This tea is a connoisseur’s delight

The world’s most expensive tea is grown in an estate in Sri Lanka. Aruti Nayar visits Handunugoda

Malinga Gunaratne and David Kilburn displaying white tea on the Handunugoda tea estate in Tittagalla
Malinga Gunaratne and David Kilburn displaying white tea on the Handunugoda tea estate in Tittagalla

Jade Kilburn robing the white tea bush in a ceremony at the launch
Jade Kilburn robing the white tea bush in a ceremony at the launch

According to a legend, in China the best teas were manufactured untouched by hand. These were special teas presented to imperial rulers and to dignitaries of the court. Golden scissors were used to cut the tender tea leaves which fell into a golden bowl and the pickers wore white silk robes. The only time the tea came into contact with the human anatomy was when the emperor, to whom the white teas were presented, drank it. The Zong dynasty emperor Haizhong is said to have proclaimed that “White tea is a culmination of all that is elegant.”

The tea estate seems an appropriate setting for an Oriental fable because of the ambience that makes a willing suspension of disbelief possible. The Handunugoda tea estate of planter Malinga Herman Gunaratne in Tittagalla, a part of the Galle province, about 160 km from Colombo is the place where recently the world’s most expensive tea, white tea, was launched. A professional planter working for British sterling companies for over 25 years, Herman, after nationalisation, was appointed Regional Manager of the Nuwara Eliya Region, Sri Lanka’s prime tea region. He was in charge of 67,000 acres of the Island’s best tea lands. The estate has been with Herman’s family for more than a century, it was in Nuwara Eliya district of the Central Province that he learned to update his skills as a planter.

After 42 years in the tea business, Herman’s belief was that Ceylon tea, served with pride during his parents and grandparents time, might be swallowed by multinationals and vanish. It was this conviction that spurred on the Sri Lankan tea planter to team up with friend David Kilburn, a British aficionado settled in Korea, and turn what might have remained an Oriental fable into reality. As Herman puts it, “Kilburn is a committed tea man. He calls himself a student of tea and has managed to penetrate the secret world of tea through his research and travels. He has travelled widely in the tea-growing areas of the world. It is from him that I learnt the need to make specialty teas as opposed to the mass market teas that India and Ceylon produce and market.”

Kilburn, a tea historian, lives in Seoul with his Korean wife Jade and is Chairman of the Tea Museum there and had, on a visit to far off tea lands, heard of this ancient practice of growing white tea. He suggested that Herman should try to grow it on his estate.

The idea of reviving the ancient practice was further reinforced after Kilburn’s visit to the city of Grass in France where he met a famous Nose (a man who noses perfumes and has the ability to differentiate between the different ingredients which go into the composition of a perfume). The Nose had before him many canisters of jasmine perfumes from different countries. When Kilburn asked him about the difference between these perfumes because they were all derived from the same jasmine flower, the Nose had answered, “The only difference is the difference in the smell of sweat from the hands of the pickers of flowers from the various countries.” It was obvious that the ancient Chinese had mastered the art of making teas uncontaminated by sweat or oil from human hands. If the same was to be repeated, it would definitely create a storm, felt Kilburn.

Named after Kilburn, whose inspiration had motivated Herman, Kilburn Imperial is a white tea because it is not fermented and put through a process of firing but allowed to wither in the sun. The tender-most innards of the tea bud (the bush is a secret) are prised out with gloved hands to be sun-dried under surgically sterile conditions, without any direct contact with human hands.

Connoisseurs will have to pay through the nose for the white tea since it is priced and retailed at a staggering 1250 US$ per kilo while the whole sale price is around 750 US$, 750 times more than the average price of high-quality pure Ceylon tea.

This makes it the world’s most expensive tea commercially marketed. Only available at Malinga Herman Gunaratne’s tea plantation and Kilburn’s tea museum in Seoul, the production of white tea is about four kilograms per month, roughly 48 kg annually, while the demand is much more. Silvery white in colour, it is shown to visitors against the backdrop of a black cloth. Once it is brewed, its colour is a rich brown. The tea is produced only from select tea trees and can not be harvested throughout the year. It loses its colour in inclement weather. The leaves can be used for a second or third brewing and the aroma is rich, the flavour and taste delicate. There are many modern-day emperors and the ruling elite who do not find the cost prohibitive. Also produced on Herman’s estate are many flavoured teas, among them tulsi and cinnamon tea. Says Herman, “Tea presents some very exciting prospects and since this plantation is my own I can experiment with various configurations of manufacture.”

As Herman shows one around the tea estate, he bemoans the fact that despite being the largest producer of tea, Sri Lanka is lagging behind in innovative ideas for its famous export. As he says, “Today India and Sri Lanka both market tea as the worlds cheapest beverage. This is wrong. Tea is too precious to be sold cheap. It has an astonishing array of health benefits which have to be exploited for the benefit of humankind and more importantly for those millions of plantation workers who toil tirelessly on our hillsides, working for a small wage. We cannot pay them what they deserve on the pittance that we get from marketing mass-produced teas. Without support from either industry or the government and the niche market for exotic higher-end teas remains unexplored. This was my motivation to go in for specialty teas.”