Pu’er Tea Sourcing Trip in Northern Thailand
After India, Thailand was our second destination in our 2022 sourcing plan. While our expectations were not as high as Northeast India, the tea growing areas in Northern Thailand has more in common with modern Chinese tea than with the Indian industry, which is an important factor while searching for Chinese-style tea making.
According to our research, numerous anicent tea trees were found in different locations in Northern Thailand, along the borders with Laos, Myanmar and China (although no direct border between the two countries). Ancient tea trees (Gushu 古樹) of up to 700 years old are a rare sight even in the most famous tea mountains in Yunnan, such as Mengku 勐庫, Xigui 昔歸, Mengla 勐臘, etc. We were very curious to know what kind of tea they produce in those places, their traditions and tea culture, and of course the quality of the tea.
A Thai-Chinese Tea Industry
During the Chinese Civil War in 1961 around 4000 Nationalist Party soldiers and their families, went south to Northern Thailand. (Source: 被蒋介石遗弃泰北的国民党残军生存实录). Northern Thailand was a convenient destination for members coming from Yunnan province, where mainly Pu’er tea is being grown and produced, and the Thai government provided them with support.
Photo taken by Nadi Biran in The Martyr's Memorial Hall
Those families have made significant contributions to the Northern Thai society and culture, especially in terms of agriculture and cooking techniques, while maintaining their political beliefs, cultural traditions, and religious practices. They have established their own communities in Northern Thailand and have already been living there for generations.
Naturally, one of the skills those Chinese new settlers brought was planting, growing, and processing tea leaves. Planting new tea plantations in an environment that has a lot in common with their birthplace across the border. The development of a local tea industry with its own identity was only a matter of time.
Since 1960s, Thai-Chinese immigrants have been producing pu’er and wulong tea in North Thailand, where they played an important role in the development of the local tea industry. Tea production is centered in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and along the border with Myanmar, where the cool mountainous climate and fertile soil provide ideal conditions for growing high-quality tea. (Source: 泰北茶房)
In recent years, with the growing interest in artisanal and specialty tea, the Thai tea industry has been undergoing a revival. Since our arrival to Northern Thailand in Autumn 2022, we immediately started experimenting with small-scale tea growers, different tea varieties and processing techniques to create unique and high-quality teas.
Doi Wawee – The Extension of Yunnan
Doi Wawee, also known as the Wawee Mountains, is a well-known area for growing ancient tea trees over 100 years old (gushu 古树) and producing pu’er tea, although it is actually a small town with less than 20 Thai-Chinese families. Despite this, the town reminded us a lot of Yunnan with its raw and wild atmosphere, especially when it comes to food. The Chinese influences on the local cuisine was way beyond our expectations. With skills that have been passed down through generations, the use of ingredients and the dishes presentation were almost identical to those of south Yunnan tribes, for a moment we thought we are back in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.
Left: Fresh baked Taiwanese mooncake | Right: South Yunnanese Hotpot
The Differences Between Chinese Pu’er and Thai Pu’er
One of our goals was to spot the differences between Chinese and Thai pu’er tea, what was inherent from Yunnan and what is genuine to the local industry in terms of agriculture, tea-making techniques, and consumption culture. Throughout 3 weeks we studied the area, the tea growers and their community, seeking for true identity of tea profiles that represents the terroir and their heritage the most.
As we drove to Doi Wawee, we saw countless gushu tea trees which were obviously planted artificially in a specific order which resembles a tea plantation. Judging by the width of the trunks, many of the trees were easily over 500 years old. Even in our sourcing trips in Yunnan, it's rare to see such a huge amount of gushu trees in one place. This scene heightened our expectations for Thai pu'er.
During our tea tastings with a few tea farmers, we mostly tried young sheng pu'er maocha 毛茶 (fresh loose leaves) and white tea. However, no matter how many batches and brews we tried, the teas were mostly lack of qi, body and taste. The tea liquor looked pale, lack of color and hao 毫 (tiny hair left on the dried leaves). Reaching high tones of tasting notes or huigan was out of the question in most cases. Initially, we thought that the development of Thai pu'er might be different from Chinese pu'er, and we even tried brewing longer or using more leaves, but the results were overwhelming and unbalanced.
At this point we were very confused. Although the farmers have been making tea for generations and have access to extremely gushu materials, we are left wondering what is really happening behind the scenes.
As tea sourcers focusing on small scaled farming and boutique batches of tea, the small village ran by few families felt familiar and promising. What happened next we didn’t see coming. For the first time we witnessed a huge mass production of tea leaves in very small factories. So small, there wasn’t even enough space on the surface to wither all the leaves evenly. The picking standards were so random, we identified sets of 1 bud 7 leaves, generally not suitable for pu’er tea making, with the exception of lao huang pian 老黄片 which is still off-standard in China. However, even huang pian pu’er is not treated the way those leaves were stacked together in every step of the process.
The farmers talked about producing hundreds of kilograms, even tons from a single garden. In order to maintain the demand, the tea trees are over plucked 3-4 times a year, regardless of the type of tea or the season. What was even more shocking is to realize that those gushu leaves were sometimes sold so cheaply only to be used for commercial tea supply, including Thai milk tea or bubble tea, simply because of their low value in the market.
In order to produce high quality tea we have to know the limitations of nature and monitor it. That’s not only our job as tea makers and traders, but also our duty and responsibility to nature as humans. Picking the wrong leaves only to make a batch larger or heavier, affecting the trees and the growth of future leaves in a way that it will require several years to restore them in order to produce high quality tea.
Extremely long period of withering in the middle of the night, with too many tea leaves piled on the same cloth which will cause inconsistency and poor quality tea overall
The Open Secret of Gushu Pu’er Tea Industry
Regarding a country without gongfu cha culture, we delved deeper by speaking with various tea farmers, trying to piece together the puzzle. In recent decades, Chinese people have developed a strong desire for gushu pu'er tea with many ancient tea trees cut down long ago or forbidden for plucking by Yunnan government to preserve nature. The gushu tea plantations were left by a minority group that originated from Yunnan at least 700 years ago. In the 1950s, Thai-Chinese businessmen purchased lands and established their tea empire, according to one of the pioneers in Wawee mountain village. Not only do they have access to a significant amount of gushu materials, but both sides also share the same language and tribal culture, which is a great advantage in terms of business development.
Gushu tea trees in Doi Wawee
That being said, tons of pu’er tea and maocha leaves were sent by tracks from Thailand to Yunnan through Laos, where they are blended with original Yunnanese maocha in big factories. Of course in Yunnan, tea suppliers won't mention anything about the leaves originated from Thailand, while in more industrial areas as Menghai in Pu’er district, blending outsourced maocha with local ones became acceptable for shu pu’er making. In addition, due to COVID, Thailand's fragile pu’er tea industry has been hit hard for three years in a row. As we were told, the Chinese market is the biggest source of income for the Thai pu’er tea farmers.
The Consequences of Mistreating Tea Trees
Overplucking 3-4 times a year seems to be the common standard in Doi Wawee. A gushu tea tree can be plucked for making pu’er in Spring and Autumn, and even in Winter sometimes, while water tea 水茶 is produced in Summer for commercial use. However, this practice leads to tea of poor quality and low market value, lacking vitality and character.
Although some farmers are aware of the issue, there are more internal problems that are too complicated to be explained in few words. "It's very hard to instruct the tea pickers to pluck the right amount of leaves. Since they get paid by the weight of the leaves, I also raised the salary to get 1 bud 2 leaves, but I always end up with 1 bud 3 leaves, 4 leaves every single time. If I ask for too much, they will be annoyed and work for someone else. It's out of my hands," one of the farmers told us. According to the farmer, tea trees are often being mistreated for unknown purposes. At this point we realized the struggle of the farmers is more than meets the eye.
Left: Ancient tea trees (gushu) trimmed unprofessionally with no particular purpose
Right: 1 bud 5 leaves non-standard tea plucking
If it is hard to control the plucking process, what about the tea sorting? We asked one of the tea producers. "Well, tea sorting would require much more time and money to get it done," he said. During the meeting, Nadi tried sorting the leaves himself to see if it makes any difference in the profile. Despite the tea being made by skillful tea makers, and after resorting the leaves before brewing them, the flaws in the tea were too present which affected the taste, texture, and the overall quality of the tea. In terms of size and weight however, the difference between a sorted batch and an un-sorted one, was too obvious to ignore concerning the lower leaves of ancient trees are huge, therefor more profitable.
Left: Nadi is re-sorting the leaves Right: On the scale are the re-sorted 1 bud 1 leave. The leftovers are left on the table
Karma – what goes around comes around
On one hand we learnt a lot, and it was worth going to see another side of the Pu'er tea industry. As our journey continued, we were finally able to lay our hands on over 20 years aged materials, before the industrial wave of commercial tea in Thailand. Those batches, if picked and processed with care by experienced farmers, can be very good for drinking and suitable for aging. We actually grabbed a small stock of an amazing vintage Wawee aged sheng cakes which will be released when the time is right.
This year in Israel is a "sleep year" (שנת שמיטה). Since biblical times, Jewish people let the plants rest every 7th year without plucking any leaves or fruit whatsoever. This tradition is kept in most areas in Israel until today, for any kind of agriculture, and is known as one of the secrets for the extremely high quality fruits grown in the holy land, such as dates, watermelon, figs, pomegranate and citrus.
This sourcing trip had a profound impact on me personally. As I conclude this article, I find myself contemplating the consequences of our actions when we extract too much from nature. As tea vendors, we have the power to select suppliers who align with our beliefs. While our individual choices may not have an immediate impact on the whole tea industry, they allow us to voice the true story and raise awareness about environmental considerations when making tea purchases. Hopefully, over time, this will garner greater attention and encourage more responsible choices.