When you think of tea and of countries where it is grown, Thailand may not even be on the list. However, teas from Thailand are becoming better known to those seeking out something new to try. Whether they count as “rare teas” or not I’m not sure, but production and export are fairly limited at this time.
Thailand and the Thai people traditionally don’t have a tea culture of their own, but there are a number of ethnic Chinese and also the ethnic group called the Shan in the region; plus, there is a local, large-leaved sub-species of Camellia Sinensis (aka “the tea plant”) that grows wild as trees in the area. A more formal growing of tea is relatively new to the country, starting in the 1990s as a replacement for the opium they had grown for a long time. Other crops are also replacing those poppies: fruit, nuts, vegetables, and even coffee.
Tea growing seems mainly confined to the northern region of Thailand next to the Yunnan region in China, where some of the finest teas come from. This region has undergone political turmoil over the centuries but at present seems to be pretty peaceful. They have a king who was instrumental in promoting tea as an alternate crop to the opium. This was readily acceptable to the ethnic Chinese and Shan peoples in areas like Doi Tung, Doi Mae Salong and Doi Wawee. Real tea growing success, though, came when tea plants from the Alishan mountain region of Taiwan were imported and cultivated. Formosa Oolong tea species, primarily a couple of hybrids known simply as Nos. 12 and 17, were found to thrive in the area and produce teas marketable outside the region.
I recently had the great pleasure of trying some teas from a guy in Germany who specializes in teas from northern Thailand. That guy is Thomas Kasper, and his company is Siam Tee. This approach to tea selling seems to be a growing trend: small tea vendors who carry some really special teas. Tea is a burgeoning industry and the market is growing here in the U.S., but standing out in the crowd is tricky. For Kasper, it means a lot of contact time in social media sites.
One of the teas I tried was classified as a black tea (fully oxidized) which has an aroma and flavor very reminiscent of Ti Kuan Yin Iron Goddess Oolong despite being a black tea, a second tea was classified as an oolong (semi-oxidized), and the third as a pu-erh style tea with an earthy quality due to charcoal roasting. Oolong is the most common style of tea produced in Thailand, due to the Formosa Oolong tea plants brought in from Taiwan, but green and black teas are also produced there. Annual production is said to be 200 tonnes, but only 30% of that is exported, mainly to Europe and Dubai.
If you’re looking for a slightly different tea to try, go for a tea from Thailand. Your tastebuds will no doubt be pleasantly surprised.
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