Where to take a Sri Lanka tea plantation tour

Sri Lanka's lush green hill country is a patchwork of rolling, seemingly endless tea plantations. A visit to one of these estates is a defining experience of any trip to this magnificent country. Read on to discover how best to take a Sri Lanka tea plantation tour.
Picking tea leaves in Sri Lanka's hill country. Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Picking tea leaves in Sri Lanka's hill country. Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock
The lower mountain slopes of Sri Lanka’s verdant highlands are swathed in millions of tea bushes making up the estates. These historic tea plantations are a legacy of British colonial culture, while the sight of Tamil pickers in colourful garments gathering delicate tea leaves by hand remains an archetypal image of Sri Lanka.


Advent of tea

In the 19th century, the topography of Sri Lanka’s highlands was changed forever by the advent of tea. The Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung is generally credited with discovering tea around 5,000 years ago, when a few leaves from a wild tea bush fell into a pot of water he was boiling. Rather than waste the contaminated water, he drank it, and in so doing became the first person to taste a cup of tea. 


History of tea in Sri Lanka

During the 1860s, a universal blight that destroyed Sri Lanka’s extensive coffee plantations led to the cultivation of tea instead. Plants imported from India flourished in the crisp, damp air of the central highlands, and large tracts of the hill country were hurriedly cleared by waves of British settlers attracted by the possibilities of the island’s so-called 'green gold.' Fortunes were rapidly made as Sri Lanka’s highland environment was transformed within two decades, from thick jungle to endless swathes of manicured tea bushes that still blanket the hill country today. 

Fresh tea leaves. Photo: Chanut Adrien/Shutterstock


How tea is made

Tea begins its journey from hillside to cup with a gentle tug between the thumb and forefinger of one of the island’s thousands of Tamil tea pluckers. The freshly gathered leaves (only the topmost bud and two leaves are plucked in order to guarantee the freshness and purity of the resultant tea) are promptly carried off to be converted into tea in the nearest tea factory. The leaves are first withered in blasts of hot air to remove excess moisture, then rolled and crushed to release any remaining sap in the leaves and trigger fermentation. After a carefully calculated length of time, the leaves are fired in huge ovens to produce bulk black tea, and sifted into different-sized particles. This entire process, from bush to finished tea, takes no more than 24 hours.


Sri Lankan tea

Sri Lankan teas are ranked according to their point (and height) of origin: 'high-grown' (the finest teas, grown at altitude in the estates around Nuwara Eliya), 'mid-grown,' and the fuller-flavoured but relatively coarse 'low-grown' teas, produced in the foothills. Expert tea tasters will then classify the tea according to strength, flavour and colour, before the graded teas are sold at auction. Much of the best tea is exported, although an increasingly wide selection of local teas is becoming available in local shops. Look for unblended, single-origin teas from leading up-country estates – an authentic taste of Sri Lanka in a cup.


Sri Lanka tea plantation tours

A number or tea factories and estates in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country offer short tours for visitors. West of Kandy, at the venerable Geragama Tea Factory, you can observe how plants are grown in the estate and discover how different types of tea are produced in the factory, before enjoying tea and a slice of cake. 

Heading south towards Nuwara Eliya, the Blue Field Tea Factory at Ramboda offers comprehensive tours detailing the manufacturing process, and a variety of different teas are available to purchase.

Not far away, at the Damro Labookellie Tea Centre, you can take a tour, stroll through the beautiful estates or just stop for a reviving cup of tea and the chance to buy freshly plucked leaves from the estate.

The 19th-century Pedro Tea Factory, north of Nuwara Eliya, you can visit the tea fields and factory before taking in views of the estate as you sip a reviving brew.

Further south, Dambatenne Tea Factory outside the town of Haputale offers informative tours explaining the production process and is within easy reach of Lipton’s Seat where you can enjoy panoramic views of the historic plantations as you enjoy, you guessed it, a refreshing cup of tea.


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Updated 25 January, 2019