Friday, March 7, 2008

Cool tag for a premium cuppa from tea country

In the verdant hills of central Sri Lanka, local and foreign visitors witness undulating carpets of green, occasionally bisected by moist, brick-brown pathways, rail lines or narrow asphalt tracks meant for trucks and tractor- trailers that haul mounds of freshly- picked tea.

In the mornings, as the soft sun peeks above the hills, and as dusk falls, the mist rolls by and the cool weather begins its embrace. In these climes, morning, noon and night and at many other times in between, one heads indoors, or relaxes on the verandah of a locally-designed bungalow and brews a pot of tea.

The aroma of a pot of broken orange pekoe, a variety of tea, can be refreshing and invigorating in an environment where the air is crisp and the outdoors inviting, as is a local breakfast of crispy egg hoppers and steaming fish curry.

Glorious tea gardens abound in the hills of Sri Lanka, the world's second biggest tea exporter.

Prices for tea are soaring and the trade is looking forward to a bumper financial harvest.

Dilhan Fernando, director of Dilmah Tea, which sells more than US$500 million (HK$3.9 billion) of tea products in more than 90 countries, expects strong prices.

"We have never had it so good."

Sri Lanka earned a record US$1.03 billion last year from tea exports. "Tea will be a bull market in 2008," says Kaison Chang, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Fernando says a pack of 100 tea bags now retails at US$5, about 15 percent more than last year.

Sri Lanka's high quality aromatic teas, sold as "Pure Ceylon Tea," are made with tender leafs and buds of the plant, botanically known as Camellia Sinenis.

Russia and former Soviet republics are the largest markets for Sri Lanka's tea and account for nearly a fifth of the total tea exports, followed by the Middle East and North Africa.

In December, with concerns mounting already over a possible shortfall in supplies and Chinese consumption surpassing India for the first time, political violence in Kenya's tea-rich Rift Valley region triggered a price spike.

Colombo, which conducts the world's biggest weekly tea auction, has sold tea for about US$3.15 a kilogram, brokers say, while bulk buyers expect prices of Ceylon Tea in packaged form to rise further.

The Standard