The Amba Estate is an organically certified tea estate which was established as a social enterprise in 2006 by a group of four founders including Simon Bell, who heads up the initiative.
From the very beginning, a key priority has been to establish a model for artisanal tea production that benefits all those involved. The team hope that by demonstrating that artisanal tea production is both viable and a benefit to the workers, community and land, others in Sri Lanka will be able to copy what they are doing. And indeed, the example set by Amba is beginning to be picked up by other tea makers in the country.
Workers at Amba are paid a comparatively high base salary in addition to bonus and overtime schemes. A 10% revenue share bonus is given each year, regardless of how “good” the year was. An extra 1% is put aside in a welfare fun which is managed by the employees.
Amba is leading the way in directly contributing to the local economy of the valley by sourcing goods and labour locally. Amba also trains and helps develop new local businesses to supply the estate and the on-site guest house.
Whilst the focus at Amba is on artisanal, hand-made teas, some machinery such as rollers and dryers are needed to complete the tea making process. Amba has collaborated with local Sri Lankan engineering firms to custom create these specialist tea machines rather than import from abroad.
The Amba Estate is situated at an altitude of 1000m in the Ambadandegama valley of the Uva Highlands which lies hidden away on the eastern edge of Sri Lanka’s central mountainous region.
There are two key elements that create the unique profile of Uva teas. Firstly, the Eastern Highlands are hit with monsoon rains from December to March, and then during July and August a hot, dry wind called the Cachan blows through the region from the northeast. Some of the best teas from the Uva Highlands are picked during this time as the wind causes the tea bushes to close their leaves to protect themselves from the wind. This initiates a chemical change within the cells of the leaves, and concentrates the flavours, producing the distinctive wintergreen flavour for which Uva teas are known.
Certified under EU organic regulations, Amba ensures that all farming and processing is environmentally friendly and sustainable. Intercropping is used across the estate and in the wider valley by local farmers growing other non-tea crops. Pest control is managed naturally with insect traps, intercropping and natural, plant-based sprays.
Water harvesting systems help to prevent erosion during the monsoons as well as supplying the estate and guests with water during the dry season. Amba continues to plant trees and shrubs across the estate, which is more than half forested, to encourage wildlife, conserve habitats and protect against erosion. Beehives have been introduced as well as sustainable shade crops in selective forest areas.
Today Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea, but in the 1860s Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known until it changed its name in 1972) was the world’s biggest producer of coffee. It was only after a fungus destroyed the country’s entire coffee crop that former coffee plantations switched their focus to tea.
Teas from Sri Lanka quickly became popular and sought after for their strong, robust and distinctive teas. Lowland teas were prized for their addition to blends such as English Breakfast whilst Highland teas were sought after for their quality as pure leaf teas such as Ceylon Orange Pekoe. Today, teas from Sri Lanka are still known as Ceylon teas.
Despite being the world’s largest exporter of teas by 1965, Sri Lanka’s tea industry was severely damaged in 1972 when the state nationalised tea estates and new land reforms meant that no independent grower could own more than 50 acres. Following this, the adoption of CTC (cut-tear-curl) production methods and the proliferation of the teabag severely dented the reputation of fine Ceylon tea.
Despite the abandonment of many tea estates during the civil war (1983- 2009), the last decade has seen a revival of small holder estates and the regeneration of the Sri Lankan tea industry. Whilst much of the tea industry remains commodity driven, with small holders selling their tea to larger processing factories, estates like Amba are leading the way in picking and processing their own specialty teas.