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A critical look at Sri Lanka’s one-time ‘Champagne Teas’

(Reproduced from the Daily News of December 20, 2001)

During the mid 18th century, Sri Lanka had only coffee to offer the world, and all the areas in the wet zone were covered with a mantle of coffee with no tea in sight. It remained the main agricultural product of the country. From about the latter part of the century, tea made its appearance, and those produced from high grown areas were marketed in the first world countries. Tea produced in the mid-country found ready buyers in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Low-grown teas on the other hand took a longer time to make their presence felt. Their markets were confined to the Middle East sector.

During that period the price structure that prevailed was completely different to what it is today. High grown teas were considered the best sellers, followed by mid-grown varieties, and the low grown teas were selling at bottom levels. With the advent of the petro-economy in the Middle East, the entire price structure underwent a radical change. The low-grown varieties that were selling at give-away prices obtained for the first time the thrust to forge ahead, and this position remains so even today.

Today, they are the best sellers with high grown teas lagging behind, but mid-grown teas have been swept completely off the field. Most of the plantations that were hand-picked by overseas buyers for regular support then have lost their unique character, and these die-hard foreign supporters are in a state of confusion.

Sub-district averages for the month of September indicate that the low-grown teas are far ahead of all other varieties, with teas from the Matara district recording an average price of Rs. 167.44. The best of the western offerings are from Bogawantalawa and Maskeliya areas. They have obtained Rs. 152.18 and Rs. 162.64 respectively. This area has been identified by quality buyers as having maintained very high standards over the years. At the bottom level, teas from Ramboda have obtained only Rs. 109.69.

In a bid to enter the fast emerging markets of the CIS and the Middle East, most factories from higher elevations that were producing conventional types of teas changed their style of manufacture to produce leafy teas. This has resulted in starving certain markets from obtaining regular supplies of their favourite kind of tea. The entire scenario has changed, and the overseas packers are unable to obtain their requirements of the correct type of tea for inclusion in their blends. They are forced to look elsewhere to satisfy their wants.

Prices obtained for mediums are frightening. The average for teas sold from the Rangala area is only Rs. 88.58. It appears that most of the mediums and a fair weight of Uva teas are presently selling well below the cost of production. Mediums have remained a problem area for a considerable length of time, and their esteem faded away with the development of the Kenyan tea industry.

Manufacturing styles in Sri Lanka as a tea producer have been subjected to various changes due to revisions in consumer preferences, but offerings that have stood out as outstanding teas should always be available. The foreign buyers who support them on a regular basis should not be made to look elsewhere for their requirements. The character of the teas should remain constant. Consistency should be the guiding factor in such cases. The eminence enjoyed by low-grown teas in today’s market structure is no doubt the envy of many others, but the steady deterioration of teas that were considered the “Champagne teas” of Sri Lanka not too long ago, is a matter that needs examination and correction. The nostalgic reminiscences of 1978 must be still fresh in the minds of the more senior tea men of today, when challenges were thrown around and accepted. It was during this year that the Udapussellawa teas did better than the Uva teas for the first time during the quality season. It was this sense of provocation that prompted the planters to stand up to the situation and accept the challenges that ended up with excellent results. Udapussellawa teas acquired quality virtually overnight and became a high-ranking product. The planters exploited and took advantage of the strange character available in the teas grown at such high elevations. They ceased to be referred to as western offerings, and acquired a special place in the catalogue order.

This same kind of eagerness filtered down to the Nuwara Eliya planters. They too woke up from a deep calmness and joined the Udapussellawa planters to explore the uniqueness available in the teas grown on the highest plateau in the country. There was high activity in the Nuwara Eliya plantations during the 1980s that resulted in the discovery of a strange character in these teas that could not be reproduced elsewhere in the country. Before long, niche markets were found for these teas and there was high activity at the sale-room when these teas came under the hammer.

Weekly offerings from this region were few, but there was stiff competition to head the honours list each week among the planters. It may be pertinent at this stage to register the record-breaking performance of some of the Nuwara Eliya teas. Tommagong, Court Lodge and Kenmare were all fighting for honours, but during the latter period of the quality season, it was the Tommagong mark that stole the show. The author of this report recalls mentioning in the market report that it was nothing but attention to detail applied by the then superintendent that enabled this mark to gain the unique distinction of bettering its own record for a considerable length of time during the 1980 quality season.

It is most saddening to witness that the average for Udapussellawa teas for the month of September this year has dropped to less than Rs. 100 per kilo, and Nuwara Eliya teas are just holding out at the Rs. 131 levels. This trend is worth investigation. It could very well be due to a series of factors that are completely beyond the control of the planters. Changing weather patterns could be one of the reasons.

The composition of fertiliser mixtures to generate growth at the expense of quality could be another reason. Replanting with vp teas could also contribute towards this trend. Let us only hope that it is not the human factor that is responsible for this sad state of affairs.

 

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Last Updated Date: September 25, 2003 .