Plucky tales from the “tea bag”
I first met Beverly towards the end of 2010 and heard about her exciting plans to re-start a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. I have a particular soft spot for Ceylon tea, having sourced some excellent teas from my own travels there, so I was keen to follow her progress and thought eteaket’s followers might be too. So without further ado, here’s the first installment of Beverly’s Ceylon tales…. we’ll keep you updated with her progress and hope to be able to bring you some of the first teas in the not too distant future.
Plucky tales from the ‘tea bag’
I never thought that Beverly was a particularly difficult name to pronounce but here in Sri Lanka no matter how many times I try to book a taxi or introduce myself to someone, after several fruitless attempts of slowly saying “my name is Beverly, Bev..erly, B..E..V..E..R..L..Y” I always end up finally stating in a terrible Bollywood accent that my name is “Beverly Hills” which guarantees the response “ah yes Beverly Hills, very good name”
And here I am living and working on a tea estate in the mountains where at the other extreme I am also known as the “tea bag” just to bring me back down to earth!
I originally came to Sri Lanka as a VSO volunteer having decided to pull out of my last job working with a Spanish company developing international markets and running the UK side of the business. I wanted a new challenge and most of all wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. I may have 20 odd years of business development and although I thought I knew a fair bit about development my time with VSO taught me more than I could ever have imagined. I ended up arriving here during the long running civil war and a few days before the LTTE attempted to bomb the financial centre and managed instead to blow up the tax office!
Local children at Vessak (New Year) who stopped me in order to give me gifts of cake and juice and my colleagues at Moneragala Chamber of Commerce.
I ended up living and working 9 hours by bus away from Colombo in Moneragala with a rural chamber of commerce and local farmers developing small agri-businesses. As the only “foreigner” in the area I was something of a novelty and wherever I went everyone wanted to know “where are you from, where are you going and are you married?” Living alone in a small village house with my own well, a bucket for a washing machine, burning my own rubbish and daily power cuts was in its self challenging. Moneragala is one of the poorest districts in Sri Lanka with most families living on less than $2 a day and yet whenever I visited anyone I would always teeter home with my motorbike loaded up with all kinds of gifts.
Completely out of the blue, a very dapper individual turned up at the chamber looking for information about the area for a report he was writing for the local government. This turned out to be Simon who is one of the owners of the Tea Estate. After spending a day with me as his guide he kindly invited me to the farm. Needless to say the lure of a weekend in the coolness of the hills, the promise of beer and hot showers saw me heading up to Amba on practically the next bus!
Working with rice millers in Anuradhapura…using bike powered bellows to boil rice and making biscuits out of rice flour.
And here I am and still wondering whether he slipped something into my tea or beer that weekend to cause me to lose all sense of reason and accept the job of trying to regenerate the tea estate and start to hand process tea! After my VSO contract finished I headed back home to snowy Scotland for a break and was asked what I did for a living, somewhat jokingly I said “I manage a tea plantation” to which they replied “Ah yes, well it must be up near Dundee they grow a lot of tea around there don’t they?”
Having rather smugly left the blizzards and black ice of Scotland I finally arrived here in early January to lashing rain, landslides and severe flooding on the East coast with around 1 million people affected and over 300,000 people displaced in refugee camps… I needed to wear all of my clothes all of the time (including in bed) just to keep warm.
I had no idea whatsoever that making tea was such a complicated business, thankfully Simon recruited an international tea expert “Nigel the tea guru” to guide me through the intricacies. I am practically counting leaves in my sleep and yes I DO have to count leaves to assess plucking standards and leaf quality, I have by now plucked, rolled, steamed, withered and dried countless small batches of tea in a variety of ways… At one stage it was raining so much I even considered trying to dry the tea using my hairdryer (the sacrifices a girl has to make!) Thankfully we have now built an experimental dryer out of water pipes, plastic sheeting, bulldog clips and light bulbs.. and when it is sunny, each batch of “pampered” tea is put out to dry on a sun lounger (each leaf wearing sunglasses and with its own personal beach towel… well almost!) I feel as though I have signed up for a stint on “Blue Peter” as well as the WI.
From hand-rolling to our first cuppa!
The estate isn’t just about tea; we grow organic vegetables and herbs and want to develop a small eco-resort whilst working with the local community to provide not only employment but also business opportunities. It’s very tough for small estates like ours to break even let alone make money growing tea which is why we have decided to start our own small scale artisanal hand processing. Alongside the tea we hope to make other products like jams and chutneys using our own fruit.
Karuna (our manager) tries the first cup.
His family originally planted the first tea bushes in the valley over 70 years ago.
It’s the first time that tea has been processed here for over 40 years so trying our first cuppa was quite a momentous occasion, thankfully given a thumbs up from Nigel the tea guru and his tasting team! So now the challenge is to do it all over again and again and again…
Beverly Wainwright, April 2011