between the management and the labor class have changed considerably over the years. The subordinate staff that usually consists of clerks, storekeepers, tea-makers, engine room attendants, and dispensers cannot always be recruited locally. A modern estate will inevitably have a mixture of different nationalities serving the same management, and this is a factor that has to be taken into account when dealing with the labor force.
An Ideal Layout
The modern method adopted for planting on slopes and hillsides is “contour planting,” where the lines of tea bushes follow the contours of the land. This system allows for a more economical distribution of bushes, and is widely used. According to this method, about 7,000 to 12,000 plants could be planted in a hectare of land.
The scientific aspects of pruning have undergone radical changes over the years before the adoption of modern systems. Incorrect trimming down of tea bushes could lead to heavy deaths. Under normal circumstances, the tea bush becomes unproductive of flush, and pruning is undertaken at regular intervals to remove extra foliage and over-matured wood, to develop a sturdy framework that can sustain luxuriant vegetative growth, and maintain it as a constant leaf producer. As the age of pruning increases, shoots become smaller, with the result increasing the number of banjhi shoots and decreasing the flush. If the cutting back of operations is delayed, the plucking table continues to rise, making it difficult for tea pluckers to gather the flush.
The pruning cycle may not conform to a set pattern at different elevations. Growth is more vigorous at lower elevations. As a result, pruning rounds have to be shorter, often undertaken every fourth year. Growth is slower at higher elevations, and this period could be extended further in the up-country areas.
Care of the soil
The nurturing of the tea bush, and the cultivation of the soil in which it grows, is an integral part of tea propagation. In this regard, the planter should highly regard conservation of the soil, maintaining a good ground cover, supplementing any deficiency of plant food, providing humus and fostering the health and the vigor of the bush.
Tea is usually grown on steep slopes, where heavy rainfall is experienced with a varying average of one hundred inches in some districts to over two hundred and fifty in others. Soil conservation has always been a problem in Sri Lanka. The practice of clean weeding is fast giving way to selective weeding: The more innocuous sorts are left behind to bind the soil, and attention is now focused on the question of a proper tea cover that could eliminate weed growth.
Much topsoil has been lost over the years, and this problem has now reached critical proportions. Where clean weeding has to be resorted to, proper drains, silt-pits, and terraces are constructed to prevent soil erosion. Attention is paid to planting shade trees and nitrogen-fixing shrubs in the tea to aid in conservation of the soil.
Regular application of chemical fertilizer is followed to maintain the tea’s condition. The three most important ingredients required for the successful cultivation of tea are nitrogen, potash and phosphoric acid.
Instead of fertilization, necessary soil nutrients can be adjusted in a natural and organic way. Nitrogenous trees and plants serve a multifarious function, providing shade, binding the soil, and providing rich humus.
Gathering of Tea is a Continuous Operation
The choice of good tea land, the opening of an estate, the ensuring growth, and care and cultivation of the bushes all lead up to one culminating purpose: Every planter looks forward to the continuous harvesting of the leaf from the mature tea bushes. It is considered a skilled and a fascinating operation, and is referred to as “plucking.” Tea is commercially manufactured from the “flush,” or the leaf-growth on the side branches and the stems of the bush. Plucking the “two leaves and the bud” is the common description given to this operation. The bud is small and unopened, and the two leaves are tender and succulent. Gathering two leaves and the bud reflect normal plucking; anything less would constitute “fine” plucking, and the inclusion of extra leaf or leaves constitute “coarse” plucking.
Tea plucking is a highly skilled operation. Over the years, tea pluckers have acquired the skill of selecting the correct leaves to be plucked. Their nimble fingers are trained to break the tender leaves and transfer them in handfuls into the baskets they carry on their backs. All this is done at an amazing speed. Mechanical plucking has been tried before, but without much success. At intervals, the baskets are taken to the roadside, and the leaves are carefully picked to eliminate stalk and other extraneous matter before weighing.
Preparation and Manufacture
There are many ways of preparing the leaf, but most teas are designated to be either green or black, the former unfermented, and the latter fermented. The process of tea manufacture has evolved through the ages, and distinguishing stages can be recognized.
In Ceylon, the cultivation and manufacture of tea is unique. We live in a time when dietetics has almost become a science, and the purity and cleanliness of food and beverages are strongly insisted on.–Ceylon, however, from the very inception of tea manufacture, is well known to have paid the greatest attention to ensuring that the doubtful nature of some of the early Chinese blends consumed as tea was completely eliminated. The standard of quality and purity has always been paramount to tea production in Ceylon.
Withering is the most important process of tea manufacture. A careless wither or an uneven one will not give good tea, even from the best type of leaf. The leaf arriving at the factory is quickly weighed and spread evenly in tats, or troughs. This is a process where the excess moisture in the leaf is released to make it pliable for the next process of rolling.
Rollers compress the leaf and help to extract the sap from the leaves, initiating fermentation. A good wither will prevent the leaf from breaking up, but will impart a twist. Liquors from fresh leaf are bitter, but in well-withered leaf, sweetness develops. The process of withering should not be hastened, and if the correct levels are reached, the leaf, when squeezed into a ball will not open out.
Under wet conditions, the loss in weight of withered leaf should be around 35% to 40%. Under dry conditions, the loss could be up to 45%. The time required before the leaf reaches this stage is dependent on temperature and humidity, and could range from 18 to 24 hours in different seasons and districts. During the wet season or in humid areas, optimum conditions are reproduced artificially by fanning directed, heated air.
Withering must be carefully watched, as uncontrolled withers could lead to the manufacture of poor quality teas.
After obtaining the correct degree of wither, the leaf is rolled and twisted at the same time as it is slowly broken up. The leaf cells are ruptured in the process, and their contents brought into contact with the air to start the chemical reactions necessary for the production of black tea.
As soon as the cells are ruptured, the enzymes in the leaf come into contact with the oxygen of the air, and the oxidization necessary for the substances responsible for flavor, color, and aroma to emerge takes place. Different rolling techniques are used to cater to the needs of the trade.
Disintegration of the leaf is accompanied by heat development. This has to be checked, as excessive heat is detrimental to quality. Rollers differ considerably in mechanical detail, but not in principle. They consist of a circular table with a hard surface on which brass or wooden battens are fitted. Above is an open cylinder into which leaves are fed. As this cylinder rotates, the amount of pressure imparted to the leaves against the surface of the table can be adjusted. To assure good appearance of the final product, rolling should be carried out without the application of too much pressure.
If, on the other hand, the aim is to obtain strong and colored liquors, hard rolling should be carried out to extract the maximum sap from the leaf. During the quality season, when dry conditions are accompanied by high winds, teas at higher elevations acquire an essential oil inherent in the leaf to produce flavor. Rolling has to be regulated so as to preserve the oil in the leaf from escaping. For the production of a large percentage of small leaf grades, hard rolling is essential.
Roll breaking has two objectives: To remove twisted leaves off the rolled shoots that clog and impede circulation, and to facilitate further twisting action on the large leaves. It is also done to cool the bulk of leaves when the temperature rises.. There is no standard form of roll breaking, and altering the mesh sizes, adjusting the speed of vibration, the amplitude of the vibration, and the slope of the tray can attain different desired objectives.
The finer particles collected after roll breaking are fermented to bring about the changes necessary to make tea liquor palatable. This process can only take place when the cells of the tea leaf are properly ruptured. The liquor of under-fermented tea will taste raw and green, and that of an over-fermented tea will come out soft. The degree of color, general level of quality and flavor can be varied by adjusting the period of fermentation.
As this chemical process takes place, the color of the leaf changes from a greenish to a bright coppery color. The period of fermentation may vary from twenty minutes to, sometimes, five hours. The fermenting room should be cool, airy and humid, while the leaf should be spread on fermenting tables or cement floors. The room temperature should be around 75 to 80 F. A long fermentation at lower temperatures tends to destroy flavor, and a shorter fermentation gives raw and bitter liquors.
>Dryers, which contain a series of perforated metal trays arranged to carry the leaf feed, have a stove for heating air, as well as a fan to draw and direct it to the drying chamber. The machine can dry the tea within 20 to 25 minutes. The temperature of the hot air may vary between 180 to 200 F. Higher temperatures can kill quality.
At the point of discharge from the dryer, the moisture of the tea is reduced to around 3%. The tea will not keep if the moisture contents are above 4.5%. The fermented leaf is dried to stop any further chemical reactions from taking place. The keeping qualities of tea depend on the temperature at which the tea has been fired. The technology of tea drying depends on many factors, the most important being firing temperatures.
The fired tea is then graded, the last operation in this long process of manufacture. Tea particles are separated into different shapes and sizes to conform to trade specifications. This process is long and tedious. Grading up twelve to fifteen grades is common.
It must be emphasized that the various grades of tea only denote a certain size and appearance of the leaf; they do not refer to quality. Higher grades normally give darker liquor and a stronger tea. Lower leaf grades, on the other hand, are lighter colored and less strong. The graded teas are finally weighed and packed into tea chests.
Such is the mode of careful, clean preparation that goes on in many hundreds of tea factories.
Reporting on musters
When an invoice is ready on the estate, the supervisor sends a sample set to be examined under great scrutiny.
This specialized job first involves a close examination of the dry leaf to ascertain whether or not it conforms to the specifications laid down for its particular grade. The infusion is carefully examined to determine its acceptability, and, lastly, the liquor is tasted to gauge its merits from the point of view of manufacture and specific consumer demands.
These are termed “Muster Reports.” The tea taster in Colombo acts as a guide to the superintendent and the factory staff, and if a mistake in manufacture is spotted, it is brought to their notice before the general standards deteriorate further. All brokers have their own manufacturing advisers who undertake regular visits to the estates to ensure that the right type of tea, keeping with market requirements, is being made.
Overseas tea buyers are extremely fastidious, and their requirements vary considerably from country to country. Leaf appearance of made tea is most important in its presentation and should be black, neat and even, well twisted, clean and stalk free. Infusions should be bright.
In the liquors, however, there are wide variances. An experienced tea taster, after close examination of the tea liquor’s various properties, can provide the estate staff all the necessary guidelines regarding exact market requirements.
Meanwhile, the estate superintendent continues to push the teas on their way to the outlets. When sufficient teas are collected to form an invoice, they are bulked and packed and dispatched to Colombo if intended for disposal in the main sale. If meant for an ex-estate sale, they are retained on the estate.
In the case of ex-estate sales, a three-kilo sample is drawn from three packed chests at random and dispatched to their selling brokers in Colombo.
In the case of main sale teas, their respective managing agents usually furnish cataloging details to the brokers.
On average, about fifty sales are conducted during the year, and weekly offerings could peak at seven million kilos during the rush months. The lean months, however, could see quantities declining to around three million kilos. Generally, main sale offerings are greater in comparison to ex-estate sales. More than a million kilos of tea arrive in Colombo each day, either for disposal through the main sale or consigned to buyer’s stores, to be sold under ex-estate terms.
Cataloging and Sampling
Catalogues usually close each week, three weeks ahead of the actual sale date. Main sale catalogues normally close on a Monday, and ex-estate catalogues two days after, on Wednesday. At this stage, the broker becomes directly concerned with the journey of the tea.
Today, brokers are called upon to serve about 150 tea buyers. It is a statutory requirement that all buyers at the tea sales are registered with the Tea Control Department, whilst some of them are also members of the Colombo Tea Traders Association. All of these buyers are entitled to a regulated number of samples, while about fifty of the larger buyers are entitled to the full set, that is to say, a sample from each lot offered for sale.
The number of lots offered each week could vary from about 9,000 to over 10,000 depending on the crop situation. It has become necessary for all brokers to distribute over 90,000 samples of the different types of tea offered for sale each week.
The ultimate interest, of course, is the quality of the end product. However, the buyer’s final reckoning of the tea’s value often hinges on one question: “What is the tea worth to the company?” The ultimate price paid at auction depends on many factors, such as market trends, overseas demand, shipping opportunities, availability of credit, etc. Taking all these factors into account, the buyer fixes a price in keeping with his requirements while placing a limit on each lot he is interested in purchasing.
Disposal of tea
The producer of tea has a number of alternative methods by which he may dispose of his tea. Most commonly, he may offer his product for sale through the public auctions. He is also permitted to offer individual invoices for private sales at a price mutually agreed by a panel of tasters. The government has now extended this facility further to enable a producer to sell 50% of his crop forward for a period of six months under a forward Contract that is also negotiated at a fixed price by a panel of tasters. Despite these various methods of disposal granted to the producer by the government, the majority of producers usually favor selling their crop locally, in Colombo. Still, over 90% of the crop is sold each year at public auctions.
The auctions in Colombo are organized by the Colombo Tea Traders Association in accordance with a set of laws formulated by the Sri Lanka Tea Board. They are usually held weekly throughout the year at the Chamber’s office in Colombo. The auctions are open to all interested parties, provided they are registered tea dealers. The majority of such operations in Colombo are members of the Colombo Tea Traders as well.
The bulk of tea exported from Sri Lanka is shipped in its original form: under the estate’s own name, in the original chests as packed on the estate. This type of consignment is generally made against orders received by exporters from their overseas associates who prefer to do their own blending with teas from other countries.
A very large percentage of the teas sold in Colombo are bought by exporters on instructions received from their overseas associates, with whom they have had long years of relationship, the result being that they know their exact requirements in serving those particular markets.
Trading in tea, on the other hand, where teas of good value are purchased in the hope of selling them later on actual offers, has diminished considerably over the years due to the high cost of finance.
The overseas buyers, when placing orders in Colombo with their agents, not only take into account the quality of the teas available locally, but also the market conditions prevailing in other countries for similar quality.
Prices paid in Colombo reflect international levels, and it is imperative that if we are to maintain optimum price levels locally, the product is of best possible quality and appearance.