Sunday, 20 October 2013

More Tea, Vicar? The Mackwoods Factory And Labookellie Tea Centre

The Mackwoods factory at Labookellie is a charming trip

Mackwoods' tea factory at Labookellie is on the A5 up to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy, past Tawalantenne and the Ramboda Tunnel. You can't really miss it, sitting on a bend on the road, all green and white. It's surrounded by swirling rows of plantation, the lush green hillsides all around striated by tea bushes with colourful dots here and there - the tea pickers of fame - moving slowly between the lines.

Actually, they're more like nickers than pickers - they nick off the delicate, light green bud and topmost pair of leaves from each plant once a week or thereabouts, the thicker, darker leaves below are left to drop as natural compost. Each tree lasts up to 65 years and they're pruned every five years to keep them in check and generally show them who's boss.

Mackwoods makes fine tea - sending some to auction, some to Harrods and some retailed under its own brand name. The company also makes much of its 160-year heritage.

But like so many things you'll find in Sri Lanka, Mackwoods isn't actually quite what it seems.

The true history of Mackwoods is quite hard to define - there are some very 'fuzzy' periods in Sri Lankan tea history and although the company is keen to infer that its Labookellie plantation is part of an unbroken tradition spanning back to 1841 with the foundation of the company by retired sea captain William Mackwood, that's not actually quite the way it all worked out.

For a start, there was no commercial tea plantation in Sri Lanka in 1841. James Taylor didn't introduce commercial planting until 1867, with the establishment of the 19-acre Loolecondera plantation near Kandy. It wasn't until 1875 that the first plantations were established in Nuwara Eliya - a replacement for the island's devastated coffee industry, progressively wiped out by blight from the 1860s onwards.

Oddly, the company claims in its website that the first tea plantation in Sri Lanka was actually in 1867 - contemporaneous with Taylor's in Kandy - at Labookellie, by Solomon and Gabriel de Worms but this is not borne out by history. The de Worms brothers actually established the nearby Rothschild Estate and divested the estate in 1865. And their attempt at planting Chinese tea failed, while Taylor succeeded.

Besides, Labookellie belonged to The Ceylon Company at the time - later transferred to the Eastern Produce and Estates Company. And, in fact, Mackwoods (originally established in 1839, actually) wasn't a plantation company at all but a trading and shipping agency based in Colombo.

Whatever. Pressured, as so many others were, by the growing clouds of impending nationalisation and 'SriLankisation' when Ceylon gained its independence from Britain in 1948, the Mackwoods family sold out in 1956 to a Mr. N.S.O. Mendis, the deal claimed to be the first SriLankisation of a British sterling company. It was by no means to be the last, as a draconian wave of egregious nationalisations in 1971-72 saw every tea plantation in the country over 50 acres forcefully sequestered by the government.

Funnily enough, the impact of the nationalisation isn't mentioned at all in Mackwoods' carefully worded official history, neither is how it managed to acquire the rights to manage some 27,000 acres of plantation today. Oddly, before the shake-up of the nationalisation, Mackwoods appears to have owned the Carolina and Balmoral plantations. It manages neither currently. Whether it owned Labookellie prior to nationalisation is unclear - as is whether Mackwoods ever did own a plantation before Mendis acquired it.

In fact, all tea plantations in Sri Lanka currently remain in government hands with management contracts awarded to 'managing agents' on a long lease basis. Sri Lanka's 'privatised' RPCs or regional plantation companies manage the plantations and take a profit share as their 'management fee'. One of these 23 'super plantation' companies is Agalawatte Plantations Plc - a subsidiary of Mackwoods. It apparently acquired its management contract without having to go through any of that inconvenient competitive bidding stuff, which is always nice. And one of the many plantations included in its 'package' of plantations awarded by the government is Labookellie.

Not so prosaic as the whole sea captain thing, is it?

Back to the tea plantation visit

The Labookellie tea factory is open to visitors and so we duly visited. It's a very slick PR exercise indeed and they don't charge for tours of the factory, which are guided by smart young ladies in green Mackwoods uniforms. Like the tea pickers themselves, the girls are Tamil (The British coffee and then tea planters originally established the practice of importing Indian, Tamil, labour to work on the plantation and the tea industry's labour force remains dominated by 'Estate Tamils' today).

Drying the tea - 10,000 kg of green leaves are dried to 2,000 kg a day at Labookellie by the factory's four blowers

We are taken up to the drying room where the picked tea is dried, two huge batches a day go through the process of 'withering' which takes about 12 hours. Then the leaves go downstairs to be rolled, fermented, dried and then sifted into grades. It's all great fun to witness and our guide is smart and has the answers to all our questions about the process.

And then onto the tea room where the tea, despite a notice saying it's Rs35 a cup, is free. The wee square of chocolate cake is excellent and is charged for at a wicked Rs50 - about Dhs1.5...

Needless to say, the tea is excellent. We're happy buyers in the shop and go crazy buying every grade of tea we can find, although we balk at the silver-tip tea, which is the finest tea you can get, sold in fancy containers and savagely priced.

It's been fun. Mackwoods sees upwards of 2,000 people a week pass through its factory and the operation is slick, smart, well managed and totally on-brand. It's not often you'll meet that combination in Sri Lanka and it's all the more impressive when you do.

Even if the experience masks a somewhat murky past...

Invigorated by our experience and the cup that refreshes but does not intoxicate, we wend our way up the vertiginous road to the highlands of Nuwara Eliya and our appointment with destiny. Our hotel here is the boutique 5-room Jetwings Warwick House. And it's Jetwings who managed the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle - the site of The Worst Meal Of My Life.

What was this place - that promises so much and yet threatens so much - going to be like? The answer lies here!
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