We’ve been driving for a few hours when Uditha Lokuvithana, our CEO (Chief Experience Officer – that’s what G Adventures call their guides), tells us to get out of the bus. There is literally only forest on either side of us. This can’t be our destination.
We can’t go any further in a bus, he says. The last leg of the journey has to be taken by tuktuk.
About 20 minutes ago our bus was climbing the slopes of Ella Valley, soft moss-coloured peaks on one side, dense forest on the other. In between lies the valley itself, narrow but frighteningly deep. The road can barely fit a pair of tuktuks side by side, let alone a bus. Everyone sitting on the valley side is acutely aware of this – they can see how close we are to teetering off the edge and tumbling through half a kilometre of sprawling rainforest trees.
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We’re staying on a century-old tea plantation – Amba Estate – one of the first non-European owned plantations in all of Sri Lanka. To get here we’ve journeyed through isolated towns half overrun with vine-strangled rainforest trees, postcard-perfect tea plantations too steep for any machine to access, and mountain pathways so windy every corner of the road is a complete 180-degree turn – plot it on a map and the turns would look like spring coils or folds in a squashed ribbon.
Our rooms are the plantation’s former offices, all beautifully restored and fitted with antique colonial furniture. Some have views of the valley, which, come morning, will look utterly Jurassic in the hazy veil of mist.
That night we’re invited to dinner in the main hall. It’s candlelit (which we later learn was because Sri Lanka was struggling with national power shortages at the time) and we eat one of the best meals of the entire tour – spiced potatoes with bite; a mustard-laced pickle salad; a dal so rich and textured you can feel each of the pulses; aromatic, coconutty fried green beans; and a gloriously soft eggplant and onion sambal that’s simultaneously sour, sweet and spicy. Everything is fresh and perfect, made with produce either grown here or in the local community.
After only two hours, it’s already my favourite leg of the tour, and I know I haven’t been told the whole story yet. G Adventures doesn’t trade in leisure or luxury just for the sake of it. Their aim is always to be educational and engaged with local communities. If they’ve taken us four hours into the forest and 1800 metres above sea level, there’s a reason.
Amba Estate isn’t a hotel, it’s a working farm, perhaps the most unique in all of Sri Lanka. It started in 1900 when Thamba Arunasalam Pillai bought 26 acres of uncharted land from a local aristocrat. Tea was brought to Sri Lanka by the British, and many Indians (from the south of the country) were brought in as labourers. Pillai was one of those Indian workers, but he’d spent 10 years saving every bit of money he could to free himself from a life of monotonous labour on a British-owned tea planation.
By the time Pillai died in 1953, he’d built an enormous estate. But fast-forward another 50 years, and civil war, family disputes and nationalisation had taken most of the land out of the Pillai family’s hands. In 2006, a small portion of the estate was taken over by four friends, an Englishman, an Uzbek, an Italian and a Sri Lankan. “All four of us work in economic and social development around the world, and we wanted to put our money where our mouths are and create our own social enterprise,” says Simon Bell (the Englishman). “The objective is to maximise local employment and incomes, using tourism to bring the revenues in and then making sure that all those revenues are spent within the local community.”
They immediately switched the focus of the operation. The factory model – the only model in Sri Lanka at that time – was scrapped. Instead, the four entrepreneurs set out to create Sri Lanka’s first completely handmade, organic tea plantation. Whether or not they succeeded in making a profit, they pledged 10 per cent of all the revenue would go to their workers.
When they launched in 2010 the model was ridiculed. “Tea in Sri Lanka has always been made in large factories; there was no history of small-scale handmade tea operations,” says Bell. Hand-picked, manually sorted, meticulously produced tea – who would possibly pay a premium for that kind of product?
René Redzepi is the answer. Until Noma (one of the world’s most innovative and lauded restaurant) closed for both physical and philosophical renovations in 2017, they were serving Amba tea. You’ll also find their teas at Bills in Ginza, Claridge’s in London and some of the world’s best hotels and spas. They’ve been so successful they can’t keep up with demand. There’s a three-month waiting list for orders. They can’t expand too much either, because when you make everything by hand, there’s a limit to how big you can get.
Compared to Sri Lanka’s other tea factories, the techniques here seems almost arcane. Just days earlier we were given a private tour of one of those mass-production factories, Glenloch. We see industrial sized dryers, boop-de-boop machines that mysteriously sort teas by colour (seriously, how can a machine know what colour something is?), and other car-sized gadgets with conveyor belts, lights and ambiguous purposes. It’s a process designed to make high-quality tea on an enormous scale. But if you want to make a tea good enough for the tables at Noma, you can’t do it the way Glenloch does.
Our last day at Amba starts at 5.15am. The estate is flanked by two famous peaks – Ella Rock and Eagle Rock – and we want to reach the latter by sunrise. The atomically orange sun illuminates a horizon dotted with mirror-like lakes, jungle-covered mountains, endless fields of tea trees and the sheer, rocky surface of a nearby cliff.
When we return, Amba’s production manager Neethanjana Tharuka is waiting with seven different kinds of tea. Tharuka tells us Amba has been working with other tea-growers. If they can’t fill the demand, then other Sri Lankan community-orientated businesses should.
He tells us that once, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Sri Lanka was the largest tea producer in the world, but now they’re fourth behind China, India and Kenya, and they’re likely to fall further. The reason is the shrinking manual-labour force. Sri Lanka has free education, from primary to tertiary, and as a result, one of the most educated workforces in the world.
“Nobody wants to pick the tea,” he says. “So, what is the future, how do we survive? Make sure it’s the best in the world. Make small, earn more, treat your workers very well and target the best customer.” Six other tea plantations have already followed their model. “We share our knowledge,” Tharuka says. “This is the future of Sri Lankan tea.”
How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea With Amba Estate’s Neethanjana Tharuka
The main difference between black, green and white tea is oxidisation. As tea leaves oxidise – a natural process that occurs after they’ve been picked – they darken in colour and change flavour. Black tea is dried, oxidised (and sometimes fermented), then crushed.
Brew temperature: 90-98°C
Brew time: At least 3 minutes. More time will bring out more tannin flavour.
Flavour profile: Robust and earthy, with heavy tannins.
Caffeine: 60-90mg per 250ml (an espresso has about 30-50mg in just 30ml).
After the leaves are picked, they’re either steamed (Japanese-style) or wok-fried (Chinese-style) to prevent the oxidisation process.
Brew temperature: 70-80°C
Brew time: 1 to 3 minutes.
Flavour profile: Vegetal, grassy and smoky.
Caffeine: 35-70mg per 250ml.
The simplest and most delicate tea. The leaves are dried and crushed, without any oxidisation or extra processing. Typically, new growth bulbs are picked for white tea. As only a small amount can be collected from each plantation, it’s the most expensive tea.
Brew temperature: 70-80°C (a higher temperature will yield a stronger flavour, but also more astringency)
Brew time: Up to 1 minute. (The shorter brew time is ideal for smoother, more delicate flavours.)
Flavour profile: Gentle and floral. To use wine-speak, tones of cucumber and melon.
Caffeine: 35-70mg per 250ml.
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This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with G Adventures. Broadsheet travelled to Sri Lanka prior to the Easter 2019 terrorist attacks. While such an unfortunate event undoubtedly leaves a lasting impact, tourism directly helps local communities in their emotional and economic recoveries.