Coffee Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Coffee Story

When “Ceylon coffee” – briefly – ruled the world *

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is these days most well known for its teas, and rightly so: the country’s climate and geography are ideal for producing some of the finest teas in the world. It is the world’s leading tea exporter and around a million of its citizens work in the industry. Less well known, however, is that until the mid-19th century the country was far more famous for its coffee. Indeed, “Ceylon coffee” was regarded as being superior to Java, and was served in some of the finest establishments in Europe and America.

That might surprise us today but – had it not been for a relatively brief but turbulent economic period and an unexpected agricultural disaster – coffee would still be the country’s principle crop and we might never have even heard of the now ubiquitous Ceylon tea…

Early history of coffee in Ceylon *

It is not known for how long coffee has been cultivated in Sri Lanka; one 1859 treatise on the subject claims it had grown there “since time immemorial”. Most likely it was introduced by early Arab traders, who themselves brought it from Mocha in the Yemen. It took well to the Ceylon climate and was soon growing wild in several parts the island, particularly on the westerly side.

The locals at first had no use for the coffee berries themselves; not only were they unfamiliar with such concepts as skinny mocha lattes, Aeropress® Coffee Makers and hazelnut frappuccinos, but they weren’t didn’t even consider coffee to be a drink. Instead they made use of coffee leaves as a flavouring in various spiced dishes, and used the flowers – prized both for their appearance and their impressive scent – as temple decorations.

However, European contact was to change all that. The Dutch occupied Ceylon between 1640 and 1796, and they experimented with cultivating a number of crops for export, in particular cinnamon and, from around 1740, coffee. Early attempts were hampered by having picked the wrong areas of the island – namely the south-western lowlands, where the elevation was insufficient and the climate too tropical for a good crop.

The British are coming *

The British – who superseded the Dutch in 1796 – also struggled at first (and for the same reason – they picked the wrong part of the island), so likewise focused more on sugar cane and spices such as cinnamon. But this was to change in the late 1820s, when stuttering economies across the world led to a reduced demand for “luxury” spices, while at the same time coffee houses were opening throughout Europe and the beverage was becoming more and more popular (and fashionable) among ordinary people. It made sense to switch to coffee production, and this was duly done.

Coffee Fruit on a bush

The British finally realised that the hills in the centre of the island were much more suitable for cultivation. The temperature was cooler and the elevation higher – coffee flourished. As the 1830s drew to a close, this discovery was combining with a huge demand in Europe for coffee, and foreign investment began to flood into Ceylon. In response to this, the British cleared nearly vast areas of rainforest in order to establish coffee plantations. This was, for a time, wildly successful.

Ceylon – coffee superpower *

Over the next two decades, Ceylon became one of the largest – and for a brief time, the single largest – producers of coffee in the world. Some compared the rush of investors trying to secure land in Ceylon with the Californian and Australian gold rushes of around the same time, and even began using the expression “coffee rush” to describe the increasingly fevered situation.

As well as officers from the East India Company, ships arriving in Colombo from England regularly brought with them ambitious private capitalists who bought up tracts of land (from the British Crown) to establish and develop coffee estates. The competition became quite intense, and was by all accounts quite exciting – but as is often the case, this competition and excitement generated something of an economic bubble.

Coffee Sri Lanka
Coffee Sri Lanka

Fever pitch *

In 1845 – the peak of the early round of speculation fever – some 19,000 acres of Crown land were bought up by private speculators. Most were not planning on immediate coffee cultivation – which could take several years to develop and show a profit – but were just attempting to buy up the land before anybody else got it, to then sell on for a profit. The competition for land drove up prices to quite crazy levels – and we all know what can happen next.

Sure enough, only a couple of years later there was a substantial drop in global coffee prices. This led to a general collapse in credit. Many investors found they had borrowed and invested way beyond the worth of the land they now held, and there were widespread bankruptcies, with reports of dozens of estates being sold at fire-sale prices, sometimes for as little as 5% of the purchase cost. Many areas of rainforest that had been cleared and planted were just abandoned to return to a wild, overgrown condition.

Fall and rise… *

Some investors held their nerve (or at least, had the financial backing to ride out the slump) and it turned out they were right to do so. In the early 1850s, after around three depressive years, demand began to rise again. Exports increased, confidence returned to the markets, and investors began to trickle – then flood – back in again. By 1857, a remarkable 80,000 acres of jungle had been cleared and was now growing coffee.

And fall again *

The good times kept rolling, and over the next decade production roughly doubled. By the peak, in 1868, there were an estimated 170,000 acres of coffee plantations, on top of the smallholdings of the locals, many of which were also devoted to the crop. Once again though, it was all about to collapse, quite spectacularly and in a remarkably short space of time. The cause: a fungal infection called hemileia vastatrix – more commonly known as coffee blight or coffee rust.

It was in 1869 that some of the minor, outlying estates first began to notice rust-coloured, dust-like patches begin to appear on the underside of coffee leaves. These patches would grow until in time the affected leaf would drop off. At first, the bushes seemed to fight off the fungus and stage a good recovery. But the disease returned the following year, and the year after, and each time the plant’s resistance was weakened and more and more leaves would drop. Yields would drop year by year, and eventually the entire plant, by now almost leafless, would perish.

Sri Lankan coffee beans for an aeropress

Good money after bad *

Despite this, the actual profits on coffee were still so great that many (rather shortsighted) investors continued to buy up huge areas of forest, clear them and establish plantations. So even though overall production was in decline due to the blight, more and more land was being turned over to grow coffee – a further 100,000 acres over the next few years.

It was hoped that the disease would go away, and that if they could hold tight for a few seasons they could (as before) ride out the storm. This proved to be wishful thinking, but for a time, the sheer amount of rainforest being turned into coffee plantations kept overall production bobbing along, and the high world coffee price meant there were still good short-term profits for anybody who could actually produce a decent harvest – at least, for a year or two.

But the blight got worse year after year, and spread from estate to estate. Many of the new investors found that, after a two or three profitable but worsening harvests, they were soon left with little more than acres of dead plants. With little or no coffee to sell, they were unable to pay their workers, and once again many estates were simply abandoned and left to return to scrubland.

An industry devastated *

The fungus destroyed over a quarter of a million acres of crops, and within a decade or so of coffee blight first appearing, the entire industry was pretty much finished. By some estimates there had been close to 2,000 foreign plantation owners and speculators living in Ceylon at coffee’s peak, most of them English, and three-quarters of them simply returned home, many in financial ruin.

Those that remained had to go through the demoralising and time-consuming task of uprooting all of the dead and dying bushes that they had so optimistically (or rashly) planted a few years before, and then of seeing what else they could do with the land. Bearing in mind that the land had often been expensively acquired and that great effort and expense had gone to clearing the rainforest for planting, they were understandably reluctant to give it up, despite the financial disaster it had wrought. Some dabbled with cocoa, but this too fell to disease. Then, finally, the solution was found: tea.

New hope – the rise of tea *

Tea bushes flourished in the climate and proved far more resilient than coffee, and between the 1870s and the 1890s, almost the entire 250,000 acres of coffee crops had been completely replaced by tea, and Ceylon went on to become one of the most important and profitable tea producers in the world for the next century and beyond. The era of frenzied Ceylon coffee speculation was well and truly over, and in popular consciousness largely forgotten – and the era of Ceylon tea was underway.

It is interesting to think that had there not been the “coffee rush” of the early 19th century, followed by the coffee blight meaning that a new purpose suddenly had to be found for hundreds of thousands of acres of expensively acquired land, the Sri Lankan tea industry may never have developed and certainly would not have become so dominant so quickly. Indeed, we may never have heard of Ceylon tea, in much the same way that few people today realise that “Ceylon coffee” was once a household name, just as much as Nescafe, Aeropress Coffee Makers or Starbucks are today.

Fortunes revived *

For those planters that stuck it out and eventually triumphed after it had all gone so catastrophically wrong, the story became seen in some quarters as a metaphor for British fortitude, enterprise and reinvention, with Arthur Conan Doyle for example referring to the replacement of the wrecked coffee plantations with tea estates as “as true a monument to courage as the lions of Waterloo”.

Today, while most agricultural land in Sri Lanka is still largely given over to tea production, a few small coffee estates are once again emerging, focusing more on speciality and higher-end coffees. Some of these coffees are beginning to gain a certain amount of interest and critical praise within the industry – a fitting footnote to the short but eventful period when Ceylon was a global coffee superpower, and when fortunes were made and lost, then made and lost – and eventually made again.