The history of tea in India and Sri Lanka is a bit of a sad one. While the British were responsible for introducing tea to India in the nineteenth century after taking it out of China, the Brits essentially made a crap ton of money off of the growth and production of tea in India and Sri Lanka. They had local Indians and Sri Lankans do the hard labor of the growing, cultivating, and processing of tea, paying the locals very little for their back breaking labor and long hours. And then, the Brits took the majority of not only the high quality tea leaves, but also the profits. That’s actually the history of how masala chai, or Indian spiced milk tea, became popular: the British took all the high quality tea leaves for their own consumption and sent it back to Great Britain; they left all the “broken” rejected tea leaves (now known as “CTC” tea, or “cut, tear, curl” tea) for the local Indians to drink. And for the Indians to make something tasty out of the British rejects, they added delicious spices like cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ginger, and then milk, steeped it on the stove to meld the flavors and make the tea extra strong, and then essentially made it their own. It’s really come full circle now, when you think about it, because now, White people get excited about chai and want it, which is why “chai” seems to spice everything, from lattes to breads to cookies. The non-Indian people who want it don’t always seem to know what the term “chai” even means, though, so you hear a lot of Indian comedians make fun of White people saying “chai tea”: it’s essentially redundant because “chai” actually means tea, so it sounds idiotic to say “tea tea.” It’s also why almost every single coffee shop, including Starbucks, has a “chai latte” made from some crappy, cheaply made syrup. Today, White people want what the Indians made out of the crap they were given by their White colonizers back in the day.
The story of Dilmah tea is a fun one that aligns with this “coming full circle” thought, though. The Lankan founder of Dilmah tea learned about tea production through British owned companies operating in Sri Lanka, but he always wanted to run his own tea business. So when he turned the ripe age of 58, he decided to break off from these companies, use what he learned, and create his own tea business. He combined the names of his two sons and created the “Dilmah” tea company. He wanted to reclaim tea for Sri Lankans by bringing ownership back to the native people. Dilmah is a huge luxury tea brand that has international presence now; you often see their tea bags in the tea trays at 4-5-star hotels around the world. They distribute globally, but I still have yet to find them anywhere here in the U.S.
I got introduced to Dilmah during my first trip to Australia in December 2012, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Chris’s parents drink Dilmah Ceylon tea daily, and though they use tea bags, which are typically filled with “tea dust” and are low quality, I found this tea to be the best, most well rounded black tea out of a bag I’ve ever had. So every time we go back to Australia, we always stock up on Dilmah tea bags. So, as you can probably imagine, I was quite excited to finally visit Sri Lanka as the home of Dilmah, and to see what other varieties existed.
On our last day in Colombo, we visited the Dilmah T-Lounge at their Chatham Street location. The lounge was really beautiful – a very comfortable, colorful, modern place to catch up with friends and share a good quality pot of tea. The range of teas was nearly endless, and almost all of the options for purchase were loose leaf, as tea was meant to be enjoyed. I found varieties that you likely cannot easily get outside of Sri Lanka, such as Endane Estate Sapphire Pekoe, Yata Watte Ceylon Tea, Meda Watte Ceylon tea, and Nilagama Estate BOPF tea, and given the exchange rate from Lankan Rupees to the U.S. dollar, none of these containers of tea cost more than $5 USD, which was quite a steal. It was hard to narrow down the choices of what to buy, and I definitely had some decision paralysis, but I finally did and got so excited at my purchases and when I’d be able to enjoy these once back at home.