Amba Estate, Sri Lanka: Beverly Wainwright interview
Canton Tea Club Week 64: Amba Hand Rolled Green
I first met Beverly Wainwright in London 18 months ago, and was bowled over by her enthusiasm and drive. I selected her Amba Hand-Rolled Black Tea when I was a guest for the Tea Club in February, and it has now become part of the permanent range on the website.
When Beverly told me she was making a green tea, I couldn’t wait to taste it, and it didn’t let me down. It is aromatic, smooth and complex with hints of oolong – caused by the very long withering stage. It has already become my favourite green tea.
I thought it would be interesting to hear Beverly’s story in her own words, before looking in a bit more detail at the tea.
how did you come to be making tea at Amba?
I have been at Amba now for just over two years, before that I was working in a remote part of Sri Lanka as a VSO volunteer with a rural chamber of commerce. My job involved working with farmer groups to promote small business development with funding from the Asia Development Bank. I was initially (and very easily) lured up to Amba with the promise of a hot shower and cold beer by one of the owners of the estate who turned up at the chamber out of the blue one day. The valley is stunningly beautiful and I will never forget that first bus journey down precarious mountain roads, chatting to locals and getting completely lost before finally finding Amba at the end of a narrow track. At that time Amba was struggling, selling leaf at a loss and with no production means. The owners wanted to develop Amba in order to provide long-term, sustainable livelihoods through both tourism and tea-making and so after I finished VSO, much to my surprise I was offered the job. My background is business development but I knew practically nothing about tea and quite frankly thought the owners must be crazy…however I do like a challenge…so here I am.
we know you have had great success with your black tea. Why did you decide to make a green tea, and how did you set about it?
Tea-making is absolutely fascinating and totally addictive (if somewhat nerdy). I always wanted to make a green tea but knew that it would be a challenge since I didn’t want to try to make an inferior copy of a Chinese or Japanese green, but rather wanted to make a truly unique Sri Lankan green that worked with our special Uva character. I failed miserably over and over again and finding information on small-scale tea-making was difficult, so a lot of the time it was trial and error. Luckily this led to our incredibly slow wither which is what makes our tea a bit different. I had almost given up on our green tea, when earlier this year we had an African tea maker visiting who gave me a few ideas. Finally, as it happened, on my birthday, the pieces all seemed to fall into place; I got up before dawn and in the peace and quiet headed into the factory to make my first successful batch of pan-roast green… The start of a new journey of discovery and one of the best birthday presents I could have asked for.
have you had any help, advice or feedback during this process?
I am incredibly lucky to have had a huge amount of help from many directions. Amba tea is made by the most amazing group of ladies who have patiently learned the art of tea making and whose attention to detail is second to none…they are the real experts these days! Without the ongoing investment and steadfast belief in Amba by the owners nothing would ever have happened here. I was also privileged to have the opportunity to work with Nigel Melican of Teacraft who came to Amba in the early days as a consultant and set us off on the right track. Since then, there has been help from far too many folk to mention but Alexander Kay, the owner of Satemwa Estate in Malawi, came to visit and generously shared his tea making experience and knowledge…and inspired our green tea. Leo Kwan (The Tea Guardian) has taken time to taste our teas and has given invaluable feedback. And last but not least our customers and fellow tea lovers have patiently waited for orders and supported our tiny tea-making efforts, which has kept us going and given us the chance to get started.
what plans do you have for the future?
Like many plantations our tea bushes are ageing and leaf production is falling as a consequence. In order to regenerate our tea fields and to enhance future production we have started a seedling tea nursery to infill our fields over the next few years. When tasting our teas I have found that the flavours vary on a field by field basis and also according to season and pruning cycle. The tea that consistently has a better flavour is made from our 70 year old seedling tea as opposed to our younger VP tea, hence the drive to plant seeds! We have been struggling with our production due to equipment failure and constant power cuts so we are now working with a company here to install a small-scale wood fired dryer. This should not only even out production but help us to increase it. We have also had a mini tea roller made and instead of selling our second best leaf I want to create a good mini rolled tea for even more value addition. It has been a busy two years renovating and opening the tea factory, creating our teas, a line of preserves, lemongrass tisane and finally opening our guesthouse. As ever, we continue to experiment and so who knows where that will take us in terms of new teas…
a bit more about the tea
When Beverly described that this tea was made using a hot pan, I was intrigued. I have seen this process in China for teas like Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun, but her Amba green tea doesn’t look or taste like these wok-roasted teas, which have a much more intense flavour. Beverly’s tea has a smoothness and almost honey-sweetness, along with some floral notes that make it a very unusual green tea. I was curious to know the reasons for this.
Some answers were provided by my old friend Leo Kwan, who has taken a special interest in Beverly’s teas. He has written at length about this tea in his Tea Guardian forum, and the comments below are from that source.
“The leaves are quite tightly hand-curled. In order for that to happen in green tea, the green leaves must have been withered thoroughly so they are soft enough for the process. Otherwise, the cellular structure simply breaks and the juices exposed and oxidized to become a badly made black tea. The Chinese shorten much of the withering time by hand-rolling in a hot pan (the wok), so that the cellular tissues are already softened. However, doing that with the hands on the scorching wok requires many years of training and practice which I don’t think the little Uva farm can provide their workers with.
This intrigued me. Rather than putting the sample in the line of the other incoming samples, I had it arranged for the next tasting session, having read from Beverly’s short note: withering time: 18-20 hours.
This line was suspended in my mind for a few days until I sniffed, for the first time, the aroma of this wonderful tea from the lid of my tasting mug. The floral and sweet aroma is more like that from an oolong rather than from a green tea. This explained it all, the ultra long withering has already triggered very slow partial oxidation, much like that in a white tea, but not to that extent. Further curling in the pan, since they are not as skilled as their Chinese counterparts for the curling skills, must have involved intermediate steps of heating and cooling before they could get their hands on the leaves. This gives time for further slight oxidation. So it is partial white tea, partial oolong, but really a green tea.”
So there we have it – a unique green tea, perhaps not made using the classic techniques, but with exceptional flavour. It’s probably my favourite green tea, because I like the softness and complexity of the flavours. But then, I am very much an oolong fan, so that would explain it.