Wild tea trees, Thailand’s edge in the global tea market

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I recently visited Taiwan. It’s only a 3.5 hours flight from Chinag Mai to Taipei, but the difference in both countries is greater than the short distance flight between them would suggest.

Taiwan is home to high mountains and lush jungles. Coming down from the air and seeing its peaks piercing above a blanket of clouds in the sunset, was a sight to behold. In Taipei, the air was fresh and brisk, and the sky stormy. A good 15 degrees less than in Thailand.

Taiwan’s geography proved ideal for a certain type of tea: oolongs. The elevation forces tea plants to grow slowly, and slower growth means denser aromas. This is because the leaf itself doesn’t grows as big due the slight stresses of elevation – oxygen levels and temperatures mainly – but the polyphenols – aromatic oils – inside it wont. Chinese settlers introduced tea cultivation in the 17th century to the island, and since then Taiwan has been a land of innovations and specialty.

Li Shan, Ali Shan, Hualien, Sun moon lake, Shan Lin Xi… were all familliar names for me, having yet never step foot in Taiwan. This is testimony to the reputation these terroirs have gained internationally. Teas like Dong Ding, Bai Hao, Baozhong, Ruby 18, Gaba Cha, are other famous examples.

Hell, even iced teas found in 7/11 convenient stores were excellent! Not to mention the Boba “bubble teas” made with real local oolongs… delicious treats.

Where Taiwan shines with well maintained clean cut plantations of highly studied and carefully selected plants, I realized Thailand shines in another way. A more rustic and grassroots way.

Where Thailand has a small amount of plantations – mainly found in the northern mountains – it has a lot of wild tea trees. Trees that are there just because they are part of the natural ecosystem since millennia. Never planted, never trimmed. For aged teas, this is an incredible asset, as wild plants are prized for the making of Puerhs and Heichas. They tend to offer a more complex flavour profile, and are tough enough to pass the test of time without fading. They are also more unpredictable, since every specimen is unique and its soil along with it.

For mass cultivation of distinctive and stable tea types, this is terrible, almost impossible actually. But for small batches of original and unique teas, when the right trees are found, sit’s quite great.

For example, I have tasted a tea from a certain forest close to Chiang Dao, processed like a young Sheng, that is one of the most surprising teas I ever tasted. After ordering a little batch, I was drinking it every morning, without ever having enough. A super light and refreshing tea, with a strong citrucy taste, not bitter at all… A winner of the lottery of tea trees in the wild. (Find this tea here)

In short, where Thailand really lacks its own unique large scale tea culture, it is still part of the orginial birthplace of the Camellia Sinensis plant, and its edge is in having a lot of naturally growing, century old, wild trees, sparkled in the Northern jungles.

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