The Hantana Tea Estate is also home to the island's only Tea Museum. The old factory stand amidst acres of tea bushes and give you the opportunity to get up close and personal with the drink that made the island famous.
Famous though the island it for its remarkable teas, it was first famous for its coffee. In 1845 there were just thirty seven thousand acres of the crop but by 1878, coffee estates covered two hundred and seventy five thousand acres.
Tamil labourers arrived (seventy thousand per year at one time) to help the industry grow and in 1867 a railway was built from Kandy to Colombo just to carry coffee. It was, said the papers, a “coffee rush,” but one that benefited many – for a third of the estates were owned by native Sri Lankans. Investors flooded in and by 1860, Sri Lanka was one of the three largest coffee-producing countries in the world.
But in 1869, just as it seemed as if the coffee boom would go on and on, the crop was hit by a killer disease - Hemileia vastatrix, "coffee rust” or “Devastating Emily” as it was known by the planters. It took time to spread – but within thirty years there was barely eleven thousand acres of the plant left on the island. The industry was wiped out.
That the country did not follow suit is probably thanks not to the British government – but to a Scot named James Taylor and his experiments with tea.
Tea first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1824 when a few plants from China were planted in Peradeniya’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In 1839 more plants arrived - from Assam and Calcutta. In between those two dates Taylor was born, in 1835 in Scotland.
He emigrated to the island in 1852 to plant coffee and spotted early the effects of coffee rust. On his Loolecondera Estate in Kandy - near Hantana - he immediately started to experiment with tea until, from plant to tea cup, he had mastered all the necessary techniques and processes necessary to succeed with this new crop.
In 1875 Taylor managed to send the first shipment of Ceylon tea to the London Tea Auction. Despairing coffee-planters, sat at Taylor’s feet to learn tea production.
Within about twenty years the export of tea increased from around eighty tons to almost twenty three thousand tons in 1890. Tea had caught on. The few estates that made up the eleven hundred acres of planted tea back in 1875 had, by 1890, grown to two hundred and twenty thousand acres.
Today, the country makes, quite rightly in most eyes, the claim to be the home of the cuppa, worldwide, despite only being its fourth largest black tea producer. Sri Lanka’s climate is perfect for the plant and its modern history is moulded by it.
Tea accounts for almost 2% of total GDP and employs directly or indirectly, over one million people. Its bushes cover over seven hundred square miles and its sales, to places like Russia, the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, the UK, Egypt, and Japan amount to almost three hundred million kilos.
Not for nothing is seven is the number of completeness and perfection, for the island has seven distinct tea regions.
At 6000 ft +, the highest teas are those from Nuwara Eilya - rugged, bracing, cold enough for frost, and home to the country’s finest tea: subtle, golden-hued with a delicate, fragrant bouquet.
At 4-6,000 ft is Uva, caressed by both the NE & SW monsoons; and a drying Cachan ocean wind that closes the leaves, forcing a high balance of flavour. It is aromatic, mellow, and smooth.
Overlapping is Uda Pussellawa, at 5-6,000 ft, a thinly populated region, famed for rare plants & leopards, and bombed by the NE Monsoon to give a strong dark tangy tea with a hint of rose.
Dimbulla, at 3,500-5000 ft, is a region drenched by the SW monsoon. Crisp days, wet nights, and a complex terrain create a clean, coppery red tea, most famous as English Breakfast Tea.
Kandy, where the tea industry began on plantations at 2-4,000 ft, in 1867, produces bright, light, and coppery teas with good strength, flavour, and body.
One of two low land regions at 0-2,500 ft, Sabaragamuwa, home to sapphires and humid rainforest, is hit by the SW monsoon to give a robustly flavoured dark yellow-brown tea, with caramel hints.
Low lying Ruhuna which runs from the coast to the Sinharaja Rain Forest, is shielded from monsoons and has a soil that promotes rapid long, beautiful leaves that turn intensely black and make strong, full-flavoured dark teas.