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AMBA'S HISTORY

Amba Estate perches on the edge of a 1000-foot precipice, overlooking the magnificent Ella Gap
and Ravana-Ella Waterfalls.  Refuge of the Goddess Sita in the Ramayana, ancient salt-route
between Kataragama and Kandy, home to one of the first locally-owned tea-estates in Ceylon,
Amba’s valley is rich in history.

 

AMBA'S TEA-MAKING PROCESSES

Amba's Teas and Tisanes are all individually crafted on site at our organic farm in the Uva highlands. 
We are one of only a handful of artisanal tea producers in Sri Lanka today, using traditional methods
similar to those used by early planters prior to widespread mechanisation
.

 

AMBA'S team

With 15 guest-rooms and an ever-growing portfolio of artisanal products, it literally takes a village
to host Amba's unique farmstay experiences and to craft more than 1
00 hand-made products.  
Read more about our amazing team.

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amba's history

 

Amba Estate is nestled in the valley of Ambadandegama, on the edge of Uva highlands,
looking through the famous Ella Gap to the hills of Kataragama and the plains of Yala.  
Today the valley can only be reached by narrow winding roads from Bandarawela above and Wellawaya below,
but this remote valley has borne witness to a rich history which binds together
all the diverse strands that make up the amazing tapestry of Sri Lanka today.

You can read more about some of the key events in Amba's amazing history by clicking on the timeline below:

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amba's 
tea-making

 

Unknown to most people as they sip their cup of tea, it takes hundreds of hours of work on multiple different tasks
to make a single serving of organic whole-leaf tea.  Here is a little taste of all the steps that we take
to make sure every cup is perfect – from cow-herding and composting, to pruning and maintaining our ancient tea bushes,
to hand-plucking, withering, rolling, fermenting and drying each individual batch of leaves.

 

Step 1: Applying traditional methods
to restore our heirloom tea bushes

All of our teas are made on site at Amba.  The first tea here was planted more than 100 years ago,
and many of the bushes on the Estate are original Sinensis and Assamica varieties as much as 70 years old.  
While these ancient seedling bushes are hard to keep healthy and productive,
they are vital for giving our tea the distinctive wintergreen flavour that Uva teas are famous for.  

 

Maintaining these ancient fields according to strict organic guidelines requires enormous effort.  
We use no artificial fertilizers, pesticides or weedicides.  To maintain and improve soil fertility,
we make our own compost and organic sprays, using green material from the Estate and
manure from our own herd of ‘rescue cows’.  We weed the fields manually and we leave the cuttings
as mulch between the bushes, to improve water and nutrient retention.  We also plant gliricidia
and other nitrogen-fixing plants between the tea.  

We prune the bushes on a 4-5 year cycle. Over time, we are gradually infilling the fields with new tea bushes,
where the old bushes have succumbed to the annual cycle of drought and torrential rains.  
As we replant, we are infilling as much as possible with seedling bushes similar to our original varieties.  
These seedling varieties do not produce as much leaf as modern clones, but they help our teas
to maintain their distinctive Uva flavour and they are better equipped to survive
the difficult climactic conditions on the edge of the Uva highlands.  

 

All this work enables the Estate to produce about 2000kg of greenleaf per month. But only about 10% of this
is good enough to produce our whole-leaf teas (that is just enough to make 40kg of made-tea per month).

 

 

Step 2: Plucking only the finest leaves

To make our fine handcrafted teas, we pluck only “1 leaf and the bud” from the fresh shoots on top of each tea bush
– unlike the larger plantations, where they pluck whole bunches of leaves to be processed
in the large-scale machinery in their factories.  

 

Every day, our tea ladies pluck these young leaves first thing in the morning, so they arrive tender and fresh
at our little tea-making facility before the sun gets too hot.  

 

Step 3: Slowly withering the leaves

Once the leaves have been plucked, they are withered naturally on old-fashioned “withering tats” for many hours.  
This slow withering process is the first step in the gradual enzymatic oxidisation of the leaves.  It reduces the water content
and promotes the breakdown of leaf proteins into free amino-acids and increases the availability of caffeine,
enhancing the flavour.  If these processes are speeded up, then the final made tea will lose quality and flavour.

 

Step 4: Hand-rolling each batch of leaves

Once the leaves have withered, we then roll or pound the leaves to “rupture” the cells. This allows the sap to mix
with various enzymes and exposes them to atmospheric oxygen which accelerates the “fermentation” process.

 

To make our whole-leaf Orange Pekoes, we hand-roll tiny amounts of fine leaf in large bowls.
It takes great skill and care and many months of training to make our hand-rolled teas.
Each lady takes more than one hour to roll just enough leaf to make 100g of finished tea.
We aim not to break any of the leaves during this process, so that when you make a cup of tea, the leaves will unfurl
to the same shape as when they were plucked. These whole-leaf teas can also be infused three or four times.

 

To make our Plucky Tea Gems, we roll and “break” the leaves on something that looks like an old fashioned washboard.

 

To make our Vangedi Pekoe (or “Illicit Tea”), we pound the leaves in a stone “vangedi” or mortar
before fermenting and pan drying.  This is how the Estate workers make tea at home, and we learned the method
from Sudumenike who remembered how her grandmother used to make tea for the family.  It is illegal
to make tea like this on the big Estates, since it means the workers must be “pocketing” the leaves!  
Amba is the only estate to make this tea commercially.

 

Step 5: Oxidizing the leaves to release their full flavour

After rolling or pounding, the leaves are set aside in a cool dark room to oxidise (ferment) for several hours.
Oxidation is highly important in the formation of many taste and aroma compounds, which give the tea its liquor colour, strength, and briskness.  During this time the leaves change from green to copper, and the sweet earthy aroma is wonderful. 

 

Like all steps in the process, timing is critical – over- or under-fermenting the tea can ruin the whole batch.  
And the ideal timing for each batch is different, so we need to keep checking the tea throughout the process. 

 

Step 6: Drying the tea to preserve its unique flavour

As soon as the ideal oxidisation stage has been reached, each batch must be dried to stop the fermentation,
lock in the flavour and ensure that the tea stays fresh for months.  

 

Whenever possible we sun dry our tea in a simple solar drier. When it is too damp, we dry the tea in a biomass dryer,
using waste wood from the estate, or in a small electric drier that we had custom-made by a local company in Sri Lanka.  
We are eventually hoping to build a drier that will be powered by biogas.

 

Step 7: Blending the perfect combination of batches

Each batch of tea varies depending on the field and the cultivar, as well as the season and the pruning cycle.
We therefore blend each of the small batches (as long as we like the taste!) on a monthly basis.
Teas are generally made to order and are posted direct to buyers in order to insure maximum freshness.

 

 

 

We hope that you will enjoy our teas, and take the time to put a little “ceremony” back into your daily cup of tea
– knowing how much care it took to make it!

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amba's team

Amba now has a team of almost 50 full-time employees, including field workers, product makers, 
guest-house staff and management.  We also regularly hire additional workers on a contract basis for
construction projects, seasonal farm work and so on.  In addition, wherever possible, we source
goods and services for the farm and the guesthouse from local suppliers within the community.  In total,
w
e estimate that almost 100 local families now earn their primary income from Amba.  
Here is a snapshot of some of the key players.

 

Rajagopal Karunanithy, Estate Manager

Rajagopal Karunanithy, the manager of Amba Estate, is the great-grandson of the man who first planted tea bushes in Ambadandegama Valley.  He spent more than 15 years tending his family’s own tea garden in the valley,
and he now manages every aspect of operations at Amba.  He is married to a Sinhalese lady from the valley,
and they live with their two children in Laksirigama hamlet close to the Estate.

 

Neethanjana Senadheera, Production Manager & Tea-Maker

Neethanjana is a young graduate whose family lives in Ambadandegama Valley. His mother is an
agricultural extension officer and teacher, and his father is a former government official.
Neethanjana manages and quality controls all aspects of our artisanal production,
including the teas, coffees, jams and spices.

Malith Madhawa, finance Manager

Malith is another young graduate whose family lives in Ambadandegama Valley. He manages our accounts and financial systems, and makes sure everyone gets paid, even in challenging times!

Idhayaraja "ashok" KitnasamY,
assistant Production Manager & Inventor

Ashok is a graduate of the Tea Leaf Vision programme in Maskeliya.
He assists Neethanjana in overseeing all aspects of our artisanal production, including the teas, coffees, jams and spices.  Ashok is also a serial inventor - he won many prizes for inventions in school, and he designed and built Amba's
automated lemongrass chopper (after many renowned engineers and engineering firms had failed to solve the problem).  
He is now working on developing our first home-grown coffee roaster.

 

Our tireless farmstay team

Nalani, Indra, Anu, Sanka, Asokan, Chamika, Sampath and Indrani look after all aspects of our guesthouse and café
operations,
from cooking and cleaning to guiding and maintenance.  The whole team come from Ambadandegama
and they had no prior experience in hospitality - but, as our endless reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere testify,
their delicious food and excellent service are regularly rated among the best in Sri Lanka. 

Our Nimble Pluckers, Rollers, roasters

The people who are most important to ensuring the exquisite flavour and quality of Amba's products are of course
the ladies who pluck and roll the tea, roast the coffee, make the jams and chutneys, peel the cinnamon and
dry the other spices.  At the moment, there are 19 ladies who regularly work on the Estate:

Chandrakala, Delani, Delosini, Gnawathy, Inosha, Jeevani, Kamachchi, Kamalawathy, Margrat, Nadeeka,
Nandawathy, Ramyalatha, Ranjala, Ranjani, Renuka, Roshini, Samanthi, Sandiya and Thilakawathy.

 

Our Fearless Field Management Team

Our ladies are supported by a team of five men who are responsible for maintaining and improving Amba’s fields
– Palitha, Rathnayake, Ravi, Rengasami, and Vishvanathan.  They take care of everything from tending the cows
and making the compost, to spraying, weeding, mulching, pruning and replanting the fields.  Without them,
there would be no tea or coffee cherries to pluck, spices to dry, vegetables to eat or fruits to preserve.

 

Beverly-Claire Wainwright & Neil Harrower,
Our Pioneering Development Duo

Originally from Lancashire and trained as a scientist, Beverly spent 20 years as an entrepreneur in Scotland,
successfully launching a series of businesses.  In 2008, she came to Sri Lanka as a volunteer with VSO,
using her business skills to help build the capacity of local enterprises in Uva Province.
In 2010 she joined Amba Estate as our Business Development Manager, and she led every aspect of our
early product development – from experimentation, testing and tasting, to painstaking quality control.  

Beverly’s husband, Neil, had prior experience as a project manager and a volunteer coordinator.
He helped to design and implement the administrative systems on the Estate. He was also responsible for
​special projects, including the conversion of the old estate line rooms into our tea-making facility.
He also oversaw our guesthouse in its early years of operation.

Our Mentors

In developing our artisanal products, the Amba team has been guided and assisted by a whole host of
advisers and mentors.  Foremost among them are Nigel Melican (CEO of TeaCraft in the UK, and one of the
world’s leading gurus on artisanal tea-making), Herman Gunaratne (owner of the famous Hundungoda Tea Estate near Galle, and the pioneer of artisanal tea-making in Sri Lanka), Bernard Holsinger (owner of the Ebony Springs Tea Estate near Galle) and Patricia Grasso (former owner of Morning Mist Guesthouse and a master chutney and mustard maker!).

 

Our Rescue Cows

And then of course, there are the cows – without whom, we would not be able to produce our organic compost
that keeps our tea bushes alive and healthy. It is a local Buddhist tradition to rescue cows destined for slaughter
from the abattoir at New Year each year – and Amba Estate now provides a happy home for approximately
20 cows and their calves!  They are a motley crew, but they do their job with gusto!

 

Our Faithful Farm Cats and Dogs

And last but not least, we should not forget our faithful farm cats and dogs.  Baloo, Tigger, Mouse, Sher Khan and Bagheera never tire of their duties - from guiding guests on hikes, chasing monkeys and rabbits, scaring off snakes and vermin, posing for photos on the ridge, and generally grabbing all the attention!