Fancy tea champagne or a teapuccino? One family company has set its sights on dressing up the centuries old tea drink with a trendy outfit

Fancy a meal starting off with tea champagne, a main course spiced with tea, a desert dipped in tea and round it off with a tea cookie or teapuccino?

For Sri Lankans brought up on a traditional diet of kahata (extra strong) tea laced with extra milk and lots of sugar, a four course tea menu may seem shocking for the hot spicy food loving palates. For others, it may come across as an alternative to liven up the ‘Englishness’ of the old fashioned cuppa.

As the coffee generation gets stronger and multinational tea brands continue to grow their brands off the poor backs of illiterate tea pluckers, one Sri Lankan family is betting its hard earned dollars to introduce fine dining – laced with tea.

“It takes off on our trendy t-bar, t-ice creams and gourmet watte series,” explains Merrill J Fernando, Chairman MJF Group and Founder of one Sri Lanka’s top tea brands, Dilmah.


In 1988,
Merrill J Fernando laid the foundation for Sri Lanka’s best-known tea brand,
at a time when the island nation was purely a raw-material exporter.
Dilmah, named after his sons Dilhan and Malik, now sells in over 90
countries and commands the third slot among global tea brands.

The company produces over 20 mn tea bags a day and has a group turnover of
over US$ 100 mn a year. MJF also has investments in tea plantations,
packaging and leisure sector.

Sri Lanka exported 300.3 mn kilos of tea in 2004, with most of it shipped
out in bulk form. Dilmah retained its top slot in the US$ 7.5 mn value added
tea category.

“Tea is not just tea. We want to show the world that you can be creative and cook up an entire meal using numerous flavours of tea,” says Dilhan Fernando, MJF’s Marketing Director.

Using a competition, Dilmah has tempted the Chef’s Guild of Sri Lanka, to come up with a four course menue. The Sri Lankan leg begins on March 8, and Dilmah plans to take the show on to Maldives, Europe, Australasia, Russia and Singapore.

Winners of the Sri Lankan leg, get a chance to show off their culinary skills and share tips with fellow connoisseurs in top class hotels around the world. The winning entries of each country will eventually find its way into a coffee table tea recipe book.

“Chef to chef, is a better way of encouraging tea style cooking, than Dilmah trying to teach them the way,” says Dilhan Fernando.

“We were a bit cautious at the beginning, it was a bit out of the ordinary request,” says President of the Chef’s Guild, Gerard Mendis.

The Chef’s Guild were first shown and made to taste Dilmah’s 200 odd varieties of teas, before a deal was cemented.

The result was the birth of ‘Thé Culinaire’, with Mendis promising to include cold starter consisting only of seafood, followed by a sorbet, the main meal, dessert and cookies.

Gourmet cooking aside, Dilmah rides on its ethical trading practices, to retain Ceylon tea to its former glory in a world dominated by multinationals and legions of coffee drinkers.

For youngsters who chase after brand labels, Dilmah’s growing chain of trendy t-bars offer tea cocktails and mocktails, vodka tea shooters and ice cream tea shakes (using Swiss ice cream producer Movenpick).

Dilmah talks to the yuppies – who crave ‘healthy organic stuff’ – through aromatic brews spiked with fruity essences of mint, sherry, lemon, peach, cardamom or ginger.

And for those hung on the traditional brew, Dilmah churns out its classical range of English breakfast and Earl’s Grey (sprayed with oil of Bergamot).

“Some will balk at the idea, but if you want your tea with a shot of vodka, or ice cream that’s fine by us, because the tea that’s best for you, is the tea that you really enjoy,” says Dilhan Fernando.

T-bars, which dish out an appetising array of sweet and savoury t-snacks served on designer tea accessories with jazz music in the background, has become a hit in the west.

There are 35 bars (Italy has the highest of 30) dotting the globe now, with 16 more to come up in Britain. Besides the usual fare, each country has its own menus of signature drinks.

The watte tea series – is Merrill Fernando’s answer to exclusive wines. Named after four premier tea growing elevations in Sri Lanka, the series is pitched as a single region boutique tea, each possessing its own mouthfeel and flavour.

To feed its growing tea cult, Dilmah employs a mix blend of traditional and new media solutions. Merrill Fernando still loves to autograph tea mugs at supermarkets, while his sons work hard through Internet and email.

“Be it the traditional tea loving Anglophile Australians or the new age Aussies, or migrant populations with their own distinct lifestyles or even emerging gay and lesbian groups, the mix and match solution is what works,” says Dilhan Fernando.

To a teenager, Dilmah is sold through a game character, a forty plus executive is fed on a diet of information driven through the Internet or email. The retirees are enticed through direct mailers.

“Young people like things a certain way and it is up to tea people like us to give them what they want,” says Dilhan Fernando. “You can’t be a puritan and tell them this is how it has to be done, because they will retort back and say, ‘thank you very much, but that’s not my cup of tea’.”

The Watte rangeRan Watte (pronounced run-wat-the), meaning Golden Gardens, from tea
estates set high in the mountains surrounding Nuwara Eliya, is compared to
fine champagne, and commended for its elegant structure and hints of
spiciness.

Uda Watte (u-der wat-the), the Pinot Noir of tea comes from the
Dimbulla region, and is admired for its lush, supple nature.

Meda Watte (mad-er wat-the), our Shiraz picked on tea gardens near
the last Kingdom of Sri Lanka, in Kandy, is labeled firm, full, lively with
hints of caramel.

Last, but certainly not least, Yata Watte (ya-ter wat-the) is grown
at sea level in the region around Galle, thought to be the biblical city of
Tarshish. Yata Watte is acclaimed for its expressiveness, just like a good
Cabernet Sauvignon, with spiciness and hints of bayleaf.

-LBO Newsdesk: LBOEmail@vanguardlanka.com