In the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, opium was the dominant cash crop up until about 20 years ago. Today the hill slopes around Doi Mae Salong and Doi Wawee are covered with tea gardens.
But Thailand is not one of the traditional tea growing nations, and in fact, tea has not been part of the culture for the Thai people.
This ex-opium growing region was part of the notorious Golden Triangle – a major opium producing area spanning the South East Asian countries of Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
As part of the Thai Government’s crackdown on the illicit drugs trade and production of opium, people in these mountain areas had to find alternatives to generate income. There are various crops that are now grown in these hills, but tea was a natural choice for a number of reasons.
The tea connection
These townships are home to Chinese migrant populations, who fled China during the Cultural Revolution. China, as we know, is the home of tea. The connections to China and the centuries-old knowledge and tradition of tea cultivation and production proved valuable in making this transition.
Not only was there this connection through the traditions of these communities, but the terroir is ideal for growing tea. Elevations range from around 1200m to 1800m above sea level, with cool temperatures during winter, and substantial rainfall and warm temperatures during the summer months.
Conditions in fact, are not unlike those found in the mountains of Taiwan – and it was from Alishan, perhaps the most famous tea growing area in Taiwan, where the tea plants that now grow in Northern Thailand were imported.
So, not only did these new tea growers have access to Taiwanese tea cultivars, but also their know-how. It is not all that surprising that the connections between these populations exist given the level of mainland Chinese immigration that occurred also to Taiwan during the cultural revolution.
What were the results?
This ‘new’ tea growing region has achieved great results in a relatively short period of time, given the access to tea-making skills and traditions from China, fine tea cultivars from Taiwan, and optimal terroir.
The region produces many of the classic Taiwanese oolongs, such as Oriental Beauty, Dong Ding, 4 Seasons Oolong, Oolong #27 and Oolong #12. They are produced in the Taiwanese ball-rolled style, with modern state-of-the-art processing machinery.
Interestingly, I have found that the teas generally steep best at temperatures around 70 – 75° C – as opposed to many other oolongs that steep around the 85 – 95° C mark.
Greens and Blacks
In addition to their oolongs, I have found some remarkable characteristics in the green and black teas.
The Green Pearls is a ball-rolled green tea. Like a Taiwanese green tea, we can tell that it has been produced from an oolong cultivar as it has a sweet, sugar cane finish. It is also very clean and clear, and its savoury notes are surprising. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt anyone’s interpretation of those, so I will let you see for yourself and welcome feedback!
The Cha Khao Hoom or rice tea is equally surprising and complex. This tea is infused with fresh jasmine rice and a wild Thai herb. A popular point of reference people have for this tea is the Japanese Genmaicha – however it is very different. First, the rice flavour is of freshly boiled rice rather than toasted rice, and it is infused so there are no rice pieces in the tea. It has a wonderful combination of sweetness, savoury and astringency, with the aroma and flavour being as different from each other as they are pleasant.
The Black Pearls is a black ball-rolled tea that has an intense fruitiness combined with burnt sugar or caramel. Again, similar to many of the Taiwanese brandy or dark oolongs, but with its own distinct taste of ‘Northern Thailand’. This tea can be found on the menu at Vue De Monde.
What is Shan Tea?
The Shan Tea is, in contrast, produced by native hill tribes, who migrated to the Northern Thai-Burmese border highland regions from China centuries ago. The Shan people collected leaves from a wild-growing, large leaf subspecies of the Camellia Sinensis plant, and used them to make tea. The Shan tea is unique to this region and this population.
The Shan tea is produced using Pu-erh style processing methods and is completely natural and organic. Its flavour unsurprisingly is of a young Pu-erh –woodsy, earthy, smokey and peaty. It has been described by one faithful drinker as being like Scotch – and great for a late night nightcap!
Commercialisation of the Shan Tea has provided a new income source for the hilltribe population that produce it.
The Green Pearls, Cha Khao Hoom, Black Pearls and Shan Tea can all be found in the Northern Thailand section of the online shop.