I have been thinking of Sri Lanka ever since I heard of the death of the legendary Merrill Fernando, who created Dilmah Tea, last week. Everyone who visits that country is likely to taste, or bring back, Dilmah Tea. In 2011, it was my first introduction to flavoured teas at the Galle Literary Festival, where endless cups were available to all at the Dilmah stall.
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The tea industry in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known, too came up with the East India Company, a little after India, in the late 18th century. The island used to be coffee country until the coffee rust disease hit. Tea replaced coffee and became a thriving industry. And, as with India, Ceylon tea remained a commodity for a long time, exported to the West, where it was blended, packaged and retailed. Fernando, beginning a career in the tea industry in the 1950s as a 20-something, was appalled at how his country’s tea transformed along the supply chain—and how little of the profits came to the farmer. He believed the tea must be packaged at source.
It took him a a few decades to actually launch Dilmah, named for his two sons, Dilhan and Malik. Nurturing it almost like a third child, he started the brand in 1985 as a single-origin tea, long before that was a trend, a homegrown brand that competed with multinational giants like Lipton and Tetley.
There was fearless ambition, no doubt, but Dilmah’s story is also a lesson in tea marketing done right. His trust-building addition was to put his photograph on the packets, a “CEO who makes his own tea". The message was loud and clear— that its founder stood by it, and was answerable to customers.
Most importantly, he didn’t shy away from premium pricing. Though they had built a market for Ceylon tea in the UK, Dilmah’s success story began in Australia—from exporting bulk tea to becoming a successful retail brand. As a flag-bearer of the legacy of Ceylon tea, Dilmah’s footprint today extends across the social impact and hospitality segments.
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After Dilmah, more producers, like Lumbini and Herman Teas, have taken to retail too. Alongside this, an artisanal movement began when Amba Estate came up as a social enterprise, with four investors coming together in 2006 to revive a closed tea estate and convert it into an organic farm. Amba employs people from the local community to grow tea and other produce. In 2013, it opened a farm-stay, which brings in revenue to the community. Others, like Kaley Tea and Forest Hill, joined the fold, each coming up with unique offerings—from Amba’s Vangedi tea, made by hand-pounding the leaves, to Forest Hill’s wild teas from the Adam’s Peak mountains and Kaley’s green tea “cigars", with tea leaves rolled with cinnamon leaf as a natural tea dip. Ceylon tea has long gone past the Orange Pekoe it was once synonymous with.
Its story continues to evolve. But its most memorable chapter will remain the one about Fernando and Dilmah Tea.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She tweets @AravindaAnanth1.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED30.07.2023 | 09:00 AM IST