Growing, making, tasting and selling speciality teas
'I never for a moment believed that tea making would become one of the loves of my life and nor could I ever imagine when I set out for Sri Lanka 6 years ago that I would bring my tea-making skills home and help to create a new tea in Scotland.
My adventures in tea began in February 2009 with my journey from Scotland to Sri Lanka to take up a post as a VSO volunteer. Three days after I arrived, the Tamil Tigers attempted to bomb the airport but missed and blew up the tax office instead...a cause for celebration in some circles. I was living three miles away and slept through the whole event. My posting took me to a remote corner of the country where I worked with farmers to try to develop rural businesses and farmer trade fairs.
I first met one of the owners of Amba Tea Estate in 2010 who lured me up to the estate with the promise of a hot shower and a cold beer and the rest as they say is history. After finishing my volunteer placement I started work there as estate manager in early 2011.
My job was to figure out how to revive the ailing estate and to create sustainable livelihoods for local people. The estate covered 110 acres, of which 20 acres were planted with tea. Not the lush green rows that you normally associate with tea estates, but 70-year-old bushes, individually dotted about the hillside like lost sheep. No tea was being made, just a bit of leaf being sold, the income from which not covering the wage bill.
Tea was the only crop option, so in the absence of a better idea I set about learning the art of tea making. Luckily for me, Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd. was employed to do a short consultancy, mainly looking at improving field practises. With his guidance and some inspiration from Georgian tea makers I started experimenting and learning how to hand-roll tea in the farm bungalow. Tea in Sri Lanka is produced on a large scale in huge factories. Hand-rolled artisan tea was unheard of and all of the other planters I met thought we were crazy.
In other countries, like China, where you do find small-scale artisan makers, tea knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and secretly guarded. I tried to glean knowledge wherever I could but the only thing for me to do was to roll up my sleeves and start from scratch. I spent days in the fields with the pickers, months photographing leaf and analysing the plucking standards. I started making tiny batches of tea by myself in the bungalow. I would get up during the night to turn the leaf and then roll it early in the morning. It took almost a year of painstaking experimentation, rolling, steaming and drying tea in a variety of ways to finally make a tea that I liked. My first tea dryer was made of water pipes, light bulbs and a sheet of plastic, and if it hadn't of been for the guidance of Nigel Melican (who came to Amba as a tea consultant to help me figure out how to fit all of the pieces together) I would never have arrived at that point.
My tea experiments finally came good and I received an email out of the blue from Michal Harney of Harney and Son's (one of the best-known tea experts and tea outlets in America) requesting a tea sample. About a month later we received a note to say he liked our tea, along with an order for 15kg.
The story of tea in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known then, began in 1867 when another Scot, James Taylor, cleared 19 acres of land to plant tea.By 1872 Taylor began running a fully equipped tea factory at the Loolecandera Estate in Kandy. In 1873, the first shipment of Ceylon Tea arrived in London, a consignment of just 23lb (10kg).
I remember reading about this and feeling encouraged whilst making endless tiny batches of tea in the farmhouse with a few tea ladies for that first order. On sunny days we dried the tea outside and on rainy days over a large pan of boiling water, which took several hours of constant stirring.
Our tiny 15kg of hand-rolled tea felt like coming full circle back to the beginning of tea-making in Ceylon. To put it into context, these days, Sri Lanka exports over 300 million kilos of large-scale factory-produced tea, and as far as I know, Amba is still the only estate producing such tiny quantities of hand-rolled tea.
We started to renovate an old building on the estate to create a micro-tea factory whilst I was still experimenting with tea, eventually creating a range of over 10 different teas and blends. Amba was beginning to employ more workers by developing a jam kitchen, roasting coffee and renovating the old farmhouse and turning it into a guest house for visitors. We also worked on various community projects alongside the tea that were incredibly rewarding, including working with a halfway-home for women with mental health issues.
Today, Amba employs around 30 people, has achieved sustainability and has set up a 10% share scheme for its workers.
I began to hear rumours about tea being planted in Scotland at the same time that I decided to return home to Edinburgh and was offered work as a consultant with Teacraft. My first assignment was to work with Susie Walker-Munro to teach her the art of tea-making and to help her create her first tea. We started working together in April 2016 and have just tasted and blended the first batch of Kinnettles Gold for PekoeTea.'