Amba Gardens - a Sri Lankan Tea Estate

Nestled in the Uva Highlands of Sri Lanka, high above the Ravanna Falls, sits the marvellous Amba Estate.

Founded in 2006 by Simon Bell and three colleagues as a viable social enterprise, this organic farm established an impeccable model for sustainable development in a country that was once ravaged by Civil War. In growing and making incredible organic produce, this once-abandoned tea estate was once again given a purpose. Most importantly though, it’s use of sustainable practices and the exemplary treatment of those working on the farm, has given it an inspiring identity.

During Sri Lanka’s Civil War (1983 to 2009), a number of tea estates were abandoned by their owners, having a devastating effect on local communities. By regenerating the Amba estate, Simon hoped to revive both the land, and the lives of the people that lived there.

The mammoth task of restoring and managing the tea was put to a wonderful Yorkshire woman named Beverley. With little experience of growing tea, Beverly approached our very own Tea Lady for help. Whilst Henrietta is somewhat of a tea encyclopedia, she confesses to be better at drinking it than growing it. She did however know someone with better credentials; Alexander Kay from the Satemwa estate in Malawi.

Malawi, like Sri Lanka, produces a great deal of industrialised, anonymous tea. With most tea in Sri Lanka being sold under the colonial umbrella name of ‘Ceylon’, consumers have become disconnected from the people that produce it. By kindly sharing his expertise and passion for quality tea production, Alexander gave the team at Amba the knowledge that they needed to join the stand against a culture of cheap, brokered tea that is prevalent in so many tea-growing countries.

Advocating high quality sustainable tea that is good for the environment, good for the people that produce it and good for the drinker, is at the heart of what we do at Rare Tea, and is just what they do at Amba. They produce an abundance of treasures including jams and honey, but most importantly they produce our beautifully bright Lemongrass and our honeyed Sri Lankan Hand Rolled tea.

Through this simple key principle of quality over quantity, Amba has come to produce some of the most sublime speciality tea we have ever tasted.

The quality of their tea begins with the tea plant (Camelia Sinensis) itself. The tea bushes sit amongst a host of other vegetation, natural forests and fields containing a variety of crops. Much of this land is fertilised by the estate’s own herd of rescue cows that are themselves fed by this incredibly biodiverse terrain. These tea bushes, free of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, are then plucked by hand. While most high quality teas require plucking two leaves and a bud, Amba goes one step further, with pluckers just selecting the first single leaf and a bud. This meticulous process means Amba produces almost five times less tea than many farms in Sri Lanka each day, but this level of care results in the most sweet and delicate teas.

Each precious gram of tea is processed with an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. While the majority of tea produced throughout Sri Lanka (and the rest of the world) is processed using machinery, Amba produces a number of crafted teas. The patience and skill required to hand roll a unique tea like our own Sri Lankan Hand Rolled is intensive and time consuming, which is why we are so excited to have this rare delight available to us. Soft and floral but with a perfect balance of chocolatey richness, you can both see and taste the precision and craft in this sensational little leaf.

Amba does also produce some machine processed tea, but in an effort to provide as many skilled jobs as possible, the use of machinery is kept to a minimum. Any machinery that is used is simple and affordable to allow other tea producers to easily replicate the technology.

For Simon, it is not about selling as much produce as possible and making lots of money, but about showcasing the work that they do on Amba in the hope that more will follow suit - looking after the environment and looking after the people.

You can watch a short video about Sri Lankan Hand Rolled tea here - click here.

Many tea farms are still incredibly exploitative places where wages are pegged on unrealistic plucking quotas with little to no welfare support. From the stories of poor working conditions told in the BBC’s "The Tea Trail with Simon Reeve" to the DW documentary "Bitter Cup: The Dark Side of the Tea Trade"", we can see how important people like Simon Bell are in changing the way that the tea industry operates.

Employees at Amba receive fixed salaries that are not influenced by quotas or targets, allowing them to earn almost three times more than most people working in the same industry. These wages are further supplemented by a 10% revenue (not profit) sharing scheme, putting every employee at the centre of what Amba does and achieves. Furthermore, 1% of this shared revenue is put aside in savings for the employee, performing like an insurance scheme that can be utilised should they need anything such as medical care. With good wages and skilled jobs, Simon hopes to provide long term employment for as many people as possible. He has also shared his knowledge with other neighbouring small holders in order to educated and encouraged other tea and herb farmers to adopt organic farming practices. This will allow them to achieve higher prices for their harvests while contributing to the biodiversity of the region.

Taking advantage of all the surrounding resources allows the farm to employ people with an array of skills beyond producing tea. Jams for example, are made from fruit grown on the estate. These are then served in the estate’s guesthouses and sold in their farm shop alongside other local produce. Sales from the farm shop are then designated for employees as bonuses.

Wild lemongrass is also sustainably cultivated on the estate. Hand cut with scissors and dried in the sun, this lemongrass was beyond any that Henrietta had ever tried. In her own words:

"Sri Lankan Lemongrass is like no other. It tastes sweet, like lemon-drops, with lovely grassy notes of fresh hay and bright, sugary lemon... It’s so good." (Page 186, Infused - Adventures in Tea, Henrietta Lovell (2019).

This herb has become such a favourite at Rare Tea - having also made its way into our vibrant Lemon Blend - that supply now outstrips demand. This has allowed us to work with other growers from a cooperative of organic small holders across the country, making sure we are always well stocked with this wonderful herb.

Watch a little video about Amba’s Lemongrass here.

In steering away from monocrops and allowing natural flora and fauna to prevail - Amba maintains an environment that is not only diverse and sustainable but also incredibly beautiful.

Not even Amba’s beauty is wasted. Sustainable tourism has been actively encouraged on the estate, bringing in money for the local economy while promoting the wonderful work that is done on the farm. The fabulous old farmhouse shelters travellers who are invited to immerse themselves in estate life through communal meals prepared using local produce and tours of the grounds and tea processing facilities. Visitors departing with goods from the farm shop and with a little bit of a tea-education will hopefully go on to spread the word about the amazing work being done at Amba.

Amba truly is a place where everyone is welcome. Built for the community, it has people, and not just profit at its heart. That is why we think it is so important that everyone knows where the tea that they drink comes from. It may only look like a cup of tea, but when you take a sip of our exquisite Sri Lankan Hand Rolled you become part of something really quite magical.