Posted by DaddyBird
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting the founder of Dilmah Tea, Merrill J. Fernando, and his son Dilhan Fernando. For me, as a lover of tea in general, and a daily drinker of Dilmah tea, this was rather like getting to meet Steve Jobs.
My affection for tea by Dilmah started just a few years ago. Having grown up in the USA where good tea is generally difficult and/or expensive to obtain, after we moved to the UAE in 2008 I relished living where really good tea is a staple of everyday life. A visit to the average grocery store in the region reveals a coffee & tea aisle that usually has more tea than coffee, and even the cheapest and most humble brands tend to be very, very good. So, as the Mrs. can attest, I’ve taken great joy in randomly trying out various teas from the multitude available here. I am rarely disappointed. Although the flavor and character can vary quite greatly, the average quality of packaged teas is quite high. Moving to the Eastern Hemisphere has been quite beneficial to my tea-swilling.
On a work day about four years ago, I ventured from the office I was working in at the time to a nearby market and, as I always do no matter what items I may have entered the store for, I quickly perused the tea aisle. The packets of Dilmah “Ceylon Gold” tea caught my eye, as it was a label that I hadn’t seen before. A new discovery is always welcome, so I cheerfully purchased a box of 50 tea bags, headed back to the office, and immediately turned on the kettle on to try my new discovery. The aroma of the tea as it steeped was very promising, and after a few minutes I had a revelation: this was the best tea that I had ever tasted. It was hearty and complex, with satisfying flavor from beginning to end of a sip. I was, by then, used to finding satisfaction in teas from Ceylon, but Dilmah Ceylon Gold topped everything I had tried up until then.
Naturally after that first cup, I kept an eye out for Dilmah Tea while shopping, although it wasn’t so common in grocery stores. I was interested to find that while my introduction to the brand had been with a box of inexpensive, fairly basic tea, Dilmah was more frequently to be found at finer hotels and restaurants. Dilmah produces a wide variety of teas of many grades and styles, which are rightfully considered to be among the best available, so I think it only fitting when I find it served at upmarket venues, and I’m glad for their growing success in this area.
But my tea tastes are rather basic. More delicate and “refined” teas are enjoyable, but for my main cup I prefer something hearty, a tea with plenty of strength and character. So while I enjoy trying Dilmah’s more high-end offerings, such as their Single Estate teas and herb infused tea, the Dilmah Premium Ceylon, which seems to be their standard offering that is on grocery shelves these days, stands out to me as the best choice for my daily cup.
After getting hooked on the tea, it was both surprising and rewarding to find that Dilmah is no ordinary company. Dilmah was founded by Merrill J. Fernando, a native of Sri Lanka, not just as a business concern, but to fulfill Mr. Fernando’s passion for quality, honestly produced tea as well as for compassion to his fellow man. When he entered the tea business in 1950, Mr. Fernando was chagrined to find that a great deal of the business had little to do with the production and origin of the tea, and was much more concentrated on the blending, packaging, branding and marketing done by the major corporations. Likewise, the profits reaped from these endeavors went mainly to the traders and distributors, with only a tiny fraction going back to the farmers, pickers and packers who spent great effort on a daily basis to produce the fine tea that was simply a commodity to the the outside world.
And so, Mr. Fernando worked hard for many years to become successful in the tea industry, until in 1988 he was able to establish Dilmah- named after his sons Dilhan and Malik- a company dedicated to honestly growing, preparing and distributing single origin, 100% Ceylon tea. Just as important to Fernando as producing honest tea was to do so ethically, sharing the profits with those that worked so hard to grow and pack the tea. The fulfillment of this obligation eventually led to the creation in 1999 of the MJF Charitable Foundation, to oversee the many projects he had created to benefit Dilmah’s employees, as well as the general populace of Sri Lanka.
Learning of the company’s background, I found Dilmah tea to be something that I could not only enjoy, but could also feel good about drinking. So when our friend Mita contacted me and asked if I wanted to attend afternoon tea with the founder, I dropped everything and made the trip from Fujairah over to Dubai.
The father and son behind Dilmah Tea were in Dubai to conduct the latest editions of Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, a series of events which challenge teams of chefs to create High Tea dishes that are paired with specific teas. They had held the event in Dubai the previous day, and would be doing the same in Abu Dhabi the next. The practice of pairing wines with foods is well known, of course; now Dilmah is advocating the same with fine tea in order to create memorable High Tea experiences. As a tea lover and amatuer cook this sounds quite sensible and fun to me.
It was really a delight to get to meet Merrill and Dilhan Fernando. I and a few others had the privilege of sitting around a table at Amwaj restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai to chat with them and hear about their goals and experience with the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge as well as their business philosophy. I had read the account of Mr. Fernando and his company, of course, but naturally it was much more interesting to hear him recount it himself, with many personal insights and details added. Mr. Fernando’s passion for tea and for making the world a better place were quite palpable. What to me was already an admirable person and story became even more inspiring.
Also in attendance was Chef Bernd Uber, who serves as Presiding Judge for the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge. He gave mouthwatering accounts of the fine pairings of Dilmah tea and creative dishes that have been developed by the chefs participating in the Challenge. He also spoke quite of admiringly Mr. Fernando, his family and company, which the chef has been collaborating with for several years now.
Quite naturally, the occasion was capped with afternoon tea, including a selection of treats provided by the restaurant and a wide variety of Dilmah teas. Although many tea and herbal blends were on offer, I stuck with my preference for ‘straight’ tea, sampling the Oolong and “Brilliant Breakfast” teas.
I was pleased that Dilhan expressed enthusiastic approval when I mentioned my daily preferred tea preparation: simply a large mug with three bags of Dilmah Premium Ceylon. Apparently, he likes his tea very strong too!
Previously, I already would have happily recommended Dilmah Tea to anyone who would listen. Not only is it consistently great tea, but the family-run company itself is an all-too-rare example of an firm that one can be unabashedly enthusiastic about. In times when the vast majority of goods that we depend on are produced by giant corporations with often shady practices, having a choice that offers both quality and good ethics is a relief. And now, having met and spoken with the founder, I feel even more enthusiastic about recommending my favorite tea.
For more information, see these sites:
Dilmah Tea – http://www.dilmahtea.com/
The MJF Charitable Foundation – http://www.mjffoundation.org/
Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge – http://realhightea.dilmahtea.com/