Pitigala: where a kilo of tea is sold for Rs. 450,000

by damith
May 12, 2024 1:15 am 0 comment 1.2K views

By Tania Moses

Nestled amidst the breathtaking Pitigala mountains, the tea estate, more aptly described as a picturesque tea garden is a sight to behold. With meticulous care evident in every detail, the garden showcases beautifully tended tea plants.

A tourist picks tea leaves at the Athukorale tea estate.

A tourist picks tea leaves at the Athukorale tea estate.

Despite Sri Lanka’s rich tea culture and its 157-year history, there has been a noticeable gap in integrating tourism with tea culture. However, the Kurunduwatta Tea Garden in Pitigala, owned by the Athukorala group, stands as a testament to the successful fusion of these elements. For a country desperate for foreign exchange, it is undoubtedly a ray of hope.

In the vicinity of the tea garden lies a factory and a tea centre, proudly presenting the finest ‘Ceylon Tea’, deemed fit even for royalty. Designed to offer an immersive experience, visitors can partake in every step of tea production at this single location, from plucking tea leaves to processing them in the factory. Additionally, guests have the opportunity to plant a tea sapling, indulge in a cup of freshly brewed tea, and luxuriate in the available accommodations with many other amenities on the premises, making for a truly memorable stay.

Leading the way in tea tourism is Athula Athukorala, the Chairperson of the Athukorala Group. A seasoned planter, researcher, and entrepreneur, Athukorala is at the forefront of promoting and developing tea-related tourism experiences in Sri Lanka.

According to Athukorala, the land on which the tea estate stands today was once a rubber plantation owned by the Athukorala family nearly four decades ago. Faced with challenges in sustaining the rubber business, Athukorala’s father made the decision to transition from rubber to tea in 1990.

“We established our first tea factory on this land in May 1991. Subsequently, my father, brother, and I embarked on our business journey, forming the Athukorala Group of Companies. Our vision was to create a factory equipped with modern technology and capable of continuous self-updating. The Tea Board extended its support by offering relief incentives for our new factory, which served as a significant encouragement for us at the time,” he said.

Athukorale Group Chairman Anura Athukorale

Athukorale Group Chairman
Anura Athukorale

“We made a deliberate decision to exclusively purchase high-quality tea buds from small tea estates, offering them a premium price in return. This initiative attracted around 3,000 small estate owners to collaborate with us. We maintained meticulous records on quality and curated a historical dataset for reference. Additionally, we expanded our estate to encompass 30 acres. Even today, we continue to source 90 percent of our tea buds from small estate owners,” he explained.

In 2009, after assuming full control of the estate, Athukorala decided to chart a new course for the business. Drawing from his experiences gained during his world travels, he introduced the concept of ‘tea tourism’ to his business.

“My aim was to prioritise the production of the finest quality tea over mass production. We produce only around 50,000 kg a month. However, I am able to achieve the same profit margin as someone who exports 5,000,000 kg of tea, despite only exporting 500,000 kg,” he said.

Renowned worldwide

He said that while Ceylon Tea is renowned worldwide for its unique flavour, the reputation of the brand was tarnished due to certain persons in the industry making short-sighted decisions solely for profit.

Tourists tasting tea. Chairman Athukorale and General Manager Ashoka Hewawasam look on.

Tourists tasting tea. Chairman Athukorale and General Manager
Ashoka Hewawasam look on.

He said as a result, Darjeeling Tea from India has replaced Ceylon Tea in Europe. Having visited the town to witness their tea production, Athukorala admits that the Darjeeling tea industry is far ahead of that of Sri Lanka. “However I wanted to revive our brand and prove its quality,” he said.

“I have produced the highest quality tea under two brands, Athukorala and Pitigala, with the Athukorala brand being predominant. We have successfully exported tea to Japan, Europe, the Czech Republic, and even countries where tea consumption was not common, such as Latvia. We also have an office in the United Kingdom, and we export Athukorala tea and Pitigala tea to 15 countries,” he explained.

According to Athukorala, unlike other exporters who purchase tea from the tea auctions, they produce their own tea and export it directly. “We can highlight the phenomenon of single plantation tea as a specialty and market it abroad. Additionally, we are continuously updating our practices with the latest technology available globally. Informed by new research data and knowledge, we are implementing innovative approaches in our tea production,” he affirmed.

“At present, our factory produces 27 main tea categories and six non-main tea categories. We offer around 100 types of teas infused with various natural flavours and added value through different techniques. We cultivate everything used to flavour tea naturally within our environment. We do not use so-called Nature Identical artificial flvaours. All-natural flavours, including citrus, ginger, and lemon, are organically cultivated, ensuring our responsibility towards sustainability,” he elaborated.

Tourists at the tea estate

Tourists at the tea estate

According to him, they also export artisanal teas such as wild tea, which is entirely organic and commands a premium price of Rs. 750,000 per kilo. “We have two unique new products called Silver Green and Black Tea Unfounded. Black Tea Unfounded Tea is a remarkably flavorful tea with an exquisite appearance. It requires twice the usual processing time to produce this tea. Patents have been applied for both of these products,” he explained.

“Through our office in the UK, we successfully supplied tea under the brand name ‘Athukorala Tea’ to a renowned tea company there. Representatives from that company visited our tea factory to observe the production process. On a subsequent occasion, they arrived unannounced to assess the product quality. They were satisfied with the laboratory certificates obtained from the world’s top laboratories. Following their visit, we received orders from that company, which notably supplies tea to the British Royal family. I am thus confident that we can introduce our products to any top market in the world,” Athukorala said.

He shared that a representative of the Emir of Qatar recently visited the estate and praised the operation highly. “As a result, we were able to enter the Qatari tea market, and I now supply tea to the Qatari Royal family. Additionally, Japanese royal family members have visited our estate, paving the way for Athukorala teas to export products to Japan.”

“Recently, the president of China’s BYD (Build Your Dreams), the world’s largest electric car manufacturing company that beat Tesla recently, visited our estate. It was only upon his departure that we realised he was one of the most significant entrepreneurs in China. He personally sampled our tea and even acquired a large quantity of tea during his second visit. This encounter highlighted the immense opportunity present in the Chinese tea market,” he said.

“Two weeks ago, a group including the Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Dr. Q. Dongyu, and the Deputy Director-General, Beth Bechdol, visited our factory. Subsequently, they met President Ranil Wickremesinghe. These diplomats conveyed to President Wickremesinghe their impression of our tea factory, describing it as the best they had seen anywhere in the world. As a result, the President has expressed his desire to visit our factory, informing the Minister of Plantation Industry accordingly,” he revealed.

Immersive experience

While the Pitigala tea factory offers an immersive experience of tea production through tea tourism, Athukorala noted that foreigners who purchase a US$ 5 ticket and experience the factory and activities often end up ordering Athukorala tea online even after returning to their home countries.

“Currently, numerous tourists arriving from ships anchored at the Galle Port visit this tea garden. During the season, more than 300 people visit the tea garden daily. Among them, there are individuals with significant influence who often come and go incognito. Later, when significant orders are placed, we realise they have visited us,” he said.

Despite achieving considerable success in the industry, Athukorala said that he strives to do even better and continue because he finds it an enjoyable experience. Moreover, he said it allows him to serve the village of Pitigala.

“This is a golden country. Look at what this rich Earth has given us. Our tea is the best in the world. It is this fact that has earned us the highly respected Pure Ceylon Tea brand. Let us not tarnish this name by blending with imported teas and chasing instant profits. Together, let us provide the world with the highest quality products. The doors of Pitigala and Kurunduwatta Tea Factory are always open to share my knowledge and experience,” he said.

Translated by Maneshka Borham

Pix : Tilak Perera

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