There’s change in the Sri Lankan tea fields

There’s change in the Sri Lankan tea fields

At dinner at the Stafford Bungalow, high in Sri Lankan tea country near Nuwara Eliya, nearly every course is garnished with the country’s trademark two tea leaves and a bud. A symbol that is the very essence of the country’s tea industry. An industry that has been the very essence of the island since Frederick Taylor first planted tea trees in the 1860s to replace coffee plants that had been wiped out by a virus.

Just to emphasise the lengthy heritage, Head Chef Sanjeewa often accompanies dishes with a mini-glass of tea. After all, the Stafford Bungalow was built when Queen Victoria was still on the throne in 1884. Of course, high tea is still served late afternoon with home-made cake.

Although Sri Lanka is renewed for its Orange Pekoe tea, Sanjeewa rings the changes with herbal teas or perhaps a cool peppermint tea with dessert. On Stafford’s plantation of 50 acres, 21 acres are now given over to growing herbs, vegetables and spices. Those crops, destined for the plates of guests and for sale at local markets, are protected by a night watchman who keeps marauding deer, goats and wild pigs at bay.

Although the sight of tea plucking ladies, in their vibrantly coloured saris, seems timeless, tea planters are struggling to recruit staff. Tea-plucking is tough work in challenging tropical conditions: baking sun and torrential downpours. There is no off-season, no respite. Tea trees are ready for plucking every 7 to 10 days. Then at the end of the day, the ladies work on their own patch of land for another hour or two to grow essential food supplies. Stafford’s management is keeping a hopeful eye on trials to develop the technology for a “plucking sister.”

The Pekoe Trail, a new 300 km long distance walking trail through the Central Highlands, shows how tea tourism is developing. Adventurer Miguel Cunat’s brainchild has been funded by the EU and USAiD, benefiting villages that do not usually see tourists.

Whilst at Stafford Bungalow guests can live the life of planters, who far from home and family, tried to recreate a comforting Little England: Marmite for their toast, hot water bottles in their beds, magazines shipped from Blighty, gin and tonic on the terrace.

Further south and at lower altitude, an hour and a half drive from Kandy, Rosyth Estate House is radically redesigning tea. If they wish, guests at the luxury boutique hotel learn how to create a high-end artisan tea. Instead of the usual two leaves and a bud, Rosyth’s pickers pluck one leaf and a bud.

Originally, the tea factory was independent from Neil and Farzana Dobb’s Rosyth plantation. But when the factory burnt down, probably from faulty electrics, and local families were left without work or income, the Dobbs stepped in. Firstly, offering the workers employment on their tea and rubber plantation, then building a new factory.

Traditionally, tea pluckers worked long hours to meet daily their targets of around 18 to 20 kg of leaves. Rosyth’s ladies pluck early in the morning, avoiding extreme heat and the afternoon rain that develops in the wet season.

Multi-skilling has arrived at Rosyth. After the morning’s plucking, the ladies work in the tea factory. Wok-frying the leaves, placing leaves on the withering trays and hand-rolling the leaves.
Moreover, this is a social enterprise with profits shared amongst the employees. Recent high inflation in Sri Lanka has caused many tea pluckers to struggle as they try to survive on the Sri Lankan Tea Board’s minimum wage levels.

Neil Dobbs and Jonathan, his Tea Manager, then introduce the guests to the intricacies of tea-tasting. Neil and Jonathan come from different ends of the tea-spectrum. Growing up on milky, sugary teas, Neil never liked tea until five years ago, when he thought that as his wife had inherited a tea estate from her father, it was time to acquire a taste. In contrast, after a four year Tea Technology course, Jonathan had tasted 500 – 600 cups a day working for a tea exporter’s house.

Sampling five very different teas all picked on the Rosyth Estate, the apprentice tasters – sniffing, rolling and splashing – learn to how assess aroma, colour, clarity of the liquid, taste and aftertaste.

“This one has a slight pinkish rim,” points out Neil Dobbs, who is becoming something of a tea connoisseur. It is one of the hallmarks of an artisan tea destined to be served with afternoon tea in fine hotels rather than with two sugars in a builder’s mug.

For over 150 years, tea has played a central role in Sri Lankan history, now a range of tea-based experiences enables travellers to get even closer to the spirit of the Teardrop Island.


At the Stafford Bungalow, Ragala Deluxe rooms begin from US$ 650 on a half board basis during January and February 2024.

A three-night stay at Rosyth Estate House, Kegalle, in low season begins from £390 per person, based on two sharing a Classic Room.