After the cobwebs and skeletons of our last tea factory visit, at a haunted building where photos were forbidden and tourists grimaced in revealing green pinafores, we were keen to see a real live working factory – one in which people pulled levers on machines and conveyor belts visibly processed the fresh leaves into something resembling packet tea.
Lonely Planet recommends the Dambatenne Tea Factory near Haputale (built in 1890 by the famous Scotsman, Sir Thomas Lipton) as a good place to visit. And much as we wanted to follow this advice, we couldn’t because of our crowded itinerary. There was the matter of watching sunrise at Lipton’s Seat, timing absolutely unnegotiable. Then all the other things Lipton bestowed around here – Lipton’s Cup, Lipton’s Hat, and – no doubt somewhere, Lipton’s dousing bag and strainer. The man was Mister tea, and in time, tea became his moniker.
Perhaps we could have visited after the sunrise, but no – then like any worn down commuter, we had to catch a train. The seven forty seven out of Haputale that took us still further from Dambatenne. Anyway it was Sunday, a holiday. There would be no one working there.
The ever astute Sunil suggested we visit a different tea factory, Damro’s Labookellie Tea Factory on the Nuwara Eliya to Kandy Road. We’d be driving that way in two days time. And the factory wasn’t far from our second Nuwara Eliya hotel, the salubrious Hilldale Retreat with its panoramic views of the surrounding Damro tea plantations.
Then I made the mistake of reading the guide books. The Lonely Planet described the Labookellie tours as brief, while the Rough Guide also mentioned tours being rushed and uninformative. Plus there was another tea factory further on, the Blue Field Tea Factory, and really there were tea factories everywhere – this was starting to feel like a tea factory crawl. Such a pity Nelson wasn’t still with us. He’d have one canny eye out for an elephant shirt, and the other peeled for a stonker of a tea factory.
In the end, we went to Labookellie. And contrary to the guide books (which are not always one hundred percent true) we found our visit welcoming, informative and thoroughly worthwhile. As soon as we arrived, our guide Shiroma came out to meet us. She was a small, slim lady with a smile that hinted at mischievousness. And she held out no green pinafores for us to wear, only a twig of two young tea leaves and its middle bud, picked that very moment from the end of a nearby branch.
“These are the leaves we use to make tea,” she said in a well practised speech. “The outer two for white tea, the inner bud for golden tea, and all three for green tea, all UNFERMENTED!”
We repeated “UNFERMENTED” after her several times as if we were on Jackanory (younger readers, refer to Wikipedia).
Then she explained how black tea – most of the tea we drink – is made from all three leaves but after being fermented and subjected to various other processes. And today as they were making black tea at the factory, she would show us first hand.
We followed her up some steps and straight into the drying room. Here, as at the last tea factory, lay several long troughs. These however were full of dry green leaves, several inches deep. She demonstrated by dipping her hand in and turning the brittle leaves. “They have to be turned every few hours, and will take days to wither completely.”
Next she led us to a viewing gallery, from where we could see the next stages of the process, people in green overalls working machines, making the dried leaves into tea. One lady regularly adjusted a machine that tumbled the leaves like a tumble drier: this bruises and tears the leaves to aid natural fermentation. On the opposite side were machines for heating the leaves (stopping oxidation), sweltering, drying and cutting. Finally more machines for sorting and removing loose stems.
This was all quite different from the last tea factory. All the machines were in use, and people busily running around. Generally they only produce one type of tea at a time – for instance a specific run for BOP, Broken Orange Pekoe. (Pekoe is thought to be a Chinese (Xiamen) word for tea.) Labookellie appeared highly mechanised, a large scale operator. Their factory did the business – and they produced lots of tea.
Leading us on a little further, Shiroma showed us where the final tea was packed into paper sacks not unlike cement bags. It would then be shipped to Colombo where auctioneers would sell it onto tea brokers.
A line of tea cups led the way out of the factory and towards the tea rooms. Each cup contained a particular variety of tea – for instance BOP or Broken Orange Pekoe, which uses larger pieces of leaf, and produces a light orange tea. Behind each cup was a sample packet in which the tea was sold. Other teas included FBOP or Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe, a coarser broken tea with more tips, and BOPF or Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings, where fannings are smaller pieces of tea left after the higher leaf grades are broken down.
Now very thirsty, we strode eagerly into the tea room. Here we chose the type of tea we wanted to drink (a plain pekoe) and a waiter brought over a large teapot and three cups, one for each of us and another for Sunil. We were also served with tea cake to help the tea go down.
Altogether a fuller experience than our last tea factory visit, with a better guide and lots more going on. Now we know all about how tea is made – and believe me, it’s very complicated – so don’t even think about asking how long you should brew it for, or whether the pot should be warmed first.