Tasting Virgin White Teas. Handunugoda Estate. Galle Sri Lanka 

Galle is famous for its ancient historical Fort, sunny beaches, blue-green sea and kitsch temples. But I discovered another fascinating place to visit, the Handunugoda Tea Estate, home of the rare and real virgin white teas.

Located less than 30 minutes from the Galle Fort, the road to the estate is winding and circuitous, and if not for trusted Google Maps I would very well have got lost!  

Herman Gunaratne

But I make it in time to meet with an old friend and owner of this estate, the inimitable Herman Gunaratne, fondly referred to as the Prince of Ruhunu. 

After a chat over a perfectly brewed cup of Oolong tea, I follow Herman on a tour of the tea plantation that gained worldwide attention with the launch of the Virgin White Tea factory. As we walk across the tea fields, Herman starts by narrating the history behind the virgin white teas. 

An ancient Chinese tradition dating back some 4000 years ago, refers to a Chinese Emperor who employed virgins wearing soft silky gloves to cut the tea leaves with golden scissors into a golden bowl. The leaves, with the help of the divine wind, were dried naturally until ready to store. This brew was exclusively served in the Imperial Court and was, even then, considered particularly beneficial to health.  

Having heard of this tale, Herman did some research and discovered the artisanal manufacturing process of this exclusive virgin white tea and the rest is history!  

At dawn women wearing delicate gloves so that their bare hands do not touch the buds, carefully pluck the imperial harvest with scissors, taking care not to harm the delicate tea buds. The pluckers are carefully selected and trained to ensure their handwork is painstakingly precise and perfect.  

Whilst the standard tea-plucker on a tea plantation, could collect an average of 30kg on a good day, a specialized virgin white tea plucker would meticulously collect only 160g per plucking on a good day. Thankfully, Herman says, one teaspoon of this extraordinary tea can make at least three to four cups of exquisite white tea.

Drying the tea leaves

After plucking, these buds are dried under filtered sunlight ensuring the tender bud is never exposed to direct sunlight. When the bud is dried to perfection the tea is delicately packed by workers wearing soft gloves.  

Herman proudly tells me that apart from being the rarest tea in the world, it is also the world’s most expensive tea, fetching over 1500 USD per kilo. A lab analysis done by SGS of Switzerland reveals that ‘Herman Virgin White’ has an anti-oxidant content of 10.11%, which is said to be the highest naturally occurring content of anti-oxidants in any beverage. “Mariage Frères International one of the world’s most exclusive tea salons situated at Faubourg Saint-Honore in central Paris is currently the only store to stock Herman Virgin White tea. 

After the tour with Herman, I am treated to a delicious slice of chocolate cake and more Oolong tea at the charming tea house.

From here, I walk back down to the Tea Museum where there is a lineup of the finest teas from Handunugoda Estate, including the pick of the crop, the Virgin White Tea. It’s unique in taste and easy to identify because of its light colour.  

The Museum is also packed with merchandize comprising teas, accessories, and a collection of Herman’s books.  

GOOD TO KNOW: The tea tour is free of charge for everyone and takes about 2 hours to complete. 

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