“Smell the subtle aroma of tea as you step into the studio of Zen Ceylon. It’s inviting. I ask Bimal Fernando, the owner, if it’s an industry ploy to get the customer hooked and he looks at me bemused. His look tells me it’s not the case”
Zen Ceylon is all about tea, but with a twist. “The cup you want to wake up to in the morning can be created here”, says the affable Fernando who has just returned to Colombo from Dambulla after conducting a tea tasting session for a group of chefs from Sri Lanka’s big hotels. The studio is a small place where big things happen through a combination of a unique concept, innovation and revolutionized products. At Zen you can learn about tea, experience tea tasting, create customized tea and buy tea. It’s a wholesome experience and you don’t feel the time pass.
The walls of the studio speak to you about the story of tea. The shelves holds jars of black and green teas and blended ones with real mace and cinnamon, and which are not to be confused with flavoured teas. The place is kitted out with all the paraphernalia for tea tasting. Individual and corporate customers can come here to mix, match and create their own brew and seal it up with the array of packaging that is on offer. There are six types of tea, including blends, which are Zen Ceylon’s own brands that are used for the customized cuppa. The Marlboro Black is a low grown tea. from the Ruhuna, Galle or Matara areas, the Aromatic Black is a high grown from NuwaraEliya, Bliss is a black tea blended with cinnamon and Green Tea Gunpowder, a green tea. Two other teas, Amaze green and Amaze black, get their name Amaze because of the mace that is blended into them.
The tea that goes into the Zen product is purchased at the Colombo tea auction or direct from selected tea estates. For some time now Zen Ceylon has been pushing boundaries to introduce groundbreaking tea products to Sri Lankan and regional markets to put some oomph into tea. “Today, tea is about going beyond the regular kahatathé” (black tea ), says Fernando, who has years of experience in the tea industry. He first worked as a tea planter and then in the value added sector of the industry. Zen Ceylon was the first to introduce the “tea pearl” to Sri Lanka. This is tea in the shape of a tablet and wrapped in foil to retain freshness.
It’s for people who want to take the minimalist approach to tea drinking because all that needs to be done is to drop the tablet into a mug, pour boiling water and brew for the right time. Tea pearls are available in four varieties. There is green and black tea, black tea with cinnamon and Moringa (Murunga or drumstick) which does not have tea in it. Despite the initial reservations I had about it, after I had drunk the first cup, I almost reached for another. Moringa has multiple health benefits including lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Another product in which Fernando sees the future is the curiously named “Dragons Poo” because they resemble the real thing, These tea pellets are a hybrid of green and black tea which have been microwaved to take out the moisture. It tastes lighter than a black tea and stronger than a green. In addition to tea, Fernando has also branched out into products made with it. He pioneered the real tea shirt, a t-shirt made with tea stains which gives it a tie dye effect and created writing paper infused with tea and tea leaves. What defines Zen Ceylon is not just the difference in its product.
It is also the customer service. Fernando meets and greets the customer himself, taking the time to talk about tea and advice how the teas should be blended to bring out the best flavor. In between he offers leaves from speciality teas to chew on like the pale green Silver Tips I tasted, delicate in flavor but among the ten priciest teas in the world. He is meticulous to the smallest detail from the time it takes to brew the different varieties of tea, the slurping sounds during the tasting, the inspirational messages on the packaging which extol the virtue of the tea you are about to drink to the paper doily on the wooden trays the tea is presented. He arranges overseas deliveries, if it is the customers wish. The Zen experience is completed with a taste of world teas. In one corner of the studio a set of shelves is stacked with teas that are grown in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan to name a few. I tasted a black tea grown in South Carolina in the US which both smelled and tasted strong, another black tea this time from Australia and Rooibos, which is a drink made out of bark and is from South Africa. It tasted bland when I drank it black and was better with milk and sugar. This, I thought was the best.