This is the story of how a German translator and former beer drinker came to know and love tea … and became the owner of Siam Tee, specializing in the teas of northern Thailand. I’ve sampled several of these teas, and was so impressed that I had to learn more.
How did you get involved with tea?
Until just a few years ago I thought tea was something in tiny paper bags on the shelves of discount markets, in the kitchen cupboards of countryside grannies, and in Hollywood movies depicting historical British high society. I thought tea could be made from every fruit, herb, or flavour in existence.
My perception changed in 2009 when circumstances brought me to Doi Mae Salong, a town in the northern Thai mountains inhabited by ethnic Chinese who established the settlement in the 1950s. At one time it was an opium smuggling nest; now it was a real “tea town” with tea shops and a tea factory, and everywhere people calling you in to try their tea. Instead of poppy fields, tea gardens covered the surrounding mountains.
Having recently kicked the beer habit, I enjoyed strolling from one tea bar to the next, chatting with people while sampling and learning about their tea. I fell in love with the place, and I fell in love with tea – particularly oolong tea, which was galaxies away from what I had ever thought tea could be.
Tell us about Siam Tee.
Shortly after the events described above, I realized that although Thailand was barely on the radar in the West, including my home country of Germany, they definitely had what it takes to claim their place on the world map of tea. I partnered with a producer in Doi Mae Salong and set up an online store, Siam Tea Shop, to introduce the teas to Western tea lovers. This soon developed into a small but highly dedicated project, specializing in green, oolong, and black teas from northern Thailand.
Although by profession I’m a freelance translator, the Siam Tee project – which started as a hobby – claims an increasing amount of my focus and time, and has recently become profitable. Working with and making a living only with tea would be great, but I do have my translation business, which is not the worst job after all. So I’ll take it slow and see how things develop.
How involved do you get in the growing and processing of tea?
My partners have a long tradition and many years of experience, so I confine myself to the role of passionate observer. I do attend harvests and production cycles at my partner’s place in Doi Mae Salong as often as I can.
What is it about Thai teas that appeals to you?
I started with these teas a few years ago and am still learning their secrets; I suspect this will be a lifelong process. I do sometimes try other teas: Recently I spent a year in Germany with my wife and two kids, and often ordered teas that I was curious about, sometimes simply to compare them to “my” teas. Back here in Thailand, I just don’t feel any urge to source other teas for my own consumption.
Can you give us a brief history of tea culture in Thailand?
Thais don’t drink tea; tea-drinking in northern Thailand is driven by Chinese tradition. The Shan, a large ethnic group from China, brought their tea habits and knowledge with them, originally harvesting, processing, and drinking the wild mountain teas of the region.
Additionally, during the past eighteen or so years, the Thai Royal Development Project imported tea cultivars from Taiwan, along with Taiwanese experts to assess the local potential for replacing opium with more appropriate cash crops. Opium cultivation and trade were outlawed beginning in the 1980s, so they basically made a virtue out of necessity and developed what we know today as Thai tea cultivation.
What is different about teas from Thailand versus other teas?
As there is no tea tradition in Thailand, tea cultivation is derived from China and Taiwan. The Shan produce a pu-erh style tea from wild tea trees; green, oolong, and red teas are produced according to both Chinese and Taiwanese traditions.
One thing about tea culture in Thailand versus countries like India and China is that there are no fair trade issues here. In Thailand, just about everybody has enough to live on. I never heard a tea garden worker complaining about too low salaries, unhealthy work conditions, or anything like that. This is a very reassuring aspect for me.
Do you open the gardens to tea tourism?
Yes, definitely! Doi Mae Salong enjoys a perfect infrastructure for tourism, and tea producers are more than happy to show their tea gardens, production facilities, and processes. I have even developed a program for a dedicated “tea journey” to North Thailand with a professional travel agent. I will personally welcome everybody who inquires about a tea holiday in northern Thailand, and offer interested people whatever assistance is needed.
What is your favourite tea?
Oolongs. The specific kind varies according to the situation, from a light green oolong in the morning, to Beauty Oolong when I wish to honour visitors, to Doi Mae Salong Black Pearls when I want to impress someone with tea from northern Thailand. But definitely oolongs!
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