16th March 2013: Sri Lanka

Just back from a two-week cycling ‘holiday’ (expedition!) in Sri Lanka with my father in law. From the baking hot coast, through rice fields and jungle, then up over 2000 MASL along steep hairpin bends, to and around the central highlands, and back – by bike the whole way!

Sri Lanka’s a really amazing place, especially if you take the time to get around and explore. But I won’t go into general details, as this is a coffee blog!

In terms of coffee and tea, Sri Lanka is really all about the tea, and has been ever since the original coffee crops were abandoned due to serious cases of rust in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when tea was planted instead. They have never looked back.

It’s the tea that Sri Lanka is known for, and which dominates the scenery of highlands, and I can’t really not give it a mention and a few pictures here. This scenery is stunningly beautiful. The tea estates shimmer and glisten like emerald-green blankets of gems, swathed across high mountains, softly undulating hills, steeply sloping valleys, and terraced gardens, interspersed with taller trees throughout (all reached by bicycle!). The imagery, and the particular colour, was like nothing I have seen before, and it will stay with me. 

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And finding out a little about the tea (and its processing at a couple of factories) was interesting.

Coffee is not the reason I went to Sri Lanka, and it is not what Sri Lanka specialises in, so it was never fair to expect too much. 

But, obviously, coffee is my passion, and when I found out I was going to a country that is geographically and climatically suitable for coffee growing, I was excited to try to find some growing in origin, and to taste some fresh cherries for the first time.

Finding out any significant detail about coffee growing in Sri Lanka is very difficult! It is currently not really drunk, grown professionally, known about, or given any thought whatsoever by most of the country, I think.

Research lead me to Hansa Coffee as seeming to be the only company obviously producing and roasting its own coffee on the island. From what I read, it seems their coffee comes from small farmers (probably growing coffee fairly casually in their gardens, rather than as part of more specialised or professional coffee farms), situated around the Kotmale area in the highlands, and with their Roastery (run by Lawrence) being situated in Nuwara Eliya. After finding this out, I contacted Hansa twice by email, and also via Twitter, asking if it might be possible to simply see some coffee growing in any of the farms, as I was touring these areas by bicycle. Unfortunately they never responded, and so I was not able to organise any visits to the farms growing their coffee, or find out any detail about their cultivation, harvesting, processing or roasting. Whilst I was actually in Nuwara Eliya (which, at 1900 MASL is the highest town in Sri Lanka!), I still searched around the streets for the roastery, but never found it. Whilst I was there, my wife (back at home) actually managed to get a response from Hansa via Facebook about the roastery itself – but they said Lawrence was away for the week, so no visit was possible, and an address was still not provided, so I couldn’t even take a look at the roastery from outside..!

But it was simply seeing (and tasting) some coffee growing (anywhere!) that was my main aim, rather than the roasting or drinking side of things in this case, and I didn’t let the lack of information discourage me! We set our route to take in Kotmale between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, so that I could at least look out for coffee as we went along.

Sure enough, on the day we traveled from Kandy (500 MASL), through Kotmale, and up to just above Ramboda (1000 MASL), coffee suddenly started to appear everywhere! I didn’t see any signs of specific or organised cultivation or production of coffee as a crop, but I soon recognised the odd plant or two growing here and there, wild along the roadside, and also in people’s gardens.

Most of the plants I saw (some with cherries on as well as flowers) where tantalisingly just out of reach, and we had to keep pushing on, so it was photos only.

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Then, above Ramboda, we needed to stop for the night, and fortunately found a space at last, tiniest, guesthouse (luckily, as we discovered the next day there were no more for miles of steep climbing up to Nuwara Eliya!). I noticed they had one sole little coffee tree growing in their driveway, and enquired about it with the owner. He kindly and eagerly arched the top of the bush down, where there were a few ripe cherries, so that I could pick them to eat. Delicious! The flesh was juicy, sweet, and unique in flavour. Probably not as perfectly sweet and ripe and those grown skilfully on the best farms around the world, and almost certainly nothing special in terms of bean potential, I’m sure, but very tasty and exciting to try for the first time all the same. Mission accomplished!

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The small coffee tree, on the left.

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This was a doubly lucky find, as the next day, as we started travel up the next 1000 meters to Nuwara Eliya, the coffee plants disappeared rapidly, despite the suitability of the elevation, and the landscape became dominated almost exclusively by tea, and later also cool-climate vegetables higher up, along with even more tea!

Coffee is really hard to come by in Sri Lanka, currently, not just the plants, but to drink, as well. Most places simply don’t serve it, and usually the only times we had it where in the various lovely guesthouses where we stayed, for breakfast. Even some of them didn’t have any, and almost without exception, the coffee was very, very odd indeed. A kind of hot composty/mouldy pond/ditch water or drains aroma and aftertaste, with a charcoal edge, that was drinkable only with milk. I’m not sure what substances or processes were deployed to prepare this. But I was missing coffee a lot, so it was still always welcome! I did then have a pretty nice Americano in IceBear cafe (a more modern, quirky, Swiss owned place serving coffee and tea in Negombo) when back on the coast. This was made with coffee advertised as being grown around Nuwara Eliya, via someone called Century for You. It was pleasant and tasty (simple chocolaty and dried fruit flavours), in comparison to most of the other coffees I tried (at this stage I was craving a half decent coffee so much that just a fairly ‘normal’ tasting coffee was very nice, and didn’t need to be anything too special!). I’m not sure what Hansa’s coffee is like in their own cafe, as this is situated in the main city Colombo, where we didn’t visit…

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But like I said, Sri Lanka’s all about the tea rather than coffee, so these findings where to be expected, I guess. I wasn’t really hoping or expecting to find really high quality beans, or great brewed coffee in any form anyway – my (humble and unambitious) main coffee-goal of the trip was just to find some plants growing, and some fresh cherries to taste, which I achieved, and which was fantastic!!

Many thanks to Kevin for taking me along.

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