Coffee in Sri Lanka: a brewed awakening

In a nation synonymous with tea, coffee is making a comeback, writes Anthony Dennis.

I'm travelling deep in the blessedly cool, and surprisingly lofty, mountains of central Sri Lanka where, for as far I can see, there is rolling hill after rolling hill of tea plantations, as green as an English village cricket oval's outfield, dotted with weather-worn female Tamil pickers.

It's an impressive sight, an example of mass agriculture fine enough to rival that of the rice terraces I've visited elsewhere in Asia. But, for a coffee-lover like me, as I gaze out the window of the car, I can't help but feel compelled to paraphrase The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "tea, tea, everywhere, but not a drop of coffee to drink".

I'm on my way to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of Sri Lanka's tea country in the island's Central Highlands. I'm visiting a nation synonymous with the tea leaf, having come from a nation with a near-unhealthy obsession with coffee that nowadays rivals that of the Italians.

OK, so such a temporary denial of a daily caffeine hit, in the espresso form I've come to expect, may seem a personal storm in a teacup. But, fortunately for me, there's more to Nuwara Eliya, the remote hill station town at an altitude of around 2000 metres, than just tea.

Long before tea become emblematic of Sri Lanka, the country was known as one of the world's biggest coffee producers, courtesy of the Dutch, who first planted coffee trees across the island, with quality beans rivalling those from Java. But a leaf blight disease in 1848 devastated the British-owned coffee crop, with the colonial planters forced to find an alternative for export.

So disastrous was the effect on the businesses of British planters that many of them suicided. That search for a replacement for coffee led those who didn't take their lives to tea and the rest, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, is history.

So comprehensive was the tea takeover that it can be difficult to discern any obvious sign of Sri Lanka's coffee past, let alone order a coffee of the standard of home. But Sri Lanka is not only beginning to export coffee again in large quantities, it's also learning to enjoy it again as a beverage.

The revival has been led, in no small way, by an expatriate American, Lawrence Goldberg, who has recently partnered with an Australian. Goldberg runs a modest cafe in Colombo, where you can order a decent caffe latte (flat whites haven't made it to the Sri Lanka as yet) or a cappuccino (accompanied by a dose of cardamom or ginger, should you fancy) while Nuwara Eliya is the home of his company, Hansa Ceylon Coffee.

It bills itself as Sri Lanka's first gourmet coffee for 150 years specialising in quality Arabica and robusta beans.

Hansa Ceylon Coffee was originally founded by a Dutchman in the mid-1990s with the enterprise partly funded by the Netherlands government as a developing world aid project but it's since evolved into a proper going concern.

Although Goldberg, originally from Seattle, the home of (ahem) Starbucks, became involved with Hansa, he didn't know much at all about coffee. But he and some friends suspected - rightly as it eventuated - that some coffee trees must still exist on the island. He and his mates were on to something and the remnants of Sri Lanka's coffee heyday formed the basis of the industry's revival.

"People are beginning to appreciate coffee again after more than 150 years," says Goldberg. "I'm convinced that Sri Lankan coffee will make a full comeback because Sri Lankan coffee should be on the table with the beans from the other countries around the world. Nowadays we can't keep up with the demand."

Coffee cultivation makes sense economically and socially for a country like Sri Lanka. Tea trees, as Goldberg explains, are known to damage the environment due to erosion. And the revival of coffee means work not just for the 50 or so staff employed by Hansa but also the 1000 or so landholders who supply beans to Hansa.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka tea planters have been undercut on pricing by rival exporting nations like Kenya. "Tea is a man-made disaster," Goldberg. "Crops like coffee and cocoa, which are much more sustainable, have huge potential."

At each luxurious accommodation at which I stay during my travels around Sri Lanka, Hansa, with its "smooth, chocolatey and rich taste" is the coffee of choice, invariably served in plungers, since espresso machines are still not commonplace.

Many visitors, like me, end up staying in signature converted tea planter bungalows though many of them may in fact date to the coffee era, a more difficult leaf from the country's history books to romanticise due its disastrous demise.

Although it was the Dutch colonisers who introduce widespread coffee tree plantings in Sri Lanka, historians believe that coffee was introduced by the Arabs who planted trees not to exploit their beans as a beverage but to lend flavour to their curries and to decorate their temples.

Considering that Nuwara Eliya is in the middle of Sri Lanka's most concentrated highlands tea country, it may seem treasonous to set up a serious coffee business here. But it makes historical sense when you consider that Nuwara Eliya's most eccentric lodging is the Hill Club, dating to Sri Lanka's coffee era. The original building was centred around the present fusty billiard room.

The city itself was founded in 1846, soon becoming known as "Little England", as the British colonials fled to it in numbers to escape the enervating heat of centres like Galle and Colombo on the coast.

Many of the colonial buildings from the era, such as the post office, the Grand Hotel and the Queen's Cottage, now a well-guarded retreat of the president of Sri Lanka, have survived.

It's a quaint place, in a melancholy kind of way. True to its British origins, the time-warped Hill Club is still steeped in stuffy regulations though Sri Lankans are now allowed entry to what was once a bastion of racism. Management still insists that male guests wear a tie for dinner with the following rules: "From 7pm onwards the dress code," the house rules declare, "is applicable in the Mixed Bar, Reading Room, Main Dining room, Mixed Lounge and the Billiards Room, where gentlemen shall wear lounge suit/jacket with tie and shirt or Sri Lankan National Dress, and ladies shall wear suitable equivalent attire."

One trendy guidebook actually counsels its readers not to stay at the Hill Club but it's worth a night, if only for a giggle. Indeed, when I return to my room after dinner outside the hotel - I couldn't bear to do the tie thing - I find a hot water bottle - a Hill Club tradition - wrapped in a white bath towel propped on a pillow in the middle of my bed.

The Hill Club seems to have long forgotten its coffee origins and if you want an authentic caffe latte it's wise to head to Hansa's cafe, located in a shabby old colonial-style house, where they make coffee more or less up to the standard back home in Australia.

Goldberg's team is now moving into chocolate-making, sourced from the island's cocoa crop, while around the corner, in another old house, is the basic roastery and distribution centre for the silver and blue bagged Hansa Ceylon Coffee. Visitors are welcome to tour the premises and meet the staff.

Here in Sri Lanka it may well be a little too soon to re-paraphrase "coffee, coffee everywhere". But, for a caffeine tragic from Australia, it's at least a (heart)-start(er).

Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor. He travelled as guest of the Classic Safari Company and with the assistance of Singapore Airlines.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines operates daily connections to Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city, from Sydney and Melbourne via Singapore.

See singaporeair.com.

TOURING THERE

A tailored 12-night, 13-day luxury itinerary including visits to Nuwara Eliya, Thirappane, Sigiriya, Kandy, Hatton, Galle and Colombo, costs from $US6390 ($6850) a person twin share. This includes a chauffeur guide and private vehicle, luxury accommodation, all entrance fees to monuments and daily breakfast.

See classicsafaricompany.com.au.

SIPPING THERE

It's possible for the Classic Safari Company to arrange informal tours of Hansa Ceylon Coffee in Nuwara Eliya. In Colombo, Hansa also runs a small cafe at 24 Fife Road in Colombo District Five. See srilankacoffee.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

classicsafaricompany.com.au

Comments