Tea-gether Again: 20 March 2024

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Team Mama's Boys is together again!

Whilst Michael and Kyle were rattling their way across the island from Negombo, Kim has been convalescing at the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel - complete with a house call visit at the hotel by the local doctor, a course of antibiotics, and a spa treatment. 

Michael and Kyle were sad that Kim had to miss the first part of the adventure across Sri Lanka, but we are all excited to be finish the Rickshaw Run as a team.

The Tea Factory Hotel is built inside of an old tea factory at the Hethersett Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya. The tea factory fell into disrepair and shut down in the 90s before being transformed into a luxury hotel. 

The old tea drying rooms have been converted to guest rooms, but much of the old industrial machinery remains, including an old steam engine that the hotel runs every evening at 7:30pm to demonstrate the huge fans that slowly spin to circulate air between the drying rooms.

As you listen to the slow and rhythmic hiss...chunk... of the engine turning, you can really step back in time and imagine what this place used to be like when it was operating full-time to process tea.

Today, Hethersett operates a mini tea factory on the grounds, which grows and produces tea exclusively to be served at the hotel.

Needless to say, much of our visit to Nuwara Eliya would be focused on tea. Even the set menu we had enjoyed at dinner last night used tea as an ingredient in every course!

The hotel keeps a naturalist on staff to lead nature walks each morning, and we eagerly signed up to join him on his 8:30am walk through the tea fields, hills, and forest surrounding the hotel.

Mr. Mohandraj was an awesome guide! He grew up in the village just outside of the hotel's grounds and is super knowledgeable about all of the area's flora and fauna.

Michael, an avid amateur birder, was especially excited to join the nature walk. He and Mr. Mohandraj bonded over their shared love of birds, and excitedly pointed out the various species to one another as they walked. Michael is thrilled that he has been able to add 16 new species to his "life list" in just the few days we've already spent in Sri Lanka.

We trekked up the hills past the local village. As we walked, Mr. Mohandraj explained the area's history.

The village began as a company town, he told us. There were no permanent settlements in the area that is now Nuwara Eliay before the British arrived, shot all of the local elephants, and began growing tea. In fact, the entire town of Nuwara Eliya itself was built as a sort of hill station / resort town where sweaty colonial officers and their families could come to escape the tropical heat of the Sri Lankan lowlands.

As the Ceylonese tea industry grew, the demand for laborers to work on the tea plantations grew as well. The tea estates would build small villages near the tea fields where the workers would live with their families. 

Over the decades the village has grown, but it's still an 8-kilometer round-trip walk for the local children to trudge up the hills to the nearby town for school each day. If you look outside in the early morning or late afternoon, you will see a small line of students marching along the dusty roads in their starch-white, cleanly pressed uniforms.

We hiked higher up into the hills. The air was cool, but the sun, so close to the equator, was blazing down on us, and we stopped frequently to drink water. The views were incredible, and we all agree that Nuwara Eliya may be the most beautiful place we've ever seen, especially in early morning when the mist is rolling in over the lush green hills.

At times, we had to forge across prickly rows of low-cut tea bushes. We are lucky that we didn't encounter any wild animals, although our guide did find a long and dangerous-looking porcupine quill on the ground.

This area is still home to some elephants (though not very many), leopards (who thankfully mostly keep away from humans), water buffalo, wild boars, porcupines, and other wild creatures. The hotel even had a sign posted warning everyone to stay indoors after 8pm in order to avoid run-ins with boars and buffalo.

We turned off of the path and looped through a cool, shady forested area. About two hours after we had departed, we arrived back at the hotel, sweaty and dusty, and ready for another good strong cup of that world-famous Ceylon tea. 

Today is Kyle's 26th birthday! We wanted to do something special to memorialize the occasion, so in the early afternoon we headed outside to the hotel's terrace for afternoon tea.

In addition to the requisite tea sandwiches, scones, and cakes, we were treated to an assortment of Sri Lankan snacks including patti, samosa, curd, sambol, and more. The tea, of course, was free-flowing.

We returned to our rooms to freshen up, and Kyle was delighted to find a birthday surprise left by the staff. Kim had only off-handedly mentioned that today was Kyle's birthday to Mr. Mohandraj that morning, but he had somehow managed to pass the message along to the rest of the staff. Everyone at the hotel knew that it was a special day for Kyle, and every employee that we passed stopped to shake his hand and give him their best wishes for a wonderful year.

We had signed up to join the "tea experience" in the afternoon. It began with a walk down to the mini tea factory where we were greeted by Mrs. Jayanthi, the hotel's on-staff tea expert. We had no idea what the tea experience was going to be, but Mrs. Jayanthi explained that it would include both tea plucking and tea tasting.

At the mini tea factory, she helped us get dressed - Michael and Kyle in sarongs and Kim in a sari and bindi (the traditional red dot placed on the brow of a married woman) - and led us out into the hotel's tea fields.

As she led us through the fields, Mrs. Jayanthi taught us how to pluck tea.

It's quite a precise process.

Only the top three leaves on any tea bush can be plucked to use for making tea. The top three leaves are plucked to make black tea, which is rolled and fermented. The other leaves on each branch, which are darker and tougher, are too bitter to brew.

The top two leaves can be plucked and steamed to make green tea. These leaves are even lighter and more delicate.

The top leaf can be plucked by itself and steamed for very light, fine white tea, which is super high in antioxidants.

And the very tiny bud at the tip of the tea plant can be plucked to make silver tip tea - the lightest, finest, and most expensive type of tea in the world.

Tea plucking is backbreaking work.

We all really struggled to even be able to identify which leaves were ready to be plucked, but for Mrs. Jayanthi, it was second nature! While Kyle and Michael struggled, she helped Kim cheat by helping to fill up her basket for her.

As we plucked the leaves, we had to throw them over our shoulders into the traditional woven baskets which we wore strung across our heads by a strap. 

We struggled to pick even a handful of useable leaves. We all agreed that we would have been fired on our first day at work in the tea fields. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of dexterity to be able to spot and pick the perfect leaves. Each day a tea picker can gather up to 20 kilos (about 45 lbs.) of tea leaves. Together, we only managed to gather an unimpressive .4 kilograms...

After our time in the fields, Mrs. Jayanthi led us to the hotel's mini tea factory where she explained the very precise and scientific process of preparing tea leaves to make the perfect brew.

First, all of the tea leaves that are gathered by Heathersett's workers and guests (like us) are placed into a huge tray where they are blow-dried by a large fan.

The leaves are next placed into a huge roller and then steamed (for green and white tea) or fermented for a few hours for black tea). Next, the leaves are put in a shaker that separates the tough, bitter stems from the delicious leaves.

Finally, the tea is sorted by grade. Ceylon tea is graded as follows:

Orange Pekoe: a high-quality grade of black tea consisting of long, pointed leaves without tips, known for its smooth, robust, and complex flavor profile.

Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP): an upper-medium grade of tea that uses some broken leaves, offering a stronger and brisker flavor due to the smaller leaf size which enhances infusion. This grade of tea is the most popular and is used to make internationally famous blends such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings (POPF): small particles of tea leaves left over after higher grades are processed, used primarily in tea bags for a quick brew with a bold, assertive flavor. This is the darkest, strongest, and most bitter brew of tea.

We left the mini tea factory and headed back into the hotel lobby for our tea tasting. We had plucked the tea leaves and learned about how they are processed... now it was time to taste them!

A tea tasting, it turns out, is very much like a wine tasting. Mrs. Jayanithi taught us how to slurp and aerate the tea (very much like one does with a fine wine), swish it around in our mouths, and then spit it into the provided receptacle in order to get the most precise flavor. After each tasting, we were to rinse our mouths out with fresh distilled water in order to cleanse our palates. 

Kim and Michael both agreed that BOP-grade tea was their favorite. Kyle preferred the stronger and more bitter BOPF.

That evening, Michael and Kyle donned their sarongs once again for dinner.

At the end of the night, the sous-chef dimmed the lights, and rolled out a cake to celebrate Kyle's birthday!

We all agree that this is the best hotel that we've ever stayed at. The friendliness and service go far and beyond anywhere we've ever been, and we really feel as if we've made friends with the staff just during our short stay here. We will be sad to leave tomorrow morning.

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