Taylor-made: 150 Years of Ceylon Tea

Thursday, 15 June 2017  |  The Tea Makers of London

Are Ceylon Teas the Best Teas in the World?

This year, Sri Lanka is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its pivotal tea industry. Known in the world of tea as ‘Ceylon’ - its colonial name - the tear-shaped country of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest - and most celebrated - tea exporters. Located off India's southern tip in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal, the climate on the mountainous island creates the perfect growing conditions for the Camellia Sinensis tea plant.

In this post, we explore how Britain’s love affair with tea has had an imperative impact on global economic development throughout history and explore Ceylon tea's evolution.

Sri Lanka’s tea industry would not have existed, had it not been for Britain’s perpetual love for a good ‘cuppa’. To understand the history of Ceylon tea, we begin by exploring how the British came to be so enticed with the hot beverage. 

How Britain’s Love for Tea Changed the Course of Global History

The First Cup of Tea

It is widely believed that the invention of tea dates back almost 5,000 years to ancient China. The exact details are unknown, however, legend has it that the first cup of tea was brewed by accident in 2737 BC. The story states that the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, was taking shade beneath a tree while his servant was boiling a pot a water. As the water came to a boil, a gust of wind blew Camellia Sinensis leaves from a nearby tree into the pot and flavoured the water. It is said that the emperor enjoyed the taste of the brew and that this was the beginning of the hot drink that we all know and love today.

It is unknown whether there is any truth to this story. Nevertheless, we know that tea was invented in China at least a couple of thousands of years ago.

The UK Tea & Infusions Association write the following about the history of tea in China: “Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China.”

Tea Came to the UK

Tea drinking eventually expanded to other Asian countries such as Japan. However, it wasn’t until around 360 years ago that Britain began to establish its world-changing relationship with tea. The first dated reference to tea in England is found in an advert from a London newspaper printed in 1658. At that time, tea was known as ‘China Drink’ and was an exotic beverage, shrouded in mystery and available only to the royals and upper classes. It was the wife of Charles the II - the Portuguese princes ‘Catherine of Braganza’ - who popularised tea-drinking in the British court and high-society.

The world as we know it today would have been a very different place, had it not been for Britain’s taste for tea. In 1664, due to the growing demand from the British upper class for tea, the East India Company - a joint-stock company that had been formed in 1600 - began to import tea from China to the British Isles. In the years to come, tea consumption in Britain would change the course of history with immense force. 



European Colonialism

To fully comprehend the influence of British tea-trade on global development, it is important to understand the structure of colonialism around the time that tea consumption was being popularised in British culture.

The historical phenomena of ‘colonialism’ - also known as ‘imperialism’ - dates back to 15th Century Europe. The period from the 15th to the 18th Century is known as the ‘Age of Discovery’ - a name derived from the European exploration of the Americas, the Middle East, India, the coast of Africa, and East Asia. During the 16th, 17th and 18th Century, European countries such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and England, established empires across the globe.

During this time in history, India was an essential source of trade for Europe and was the main impetus for the period of European exploration. As a result, many battles we fought for the command of India. By the 19th century, Britain had taken control over most of India under the rule of the British Raj.

Sugar, Slavery, Heavy Taxes and Illegal Trading

A classic British ‘cuppa’ with milk and sugar, is associated with cosiness, family, socialising and a general feeling of happiness. However, the history of tea in Britain has a dark side.

When tea first came to the UK, the drink was a fragrant delicacy that often imparted a rather bitter flavour. Enjoyed only by the few, tea was yet to have a large impact on the economy. It is believed that the commercialisation of sugar was the main driver of the popularisation of tea in Britain. According to an article by the BBC, sugar crystals were first created in India around year 0.

In the mid-16th Century, the Portuguese began establishing sugar plantations in the New World - known today as the Americas. During the following 200 years, the production of sugar was commercialised and grew in popularity in Europe. Like with most products at the time, sugar began as a rare commodity, enjoyed only by the wealthy elite. However, economies of scale, as well as the import of slaves from Africa, reduced the price of sugar and made it more accessible to the middle class. This resulted in a surge of sugar consumption amongst the British population who - in 1770 - consumed five times the amount of sugar consumed in the country in 1710.

Since the introduction of tea to the English market, the governments of the time began to add heavy taxes to the exotic commodity. This resulted in a substantial amount of illegal trading and adulteration.

The UK Tea & Infusions Association states: “What began as a small-time illegal trade, selling a few pounds of tea to personal contacts, developed by the late eighteenth century into an astonishing organised crime network, perhaps importing as much as 7 million lbs annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million lbs. By 1784, the government realised that enough was enough and that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly legal tea was affordable, and smuggling stopped virtually overnight”.

The popularisation of sugar, along with the pivotal tax-cuts, resulted in an increase in tea consumption amongst the people of Britain. What had, henceforth, been a drink for connoisseurs, became a common commodity amongst the middle class and, hence, Britain’s perpetual love for tea was born.   

The East India Company, Monopoly and the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars

As well as boosting the trade of slaves and catalysing illegal trade, Britain’s undying love for tea has also prompted the peddling of hard drugs and resulted in several Anglo-Chinese wars.  

In the 18th Century, tea was grown exclusively in China. In Britain, the East India Company had a monopoly on tea-trade with China and, therefore, was the sole official supplier of tea to the UK.

China, who were not as in love with Britain as Britain was with ‘China Drink’, enforced strict rules on tea trade and would exclusively accept silver as payment for tea.

By the mid-1770s, this had resulted in significant economic difficulties for the East India Company and for the British nation. 20 years or so later, around 1790, Britain was facing a shortage of silver and were operating under a trade deficit with China. Plans were swiftly put in place to counteract this problem.

Taking advantage of its imperial holds in India, the British began to produce a valuable - but highly dangerous - commodity that they traded for Chinese tea. This commodity was opium. The British went as far as developing new cultivation techniques to optimise the production of opium in the Indian state of Bengal. The Chinese government didn’t take kindly to the British opium dealings, which caused a nationwide epidemic of drug addiction in China. Therefore, the Chinese put a ban on the opium trade. However, this ban was sidestepped by British traders who auctioned off their opium to small traders that smuggled the drug into China. This action angered the Chinese emperor, who - in 1839 - confiscated 20,000 chests of opium that were being peddled by the British.

The British empire responded immediately by sending an army of armed ships to China and, alas, the famous opium wars had begun.

There were two Anglo-Chinese opium wars - one that lasted from 1839 to 1842 and one that lasted from 1856 to 1860 and claimed circa 20 million lives.

The wars resulted in a weakening of the Chinese Qing dynasty and forced China to trade with the rest of the world. The opium trade was reinstated, and the previously protectionist Chinese trading practises came to an end. Furthermore, the British Empire took over control of Hong Kong, which was not returned to Chinese rule until 1997.

The opium wars led to an end of dynastic China and set the country on a path to civil war and communist rule. Suffice it to say, that was as it not for Britain’s obsession with tea, the history of China would have been completely different.

A New Beginning in Assam

Due to the struggle with China, the East India Company decided to work on a plan to avoid further disputes over the prized tea market.

They began producing their own tea in Indian, which - at that time - was largely under British imperialist rule. In the early 1830s, the first British-ruled tea plantations were established in the Northeast-Indian state of Assam. Located south of the Eastern Himalayas, Assam provided a perfect climate for tea production.

In 1833, the British Prime Minister - the Second Earl of Grey, who gave his name to the famous bergamot blend ‘Earl Grey Tea’ - passed an act to abolish slavery in the British empire. Hence slaves could not be used in the Indian tea plantations.

British imperialist tea production soon expanded throughout the Indian continent, which eventually became the world’s largest producer of black tea.

The History of Ceylon Tea

Colonial Rule - How Britain Came to Power

British colonial rule of the island - now known as ‘Sri Lanka’ - began in 1802. By 1817, the British empire ruled over the entire island, which until 1972 - when the country became a republic and Queen Elizabeth II ceased to be head of state - was known as ‘Ceylon’.

The path towards Sri Lanka’s thriving tea industry began over 500 years ago in the early stages of European exploration. At the beginning of the Age of Discovery, the Portuguese empire slowly began to take control over parts of the island. In 1517, the Portuguese built a fort in the port city of ‘Colombo’ and extended their rule over the island’s coastal areas. The island was now split between the control of the Portuguese on the coasts and native rulers in the islands, who ruled from the city of Kandy. In the mid-17th Century, the Dutch arrived on the island and took control of Colombo away from the Portuguese.

By the late 18th Century, many battles were taking place between European imperialist nations, for the rule of areas all over the world. Through a series of related events, the control of the island was eventually conquered by the British, who named the country ‘Ceylon’.

At this time, the British possessed an advanced knowledge of geography. This knowledge gave them a competitive advantage over the indigenous Kandyans. In the interest of taking power from the Kingdom of Kandy, the British drew a detailed map of the mountainous island, which they used to build a network of roads. After overthrowing the Kandyan rulers, the British began to take up agricultural practices across the island. The road network proved useful in the establishment of plantations and created a foundation for commercial infrastructure across the island. Ceylon quickly became an important source of export of exotic good for the British empire.

In the beginning, coffee was the main crop cultivated on the island. In 1869, however, the island was struck by a blight that - within the space of circa 10 years - wiped out the entire Ceylon coffee industry. What happened next was an immense turning point in the history of the island country that still impacts the lives of the Sri Lankan population to this day.

The First Ceylon Tea

The British brought the first Camellia Sinensis tea plant to Ceylon from China in 1824. The tea bush was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya in Kandy, but there was no intention to use the plant for commercial purposes. It was circa 15 years later that the first initiative was taken to commercialise Ceylonese tea. In the late 1830s, the East Indian Company carried out a series of experiments of growing tea on the island. They imported tea seeds from Assam and Calcutta. However, it was an independent and passionate young Scotsman who changed the course of Sri Lankan history and popularised the Ceylon tea industry.


The 17-year-old James Taylor arrived in colonial Ceylon in 1852. In an article by the Sri Lankan Sunday Times, a reference is made to a book titled ‘A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea’, written by Denys Forrest and published in England in 1967. According to the article, Forrest interviewed the children of former tea-plantation-workers who reported details about Taylor. The sources stated that Taylor was an intelligent and practical man. His first job was as a teacher in Scotland. Reportedly, it was Taylor’s cousin - a Ceylon coffee-plantation-worker - who convinced the young James to explore life in Ceylon’s agricultural industry.

After his arrival on the island, Taylor began his career as a coffee planter, working on a plantation called ‘Naranghena’. Taylor was not pleased with the working conditions on Naranghena and transferred to the Loolecondera estate. Taylor was a diligent and talented farmer and turned Loolecondera into a profitable business. While coffee remained the main crop, Taylor is said to have experimented with other crops such as various spices. In early 1860, Taylor procured tea seeds from Peradeniya and successfully grew a row of Camellia Sinensis bushes. Impressed with the success of this experimentation, the owners of Loolecondera encouraged Taylor to fill an entire field with tea bushes. This fluke decision would soon prove to be a lucrative move, as the blight began to wipe out Ceylon’s coffee industry. Unaffected by the plant disease, the tea plants continued to flourish.

Assisted by advice sought from India, Taylor began to experiment with post-harvest treatment and set up a tea production facility on the estate. In the late 1870s, Taylor began to ship tea to London, and the British population slowly began to favour Ceylon teas.

Taylor - who never married - dedicated his life to Ceylonese plantation work and was renowned for his agricultural capabilities as well as his love for tea. Taylor died in 1892, but his legacy still lives on through the world-famous and highly revered Ceylon teas.

Expansion and Marketing Innovation

During the late 19th Century, the British interest in growing tea in Ceylon boomed, with pioneers such as James Taylor, Henry Randolph Trafford and Sir Charles Henry de Soysa leading the way.

In 1890, another Scotsman arrived in Ceylon. Already an established businessman, this Scottish man was on a mission to acquire tea plantations. The son of poor Irish immigrants, the merchant, had lived an interesting life and had worked his way up in the retail world. As a young man, he sailed to America, where he took employment as a labourer. Climbing the career ladder, he eventually came to manage a successful grocery store in New York. In the early 1870s, he returned to Scotland, and by the age of 21, he opened his own store. Being an innovative and highly imaginative marketer - who frequently made use of elaborate and clever publicity stunts - the Scotsman was on a route to rapid success. By the time he - at the age of 42 - journeyed to Ceylon, he was a millionaire. The name of this man - you may have guessed it - was Sir Thomas Lipton.

Lipton was interested in selling tea in his shops but did not trust intermediaries. Therefore, he established his own tea estates in Ceylon. At the time, tea in Britain was still too expensive for the working class to afford and was a commodity mainly enjoyed by the middle and upper classes.  By cutting out the various middlemen - who were all adding to the cost of importing tea - Lipton’s goal was to make tea affordable to everyone in Britain.

In the late 18th Century, it was still custom to sell loose leaf tea directly from the tea chest. Being a brilliant marketer, Lipton came up with the idea to individually package the tea. Lipton saw the packaging as a branding opportunity and splashed the boxes with bright colours and a catchy marketing slogan.

Today, food and beverage marketers often use the term ‘From farm to table’. This term reflects a modern approach to food marketing that focuses on local sourcing and transparency in the supply chain.

Over 120 years ago, Lipton was already using a similar mantra on his tea boxes. Printed on his early packaging was the term “From the tea gardens to the teapot”.

Lipton also played a pivotal role in the commercialisation of teabags. As with many products throughout history, the invention of the teabag was accidental. When sending tea samples to his customers, an American merchant called Thomas Sullivan would place loose leaf tea in little silk bags. His customers assumed that they should put the entire bag into the teapot and so the teabag was born. The forward-thinking Lipton foresaw the importance of the teabag and soon began to manufacture individually portioned tea in infuser pouches, with the brewing instructions printed on the tags. 

In an article by the Telegraph, we found the following quote: “If James Taylor was the father of tea in Ceylon, Sir Thomas Lipton was the entrepreneur who commercialised it”.

Throughout the 20th Century, the Ceylon tea industry continued to expand until the island became one of the biggest exporters of tea in the world. The innovation of men such as Taylor and Lipton perpetuated a long-lasting British demand for Ceylon tea. The population of Britain grew to love the unique and strong flavours of blends from the island. Famous English tea varieties - such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey - are traditionally made from a blend of Ceylon teas. During the 20th Century, Ceylon tea became synonymous with quality and was often celebrated as ‘The best tea in the world’. When the island gained independence and changed its name to ‘Sri Lanka’, Sri Lankan. Tea manufacturers insisted on keeping the name ‘Ceylon’ on their tea packaging. This explains why tea from Sri Lanka is still referred to as ‘Ceylon Tea’.

Decline in Quality Results in a Decline in Love

Throughout history, Britain has gone to great lengths to protect its loving relationship with tea.

Lipton’s efforts made tea accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, towards the end of the 1900, the standardisation of the market, as well as lifestyle changes in British society, resulted in a fall in the quality of tea consumed in Britain. In the interest of creating a recognisable and uniform branded flavour, corporations started to apply new production methods. These mass-produced teas could never measure up to the high quality reached through traditional orthodox production. Additionally, producers began to crush the leaves in order to fit the tea into small teabags. These practices left the customer with a bitter and substandard brew.

For decades, the majority of Brits have been consuming standard cups of ‘builder’s’, made from a generic bag of unnamed black tea. However, due to the growing interest in speciality foods and British consumers demanding high quality, social responsibility and environmental sustainability from food and beverages producers, the British tea market is shifting.

Is Britain falling out of love with tea?

An article from 2015 by the Telegraph is titled: “Is Britain falling out of love with tea?”. Based on the latest research, we would argue that the answer to this question is ‘no’. In our experience, Brits are simply falling out of love with low-quality tea.

According to an article in the Atlantic, in the mid-1970s, the average Brit was consuming over 20 cups of tea a week.  The article states that by early 2016, this number had fallen to a mere eight cups. While Brits are drinking much less tea than 50 years ago, certain figures indicate that Britain’s love for tea is far from dead.  If you break down the numbers, you will soon find that the decline in consumption stems mainly from a withering interest in standardised and low-quality generic teabags. Interestingly, the consumption of herbal, fruity, green and speciality tea is growing. From this, one could conclude that Britain’s love for good tea, is not falling at all. This trend goes hand in hand with the growing interest in healthy, high-quality, unique and artisan food and drink products.

In the interest of bringing back the nostalgic, authentic and superior flavours of orthodox Ceylon black tea, The Tea Makers of London are introducing a new range of traditional Ceylon teas, with signature flavours from each of the four most renowned Sri Lankan tea districts - Nuwara Eliya, Maskeliya, Bogawantalawa and Kandy.

Ceylon Tea Today

Flavour Characteristics of Ceylon Tea

Ceylon teas vary in flavour depending on the terroir, season of picking and post-harvest production. Ceylon black teas are generally characterised as strong, rich, dark, complex, spicy and citrusy. In recent years, Sri Lankan tea farmers have begun to produce more high-quality green and white teas. Ceylon green teas - such as the Gunpowder variety -  generally have a much stronger flavour than Chinese and Japanese green teas. In contrast, its silver needle teas are delicate, rare and very sought-after amongst tea connoisseurs.

Different levels of elevation create variations in the tea flavour. Teas from high-country gardens tend to have a strong and more full-bodied flavour, whereas the low-country teas are lighter with less body. High-country teas are especially revered as the climate in the mountains create optimal growing conditions for the tea bushes.

We will leave it up to you to determine whether you think Ceylon teas are the best teas in the world. Explore our extensive collection today and join the conversation by commenting below.

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