Several days into our trip we headed away from the coast towards Deniyaya. At Comins we always talk about connection and many of our new contacts come through people we meet who offer personal recommendations that we then follow up on our trips. As we head off towards these new gardens we never know what we will find. In this case Michelle had met with the wonderful team from the Sri Lankan tea board at an event with the Guild of Fine Food in London earlier this year. On sharing our story, our approach to sourcing and the types of people we like to work with they recommended a trip to this garden in Deniyaya and we were not disappointed!
On arriving at the garden we could instantly tell that there was a high focus on quality. The greeting was warm and friendly, the factory very well maintained and the young manager optimistic, innovative and very happy to give us the full tour of operations. Picking takes place throughout the year - every day apart from the full moon. The factory produces black, green, white and speciality handmade orthodox teas. We arrived quite late in the day after a public holiday so the amount of tea that had been picked was lower than usual - processing was almost complete but we got the chance to see the later parts of tea manufacture. We took a tour around the factory with the manager Mohan seeing first the large withering beds with fans where, as a first step the black teas (1500kg per bed) are hard withered to reduce 40-45% of their moisture over a 10-15 hour period. In this room we also observed a small team of very friendly ladies [& one man] processing white tea. At this garden they produce both Silver & Gold Tip White teas. For the Silver Tip they simply pick the bud. For the Gold Tip they pick the bud and the leaf and leave this in a room at a temperature of about 35-40 Celcius for 15 hours [there is no artificial drying with the fan] before removing the bud [which then has a golden colour - hence the name]. We always talk about & share the time that goes into processing high quality teas but when you see the dedicated teams working at these gardens it really comes to life. This hand processing is why you pay more for great quality white teas.
Back to the black tea manufacture - the withering process described has simply reduced the moisture so you are left at the end with the full leaf. The next step is rolling which breaks the leaf into smaller pieces and twists them. This process releases the poly-phenols in the leaf and circulates them with oxygen in the air. At this garden they put the tea through 4 rolling cycles. After each rolling the teas are then sieved - the small pieces that fall through the sieve move to the fermentation tables behind the rolling machines. Larger pieces re-enter the next rolling machine where the same process is followed for the four rollers. The first rolling is around 15 minutes after which each subsequent rolling taking 20 minutes. The time that is spent on the fermentation table is 2 hours from the time that the first roller is charged (filled) - i.e. you don’t consistently leave all of the teas on the tables for 2 hours as they are continuing to oxide whilst in the rollers - hence those coming out of the fourth roller spends a considerably shorter time on the fermentation tables that those coming out of the first roller. At the end of this section of the processing the teas are then tasted by the team at the factory to check whether the level of fermentation is satisfactory and the flavour of the tea is as required [photo below shows the rolling machines with the fermentation tables in the background]
One of the things we really love about the tea factories you find in Sri Lanka and India is the dedication that has gone into maintaining the original equipment. There are often some unique and innovative pieces of machinery in place and working and in this factory there was a bucket conveyor belt that you can see in the photos. This conveyor belt of buckets moves gradually around the factory picking up teas from one part of the process and depositing them at the next. Our interest at these left the manager quite bemused!
In the photos above you can see the tea leaving the fermentation tables loaded into the buckets and progressing to the drying room. Drying is carried out at temperatures between 100 and 120 Celcius for 18 to 20 minutes - walking into the room you are hit by a wall of heat - this work is not for the faint hearted! This important step in black tea manufacture has many factors that must be considered. For example if the drying temperature is too high then the tips go black. If the temperature is too light then you can also potentially lose the tips as there is moisture left in the leaves from the rolling process. The outside climate on the day of picking is also a big factor in the final quality of the teas as the tip can open before picking. This again highlights something that we often talk about which is the importance of the personal expertise of the tea makers in determining the quality of the final product - this is why for us it is important to visit the gardens, meet the managers and explore the process with them.
Looking around the drying room we discussed the 5 ‘dhools’ or grades of teas that emerge from the process outlined above with Mohan. He explained that the first dhool is where you get the tippy teas. Dhool 5 [which is the tea left on top of the sifter after emerging from the fourth roller]- is where you get the leafy teas.
After drying the final step is grading - this factory produces 20 grades of black teas among the 5 dhools. The grading room was a hive of activity. We have now worked in tea for some time so recognise the grading system and the machinery. However here much is down to expertise. I said to Mohan how complicated it all seemed - his response was to say that it is all very straight forward [I guess so if you know how!!] The whole process from withering to sorting takes 24 hours - after this the tea will be bulk packed, stored and tasted before proceeding to the tea auction in Colombo [a small proportion is allowed to be sold privately - direct]. Once purchased at the auction the tea will continue its journey until it ends up in your kitchen cupboard and ultimately in your cup!
After a quick tour of the grading room we went to taste the teas - and this garden produces some really good high grade black teas, white teas and handmade teas that we hope to bring to Comins over the coming months. After collecting our samples [which we can share with you if you are interested and at the Tea House in the next few weeks] we got back into our van to head further into tea country. As we navigated the winding roads we were treated to a gap in the vegetation and there - opposite us - was the factory amidst the wonderful tea bushes. A great end to a fascinating trip.