Debate brewing over Sri Lanka tea blending plans

COLOMBO, July 15, 2012 (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s tea industry is deeply divided over plans to boost earnings by importing cheaper leaves for blending and re-export, over fears the changes could water down the “Pure Ceylon” brand Pure Ceylon — using the country’s colonial-era name — is to tea what single malt is to whisky, according to some aficionados, with single-origin Sri Lankan tea costing as much as twice that of a multi-origin tea.

The country has long been a leading exporter of the commodity, but now the Tea Exporters Association (TEA) wants to import leaves from countries like Kenya, Vietnam and Indonesia, and blend them with higher quality local produce.

TEA members, who make up more than 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s tea exports, say the island should harness its local blending expertise and reclaim its role as a tea hub, a position being eroded by competition from Gulf nations.

They argue that the high quality and the correspondingly high prices have placed “Pure Ceylon Tea” beyond the reach of the lucrative mass market, even if the industry enjoys an enviable brand reputation.

“We lose out because our tea is too expensive,” says Niraj de Mel, head of TEA. “We don’t have a (cheaper) te