I had the pleasure of meeting tea vendors and Russian expats Valerii and Jane when I went to Chiang Mai. I had not been planning on any tea meetups on this trip, but Valerii happened to see I was traveling to Chiang Mai on Instagram and we met up for tea. Valerii’s family was very generous and we ended up meeting up a few times during my brief trip, including an outdoor excursion and tea session to the scenic Bua Tong waterfall. After we parted and he sent me home to Seattle with a ton of samples, we agreed to do an interview on the interesting niche he occupies, selling Thai teas.
Tea Side is a tea business run by Valerii out of Chiang Mai, Thailand that specializes in teas predominantly grown in Northern Thailand. Tea-Side is predominantly a wholesale business but does sell directly to consumers. The teas Tea-Side carries are mainly made as Chinese-style teas made for export..
When we met, you told me that you wanted to be involved in tea for a really long time. How did you first learn about tea being produced in Thailand, a place not exactly known for tea and a country without as much tea culture as other places in east Asia?
I have been fond of tea for a long time, long before traveling to Europe and Asia. As soon as I arrived in Thailand, I, of course, immediately tried some Thai oolong tea, bought in a tourist shop. And, like many tea travelers, I was not impressed. Some time later, friends invited us to a moto-trip to a small Chinese tea village for oolongs. I was skeptical about this idea, but decided to go with my family, just enjoy the beauty of northern Thailand. And here is something to see – mountains, canyons and rivers with waterfalls.
In the village there was a lot of flavored oolongs, which did not interest me at all. But, at the same time, there were some pretty good pure kinds and we bought few. Then, being already more enthusiastic, during a big trip around the north, we visited the tea mecca of Thailand – Mae Salong village. There are both, large tea factories and many small family productions, where the tea just occupies the first floor of the living house.
We planned to spend only a couple of days in Mae Salong, so serious tastings and excursions did not fit the trip plan. But thanks to the lucky circumstance, as it often happens, we met the right person. In a small restaurant, talking with the hostess, we mentioned that we are interested in really good tea. She said that, okay, tomorrow her husband will take us to the factory and everything will be there. And so, the next day, sitting in the tasting room, I realized that all the tea I tried before in Thailand should be forgotten. I understood, that the oolong I was drinking at that moment deserves to start a tea business.
Then there were many trips, travels, tastings – but that meeting was decisive for us. It all started with oolongs.
You’ve emphasized to me that Tea Side specializes in higher quality Thai teas and that most of the teas grown here are intended for mass consumption in other parts of east Asia. Most of these teas are of average or mediocre quality. We tasted a number of your teas and I found them quite good in quality and fairly comparable to Chinese or Taiwanese produced teas. I was really surprised to see there is also a wide range of teas, from pu’erhs to hong cha. This also included teas with very specific processing like Oriental Beauty and post-fermented teas like Liu Bao. Are all these teas being produced in the same general region of Thailand?
In Thailand, by and large, there are three provinces where tea is made: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. And in fact, these provinces form a single whole, having common borders. That, we can say, is all the Thai tea, the full range of varieties is produced in one place, in one small area. And this, indeed, is a unique phenomenon. Here you can find one farmer doing everything, oolongs, and pu’erhs, and black tea at the same time, since he has both oolong plantations and a piece of forest with old pu’erh trees.
Almost all Thai tea is exported to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Of course, the quality of tea in Thailand varies (like in China, Taiwan, and other countries). Good tea should be hunted for thoroughly in any tea country. My Russian colleagues, buying tea in the huge markets of Guangzhou, Beijing and other cities, often complain that quality tea, really interesting tea, is extremely difficult to find. So they go further, looking for farmers, travel a lot and try. I do the same here. Therefore, the assortment of our store differs from the tea in tourist shops.
I order samples from factories and teashops in Taiwan and mainland China from time to time. I do many parallel tastings to compare the quality and exchange a lot of samples with colleagues and friends from different countries – and I do not remember that I was ashamed of my tea. For example, some of our oolongs, made in Dong Ding style, claim a good, competitive Taiwanese level.
I think Thailand can be proud of its tea potential. We have unique varieties of old trees, aged up to 800-900 years. And I know, at least, three trees in Thailand, over 1000 years old. But, of course, to provide a high level of the collection, you have to search a lot, travel and try, as I said above. For example, we did not have green tea for a long time, I did not like anything. Truly quality green tea has appeared in our assortment only last year. Serious green tea connoisseurs sometimes call it the best in their collection regardless of the region of growth and style of production. Such feedback is very inspiring for further work.
And recently, an absolutely wonderful old trees Mao Cha from the province of Mae Hong Son came to me. By the profile it is similar to Bingdao. Deep, oily, very intelligent and smooth taste. For various reasons, it is very difficult to access to these trees. I managed to buy only 12 kg. Soon we will begin to press it and it will appear on our website.
THE CHINESE INFLUENCE
You told me that most or all of the tea is processed by Chinese immigrants or their descendants. The oolongs you sell are done in styles that are akin to Taiwanese teas, Dongding style, Oriental Beauty, Guifei Meiren, etc. How did this happen?
Chinese families currently living in the north of Thailand are descendants of the Kuomintang (KMT) party members. The main troops of this party after the communist Chinese revolution in 1949 were forced to move to Taiwan. Units of the 93rd Division, retreating with fighting, first went into Burma, and then, in the 1960s, came to Thailand. In the early 1970s, Chinese soldiers and officers helped the Thai government to contain and defeat the communist expansion in the north of the country and as a token of gratitude received the citizenship of Thailand. Thus, together with their families, they settled in the north of Thailand, in Mae Salong village.
Until the 1980s, in the Golden Triangle – an area where the common borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet – the production of opium prospered, in which Chinese immigrants were also involved. Mae Salong was one of the largest opium production centers. The famous small town of Pai (we lived there for three years) which is now a nice place where numerous music festivals take place, was a transit center for opium routes only 35 years ago. Now it’s hard to believe.
Then after some firm actions, the Thai government removed opium from the country and replaced it with tea production. For varieties and technologies, former soldiers of the KMT party turned to their colleagues and friends from Taiwan. Thus, in the early 80’s, the first Thai tea factories began their production of Taiwanese style oolongs. Thai terroir is ideal for Taiwanese varieties, in the mountains there is a lot of fog and sun, which allows you to grow really delicious tea.
In addition, Thailand caught and picked up the modern trend of organic tea. Since the cultivation of oolongs began relatively recently in Thailand, the mountain slopes suitable for growing tea here are not yet depleted, unlike many places in China and Taiwan. So for Thailand, it is quite easy to switch to organic tea.
To fight pests here they use various organic mixtures and mechanical traps. Some mixtures for repelling insects have been developing in family tea farms for years and their recipes are kept in secret.
Large factories already got a USDA organic certificate. Small family farms receive local certificates or work on trust, but they can always be visited and personally inspected about the organic production, which we do periodically.
And as a separate fortune, there is the tea green leafhopper in the mountains of Thailand that allows producing exquisite varieties of “Oriental beauty” – Dong Fang Mei Ren and Gui Fei oolongs. Such tea does not allow using pesticides by its technology, because it relies on the work of a small winged “pest”.
PU’ERH & HONGTAICHANG BRAND
You are also unique in that you deal a lot with the Russian tea scene but also with the English speaking tea scene. I think the Russian tea scene for both pu’erh and other teas is a lot larger than people in the English speaking audience realize. From what I’ve observed, the two tea scenes know of each other but don’t interact much. Do both groups like similar teas or have similar taste? What are some similarities and differences?
That’s true, the Russians are very fond of tea and are well versed in it. There are many specialists, many tea schools, even a “Tea Master Cup” – a competition, where young masters compete in the art of brewing, composition, and cupping. Now it is an international project. Moreover, many Russians regularly go to China for purchases, or even live there permanently, running a tea business. It is difficult for me to compare precisely the sizes of the Russian tea market with the world English-speaking one, but numbers can be comparable.
If we talk about the intersection of Russian-speaking and English-speaking tea audience, I would separately single out pu’erh. Pu’erh community is not very large and has an international character. And I think that the intersection of groups would be much more extensive if the overall level of English language in Russia was higher. That is the point.
All Russian tea consumers can be divided into three groups. The most numerous and unpretentious is the people of the older generation. They buy Indian and Ceylon black tea in supermarkets. And they brew it in a completely unique Soviet way. In a porcelain pot, usually about 300ml, they put ~10 g of dry tea and pour boiling water. After a few minutes, when the infusion gains the color of hei cha, 10-20 ml of this liquor is poured into mugs. Then they add boiling water to fill the mug, add sugar and drink with sweets, jam, honey, etc. The very strong infusion that remains in the teapot then can be used to make tea for the next couple of days. I used to drink tea that way all my childhood. Before there was a samovar to boil the water, but now it is already a historical artifact. By the way, we had an electric samovar in our house and sometimes we used it for large feasts.
More advanced group – as a rule, are much younger people – drink Chinese tea of mass production. They prefer ripe pu’erhs and different varieties of black tea. In Russia they call it in Chinese style – red tea (hong cha) – the name you meet in special tea shops and among advanced tea drinkers. At the same time, in supermarkets where Indian and Ceylon tea is sold, it is marked as black tea. This is a mixture of Chinese and Indian styles. In addition to ripe pu’erh and black tea, these people buy a few more oolongs that are very popular in Russia: Tie Guan Yin, Da Hong Pao, and so-called “milk” oolongs (oolong with artificial flavor Nai Xiang).
The third group gradually grows from the second. These are people, passionate about serious tea, tea history, traveling, collecting. I already mentioned them above. Representatives of this group are often included in the international tea community.
One brand that pops up all the time when it comes to older Thai pu’erhs, dating back several decades is Hong Tai Chang. You carry a few of these teas from the mid 2000s. It seems as if there were multiple producers licensed to produce tea under this label. How much do these productions vary in production & quality? For instance how similar is the 2006 HTC 0802 you sell compared with the Ming Dee from the same year? How does the licensing of this brand work? Are all the teas produced under this brand of Thai origin?
I should probably first say a few words about the Hong Tai Chang (HTC) brand itself. Few people know that the company Hong Tai Chang, founded in Ibang in the 30’s, developed into the first Pu’erh Empire of China and was the leader in the export of pu’erhs. And the raw material that was used by HTC was collected only from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. So the history of pu’erh style tea production in Thailand began much earlier than oolong. We are preparing a translation of a big article about the history of HTC and soon it will appear on our website.
Several factories in Thailand produce pu’erhs under the brand HTC. And now it’s hard to say which of them has more rights to this brand – the Chinese office of HTC closed in the ‘49th. Thai factories are trying to register this brand anew, there are disputes about this, as there are arguments in favor of different factories. I always try to take a neutral stance on this issue. It is more important for me to get high quality and interesting tea, to get more different tastes. So, I try to maintain good relations with all the producers. In the markets of China, there is also a young tea made from Chinese material under the HTC brand – that’s exactly the tea that can be called a fake. There is nothing, except for the cover, from the traditions of the famous brand.
About the difference in tastes. Sheng (Raw) Pu’er HTC 0802 by its depth, richness of taste and quality of storage can easily be compared with the famous YQH pu’erhs. In general, in its flavor profile it is close to pu’erhs from the Yiwu region.
The ones from the Ming Dee factory aren’t very similar to any particular Chinese region, it’s difficult for me to find a parallel. But undoubtedly, it is also very worthy pu’erh. If you remember, we’ve been drinking it on the waterfall in Thailand and did not have time to finish, it holds really many infusions.
YN HTC 2004 has a classical taste of old sheng. It tastes older, like the middle or the end of the 90’s. I can recommend it to aged tea lovers who value deep taste.
In a word, all our aged pu’erhs teas differ a lot from each other, which once again proves how much the style of processing and the way of storing can change the taste of tea for just ten years. By the way, Thai storage is very similar to Malaysia. Although, if the tea was stored for a long time high in the mountains, then the Hong Kong profile may appear, as in our loose raw pu’erh of 1980.
Thank you James for the deep questions and interest in Thai tea!