The morning starts early at Nuwara Eliya, the highlands of central Sri Lanka. Just after 5am, the horizon of misty mountain is visible tones beneath the intensifying orange sky. As the sun rises, the landscape sharpens in detail: sloping hills neatly divided into green rectangles, evenly terraced to the top; single storey houses painted in bright red, blue or green and yellow, planted at the base of the hills.
In another couple of hours, women - with long cloths draped from their heads down their backs - would be dotting the terraced hills to handpick the first flush of tea leaves, following a tradition started over a century ago.
Nuwara Eliya, which used to be called Little England, is where the country's highest elevation tea plantations are and where much of the landscape and the rhythm of life has been unchanged since the time a Scot, James Taylor, introduced commercial tea planting in 1867.
The 1,868m-high locale yields the finest and most delicate variety of Sri Lanka's famed Orange Pekoe tea, out of the six types of tea - categorised from low country to high country teas - in the country. With its golden colour and distinct full-bodied flavour, and its artisanal processing, Ceylon tea is considered a premium brew in the world of teas.
Right now, though, this sumptuous image of breaking dawn is enjoyed from Nuwara Eliya's only tea factory turned boutique hotel. Heritance Tea Factory Hotel has been converted from an actual tea factory built in the 1930s - the only hotel of its kind here. It enjoys an almost 100 per cent occupancy year-round for its 60-odd rooms - such is the allure of Nuwara Eliya, both for its tea estates and mountainous, English-countryside ambience where night temperatures drop below 20 degrees celsius.
In its tea factory days, the four floors of the Hethersett Tea Factory - whose teas were auctioned in Mincing Lane, London - held lines of troughs for the withering of freshly-plucked tea leaves. When it became a hotel, the walls of galvanised iron corrugated sheets were reinforced (the original beams are painted green, and the reinforcements red), so that the open floors could be partitioned into luxurious rooms. Some of the original machinery parts of the factory have been tastefully re-used as décor for the tea-themed look of the hotel. The hotel has even hosted a right royal guest: Britain's Prince Charles paid a visit in 1992 when it first opened.
The conversion is beautifully done, but what's more fascinating is the knowledge that there are more like it - hundreds around the country - which are still very much in operation, whetting your interest in just how the Sri Lankan tea industry works.
For an idea of what it means to wither leaves, and then crush, dry and sort them, visit the little showroom cottage on the hotel grounds which takes you through the tea production process. Or better still, arrange to visit one of the many plantations and tea factories in the highlands.
Finlays is one of the bigger corporate plantations in Nuwara Eliya, and the factory still processes tea using orthodox methods. This means the additional crushing of tea leaves with a machine called the rotorvane, explains Lasantha Samarakoon, the superintendent of Finlays. "It's like a beef mincer - crushing the tea so that the flavour is released," he explains. The other tea processing method is CTC (cut, tear and curl).
We dunk tea bags in hot water every time without giving it a second thought, and we've all also heard variations of the story of how tea was discovered (when a few leaves dropped into some Chinese emperor's cup of hot water and voila!), but modern day tea drinking, the beverage which helped build and bring down empires and industries, is not as easy as plucking and drying leaves and bagging them.
Tea processing is all about getting that balance of moisture in the leaves right, coaxing just enough of the flavour and tannin out. "Once you harvest the leaves, the enzymic reaction begins," says Mr Samarakoon. After the plucking, the leaves are put in a trough and withered - by running hot air through them for a couple of hours - to remove about 80-90 per cent of the moisture so that the leaves' sap can be concentrated, otherwise it starts draining away.
Tea is plucked in the morning, and the processing starts by noon. The entire process of drying, cleaning and grading will be finished by 6am the next day - when the dried tea is stored into foiled paper sacks and is ready to be auctioned off in the next couple of weeks.
Each tea plucker plucks 20kg of tea leaves a day, and they have to be the first flush - which is the bud and two leaves around it. "Beyond the third leaf, it's not desirable for tea anymore," says Mr Samarakoon.
The whole agricultural and commercial management of tea plantations is an artful combination of science and maths. The interval for plucking for each bush is one week, for instance, because if a bush is over-plucked, then you're going to run out of bushes which need about two and a half months to grow to the next level. "We want to leave four to five generations in a bush - that's the most cost-efficient," he adds.
The science and maths of tea processing is even more impressive when you learn about the lesser known art of blending and packaging. This we find out in Colombo, where tea is still sold through an efficient and transparent auction system - again a traditional system which continues to serve the country's tea industry well.
Every estate - there are some 600 in Sri Lanka - numbers its teas according to variants like plots and lines, because the terroir affects the bush, even on the same estate. And every week, almost 100 per cent of Sri Lanka's tea is sold in the tea auction held at the Sri Lanka Chambers of Commerce building.
Like any art auction, the tea auctioneers rapidly rattle off lots and prices, and tea buyers, many of whom even don ties, sit in an amphitheatre-style lecture hall indicating their bids. Thousands of tea varieties are sold and bought each week, because almost every tea that we drink - regardless of brand or type - is a blend of two or more different leaves from different estates.
"We could blend something stronger with something lighter, to balance out the taste, or sometimes clients want a stronger colour, especially if they're drinking tea with milk," says Ranjith Gunathunge, one of the executives and tea tasters at Tea Tang Pvt Ltd.
The tea blenders at Tea Tang, owned by BP de Silva in Singapore, get close to 2,000 teas a week which they have to taste and then grade according to their standards. The tea blenders are also the ones who attend the tea auctions every week. Besides getting the right leaves for the blends they want - certain markets want teas with stronger colour, or more robust tastes - they also have to be sensitive to pricing. "The auctions also mean that we generally know which markets other companies are catering to," explains Mr Gunathunge. Tea Tang blends and packages the teas sold by the Sri Lankan Tea Board, and its corporate client list includes Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Sri Lanka is the only country where almost all of its teas are sold by auction, ensuring that the estates get the best prices for their teas. The industry is also the most well-regulated, and the system ensures that the estates get their money within a week of the auction. "It's a highly transparent system that we have, and it rates as the largest in the world for a single origin," points out Hasitha De Alwis, director of the Sri Lanka Tea Promotion Board.
Trundling back down from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, on the very jam-packed roads and often caught behind a gaily-coloured Tata lorry, one can't help but marvel at how tea - the planting of it, its processing, and how it provides the country a strong export income - has shaped both the land and the economy of Sri Lanka since the mid-19th century.
Formerly British plantations might now be owned by Sri Lankan corporates and the government (after a nationalisation exercise in the 1950s), but the plantations still retain their English estate names such as Hatton and Somerset, and the highlands, their English countryside character.
"Tradition is the most suitable word that can explain tea in the Sri Lankan context," pronounces Mr De Alwis, who had done much to promote the export of Ceylon teas since the 1970s. Now, against newer tea-producing countries such as Kenya which is able to use machines for the planting and plucking, Sri Lanka has to strive to add value to its handpicked teas - to make sure that the sun isn't yet setting on this industry which provides it both the hard income, but also the soft romance of a bygone era.
A cuppa for everyone
In Sri Lanka, Ceylon tea is categorised into high-grown, mid-grown and low grown teas based on elevation and geography of the land and divided into six main types named after the regions they're from: Nuwara Eliya, Uva, Dimbula, Uda Pussellawa, Kandy, Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa.
In 2012, the industry celebrated 145 years of commercial plantations. The tea industry creates employment for almost two million people, or 10 per cent of the population, directly and indirectly. Export earnings in 2012 contributed 17.5 per cent to government coffers and at US$1.5 billion (S$1.88 billion), it's the highest among all tea-producing countries of the world.
In terms of global production, Sri Lanka is the fourth largest manufacturer of tea after China, India and Kenya, but it's the second largest tea exporter after Kenya since China and India have a large domestic consumption.
Most of the tea (76 per cent) is produced by smallholders while 24 per cent is produced on corporate estates. For now, the majority of Sri Lanka's teas are shipped to Russia and the Middle East. Japan is also a key market.
Value-added tea exports - which encompass the blending, bagging and branding of teas - account for 45 per cent of Sri Lanka's total export volume, which is about 22 million kilos of teabags a year.
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