Indochina’s less traditional tea producers raise their profiles

Wawee tea fields in Chiang rai, Thailand. Image courtesy of Barbara Dufrêne

Sharing some of the Eastern Himalayan foothills with tea giants China and India as well as Vietnam and Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – newcomers to the global tea market – are upping their profile and visibility. By Barbara Dufrêne

The Indochina peninsula has been home to many important Buddhist kingdoms governed by royal dynasties before being divided into British and French colonial rule in the 19th century, with only the Kingdom of Siam preserving its royal independence until today. After gaining independence and establishing their national borders, some of these new states faced decades of civil war and ethnic strife, which have hampered growth and economic development.

Today, the six states covering this area of Southeast Asia are: The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (still called Burma by some governments); the Kingdom of Thailand (formerly known as Siam); the Laos People’s Democratic Republic; the Kingdom of Cambodia; the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; and the Federal Constitutional Monarchy of Malaysia.

All have tea-growing areas, with Vietnam now ranking sixth in the world in terms of production. But it is the newcomers Thailand, Myanmar and Laos that attract interest today, with their significant potential for bringing increased volumes of quality teas to the market.

Thailand

With its tropical, fertile plains stretching south to the Gulf of Thailand, and its cool forests in the northern mountains, Thailand has abundant agricultural lands to feed its population of 67 million living on the kingdom’s surface of 514,000 km². Looking at a map, it is easy to see that Chiang Rai Province in the north, which borders both Laos and Myanmar, joins the foothills of the Sino-Tibetan mountain range, which is considered to be the cradle of the tea trees, the big leaf, ie assamica variety. In ancient times the leaf was harvested from the tea tree forest and chewed, not brewed.

Current tea production, however, was introduced only in the middle of the past century, when soldiers from the Kuomintang’s lost army, who could not return to Communist China, were allowed to settle in this area. They were part of the Doi Tung cultivation project, initiated by members of the Royal family, with the purpose to replace poppy farming for opium by perennial and clean crops, with a strong focus on tea. These military veterans were later joined by Chinese families migrating from close by Yunnan province, bringing along a lot of tea knowledge.

High level assistance was also provided to these lost soldiers of the Chinese nationalist army by the Taiwan Tea Research Institute, who offered scientific advice and botanical material, which resulted in a consistent commercial growing of high quality wulong teas. The similarities of soil and climate between Taiwan’s central mountain range and the Northern Thailand misty mountain area around Doi Tung and Doi Mae Salong, have allowed several Taiwanese cultivars to adjust extremely well. Over the years these teas have developed a specific terroir fragrance and have become highly demanded by Thai consumers as well as for the export market.

The local wild tea forests that continue to be harvested by the ethnic minorities have also yielded plant material for commercial tea plantations, which produce genuine Thai black and green teas.

During a recent tea convention, Dr Dittawat Steven Kaewkarnjanadit, chairman of the Tea and Chinese Culture Association of Thailand, made 2016 tea market data available:

  • Tea production amounted to 52,620 metric tonnes (mt), of which 59 percent were harvested in Chiang Rai province.
  • 82 percent of the tea produced is harvested from the camellia sinensis var assamica plants and 18 percent from the camellia sinensis var sinensis.

He also indicated that close to 19,000 mt of the teas were made into ‘chewing teas,’ an ancient and local way of using the leaves, which are steamed and rolled into ball-shaped pieces that are chewed for releasing the tannins, caffeine and other beneficial and tasty molecules to be ingested into the body.

During the Tea and Coffee Science International Symposium, organized by Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai in July 2019 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Thai Tea Institute, the issues of production improvements were discussed, together with ways of attracting more consumer interest, such as by means of ‘tea tourist tours’, in order to improve the awareness of fine Thai teas in the global market.

Myanmar

By far the biggest nation in southeast Asia with a land area of 677,000 km² and an estimated population of 56 million people, Myanmar or Burma has endured a long period of internal strife and military regime after independence from British rule in 1948. Tea is endemic in the north in Shan State. There, Myanmar shares borders with Thailand, Laos and China, thus accessing some parts of the ancient tea-tree forests, which constitute the cradle of the tea trees.

These main areas, where both wild trees and commercially grown bushes are harvested (mapped out by Will Battle in his monumental World Tea Encyclopedia), are located in the districts of Kokang, Kyaukme and Bhamo. Given the variety of plant material and the combination of traditional local and cross border Chinese processing ways, the offer is wide and one can find fine steamed green teas, some delicate white teas made from spring buds, as well as roasted green teas together with good black leaf tea and even some black CTC.

According to data provided by the Myanmar Tea Association (MTA) located in Mandalay, and via the chairperson Nyo Nyo Sein, as published by the International Tea Committee, Myanmar’s total tea production in 2017 amounted to 21,000 mt. This volume has virtually been the same for many years and it is shared out as follows: approximately 40 percent for pickled tea, 40 percent for green teas and 20 percent for black teas. Pickled tea, called Lahpet, is a preparation of steamed tea leaves made into a spicy dish, that is part of the daily food and provides all the benefits of tea to young and old in the plate, maybe in a somewhat similar way to the Thai chewing tea.

Most ‘tea travellers’ and those involved in tea sourcing consider Myanmar’s potential for growing more high quality teas as being significant. The availability of vast remote mountain areas with ideal climate conditions and which are by nature destined for organic cultivation is a major advantage. Appropriate finance and training investment could yield very attractive results, once the political environment has become inviting and fully secured.

Laos

This small and landlocked country with a surface of 237,000km² and less than seven million people is one of the poorest nations in the world, where several ethnic minorities share their true treasure, which is one of the richest wildlife on the globe. With high mountains and high plateaus mostly covered by original forests, Laos has a huge array of exceptional and completely unspoiled scenic landscapes. Gradually opening to foreign tourists since 1997, travellers have become a major source of income and are attracting investments for developing basic infrastructure to alleviate poverty.

Like its neighbours, Laos stretches from the northern mountain areas to the south, sharing long borders with Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. The geographical setup of the new nation at independence in 1949 confirmed the integration of Phongsali province into its lands, a territory that juts like a finger into China’s Yunnan, where it had belonged until 1885.

Hence, Laos also has access to part of the original tea tree forests areas, which is not only a valuable bonus for the local minorities but has been opening perspectives for some premium tea market niche operators. These old tea trees grow on steep hillsides and above an altitude of 1,400m; the very hardy pickings yield small crops of distinctive quality.

According to Will Battle, there are some spring plucks, which are made into artisanal white tea through a very careful shade drying of at least two days, and which offer a unique cup experience. There is also green, dark and black tea in Phongsali, made from old tree stock as well as from the first commercial plantations grown from their saplings, and which confirm the rich potential of the this very special tea terroir.

More commercial tea growing has been introduced in the south of Laos in recent years, in Champassak province, on the Boloven plateau, using the small leaf, ie, sinensis variety and industrial processing. There are no data available, but most Laos tea travellers agree, that there is room for much more volume, provided that better infrastructure and more training will motivate the local populations through more rewarding prices.

One may conclude from the above that there is a vast potential for valorising these ancient tea tree areas. After having been harvested for over two millennium by the local cottage industries in the Indochina peninsula, the outlook for developing the output of more good teas is bright.

There is also the issue of the “no name” sales that go to China, often on the jungle paths, from Laos, from Vietnam and Myanmar, and which demonstrate the high quality of these artisanal teas from unspoiled areas. Attracting attention to these untraditional teas, will hopefully bring more investment, better market access, and hence, more revenue to these rural tea villagers.

  • Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrê[email protected]

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