Ever heard of Thai Tea?

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When we think “terroir tea”, we think China, Japan, Taiwan, India… We think Wuyi, Fujian, Shizuoka, Puerh, Darjeeling. . .

Personally, when I hear “Thailand” in the context of tea, I think, at the most, of some leaves grown there and shipped to Yunnan to be pressed into cakes. But Thailand as a tea producing country, as a terroir with its own specificities… no.

But then here I am, since September 2021. Making a new home for myself in Chiang Mai, in the northern part of the country. One of my plans was to travel in neighbouring countries and meet tea farmers, to eventually add teas to my ceramic offer. But borders seem resigned to stay shut for some time still, and in the meantime I discover here a vibrant coffee culture, first class gastronomy, a taste for refinement and local and artisanal crafts. So I think: let’s see what is up exactly with the tea culture here.

Is there a local market for something other than this orangy beverage with milk and sugar called “thai tea”? Are there local producers who transform their leaves with craftsmanship in order for them to be drank in the gong fu cha style for example, straight and pure? Are there specific terroirs, local cultivars, styles I may not be aware of? Organic tea, wild tea, old trees tea?…

With these questions and a couple of clothes, I hopped on a motorbike and headed north towards the golden triangle. One name in mind: Doi Mae Salong.

From Chiang Rai – the northernmost city – a road heads straight up toward the Burmese boarder, where a band of land of a hundred kilometers of Myanmar separates Thailand from the province of Xishuangbanna, southern China (then Yunnan and the city of Puerh are not far). A little road turns left from this road, and climbs up in the mountains.

Doi Mae Salong is a region of hills and abrupt valleys, sparkled with tiny villages and covered in jungle. Buffalos crossing the road, barefoot kids playing, mandarin orchards, and then, tea plantations.

A Taiwanese immigrant population has mixed with the local tribes, and with them they brought a taste for green oolongs, knowledge of the tea making process, along with some actual plants. Are found in these gardens the typical taiwanese cultivars: Jin Shuan, Si ji Chun, Qing xin, Zing Xiang, Ruan Zhi, Ruby no.18, Chi Ye, and the famous Assamica breed, local natif of this part of the world.

In the small teahouses or directly at the producers, one can taste flowery oolongs like Dong Ding, Jin Shuan, Si ji chun, darker and sweeter oolongs like Bai Hao, Ruby oolong, black teas – often made out of the big leaves of Assamica of Chi Ye cultivars, or white teas like Yin Zhen, Bai Mu Dan… A couple of artisans, proud of their origins and knowhow, have guided me through their plantations and offered me their teas to taste.

A teahouse in Doi Mae Salong

I was overall very pleased with what I tasted. My experience as a tea advisor in one of North America’s most prestigious teahouses – Camellia Sinensis – allowed me to taste a lot of teas, and to taste the best of them. I don’t get impressed easily, and I dare to believe I am able to recognize a good tea. – although, the art of the tea chaser and sommelier appears to be more complex and subtle than anticipated. In short, I am happy I could answer “yes” to my question: is there great tea made in Thailand?

Doi Mae Salong, however, is not the only tea producing region in Thailand. Some plantations are found around Pai, some around Chiang Mai itself, and some more East, close to Laos. I have met, by chance, a happy family processing leaves in a small factory on the road to Pai, and tasted a great oolong from old tea trees as well as some sharp and wild black teas. I have met an expert from Darjeeling in a garden close to Chiang Mai, making white teas of a rare refinement (got him some international prizes) and some black teas in the Darjeeling fashion. And it’s only a start.

Tea in Thailand is actually, very much existing, and, despite being rare and original compared to what is found in neighbouring terroirs, it is promising a couple of surprises worth the detour. It is also vastly unknown and maybe unexplored by the western audience.

A plantation in Doi Mae Salong
Tea pickers in an organic garden in Doi Mae Salong
A happy tea chaser in Doi Mae Salong

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