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From Opium to Oolong – the success story of tea in Northern Thailand

by on June 20th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 90: Cha Nang Ngam Cing Xin Oolong

For the last two weeks in the Tea Club we have showcased Oolongs from Thailand. These are quite new to me, and it has been good to taste some of the range of teas available. Produced in Doi Mae Salong (DMS) in North West Thailand, close to the border with Burma and inside the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of opium production, they are the result of a comparatively recent project to replace opium with commercial tea growing.  Under the umbrella of the Royal development Projects, tea experts from Taiwan were brought to Thailand to assess the growing conditions and recommend tea cultivars. The teas themselves have been surprising, sharing their names with famous Taiwan varieties but very different in style. Last week we had a ‘Dong Ding’ that was high-roasted, and this week an ‘Oriental Beauty’ that was only very lightly oxidized and in the ball-style. They were provided by Siam Teas, a company set up by Thomas Kasper. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I am interested in people’s stories, so I decided to ask Thomas a few questions about how all this came to happen.

Thomas and some of his tea

Thomas and some of his tea

You obviously have a great love for Thailand. What was it that took you there, and to Doi Mae Salong in particular?

In 1991, when I first got to Thailand first as a 25 year old student, “getting stuck” there was just as much due to being attracted by the exotic culture, the warm and comforting climate and the general friendliness of the people as it was due to being tired of modern western culture and society in Germany. Though this perception has slightly shifted meanwhile, with Thailand not appearing that exotic after all these years, and the advantages of modern western civilizations best being exposed in the long term absence of the same, I still clearly favor Thailand as the place to live in the long run.

As for Doi Mae Salong, the Chinese mountain enclave offers a window to China and Chinese culture, as all the town’s inhabitants are of Yunnanese decent. Chinese is the most common language in DMS, with both the old and the younger generation being fluent in spoken and written Chinese. Road signs, restaurant menus, business names, everything will be in Chinese in DMS, food is Chinese, music listened to by the locals, TV stations via satellite, everything. In a way, this also means an easy option of escaping Thailand and the Thai culture easily without actually leaving the country, simply by taking the mountain road to DMS.

 

Doi Mae Saong Tea Plantation

Doi Mae Saong Tea Plantation

The change from opium to tea seems like a real success story. How successful has it been? How important is it to your attraction to the area and people?

This strategy has been 100% successful. Today, there is no more opium grown in north Thailand, except for a few poppy fields being maintained mostly for tourist and show purposes. Honestly though, farmers weren’t given an alternative, as the cultivation of opium poppies has been outlawed and the law being enforced by the Thai military and Royal Police with full force. Still, it needs to be said that especially the Thai king and the Royal family, through their Royal Project have done an exemplary effort supporting northern Thai farmers with the switch and provide them with hands-on support (options, crops, knowhow, financing, acreage and technical support) to manage the move.

 Having been here for so long, I have personally witnessed the damage done by opium and heroin addiction especially in local tribal villages in north Thailand, I havw always wishes they would have a place like age Brush in Virginia to recover. Now, they might produce wonderful tea, but 20 years ago they produced “China White”, the world’s purest heroin with an addictive potential that is beyond anything I can describe.  So, I definitely welcome the changes being brought about by the switch from cultivating opium and producing heroin to the cultivation and processing of fine tea. Moreover, I would probably not have become involved in tea at all without that presence of cultivation right on my doorstep.

DMS Teagarden

DMS Teagarden



Can you describe what is like to be there, in ‘tea town’? If tea is new to the area, how have people embraced it so quickly? You say that Thais don’t drink tea, but will that gradually change?

Doi Mae Salong is like a magnet for tea lovers, though one of many, of course… Everything in Doi Mae Salong is tea today. You will be called into about every second house to try their tea, when walking along the town’s main road, something people like me can always fill a day with. It’s not just the tea you are offered, it is the well-preserved Chinese culture (and Chinese tea culture, of course) surrounding it all that really overwhelms the visitor.

I am not sure whether Thai people will develop a tea culture, and actually I think they won’t. I mean, Germans haven’t, and Americans haven’t, at least not on a greater scale, and nor will Thais. In Thailand’s high society, there seem to be some people (especially men, rarely women) who have developed a passion for tea, but this is mainly restricted to Pu Erh teas, and at a closer look, most or all of these people have Chinese roots themselves, as is quite characteristic for a large part of Thailand’s business and political elites.
Can you describe a typical visit to a farm, or to a village? How big a part does tea play in their daily lives?

You can best imagine an individual Thai tea farm or village as being exactly like its Chinese/Yunnanese equivalent, or pretty much the opposite of the typical scene in India, e.g. Darjeeling. There are many family-level ventures with small and individually styled tea gardens. Most families will have their own production facilities and/or small tea factories and the life of everybody in a place such as DMS is centered around tea, as it is the main source of income not only for all those small tea ventures, but also for a great number of people living in the area, especially mountain tribes people, who collect their own, often wild tea and/or work as pickers in the tea gardens. Most of these small tea growers are organized in cooperatives, and I have the impression that the organization is looser here than in China, and that the cooperatives bring individual growers only benefits, without restricting them in regard to their own individual projects and market activities in any way.

 

There are many varieties of tea on your website. Who has developed all these teas? How much involvement have you had? Do you get to feed back reactions from customers?

As much as I’d love to gain any laurels in this regard, I have not been involved at all in the development of teas in north Thailand. In fact, this is owed much to the Royal Development Project. Experts from Taiwan have identified a range of suitable cultivars and have conveyed their knowledge about how to produce different types of teas from these. Basically, the whole portfolio is based on 5 individuals cultivars, one of which is the Assamica cultivar native to north Thailand, and the other four are the Jin Xuan Taiwan Oolong No. 12, Ruan Zhi Taiwan Oolong No. 17 and the (also Taiwanese) Four Seasons and Cing Xin (Dong Fang Mei Ren, Oriental Beauty) cultivars.

Though we do get individual customer feedbacks now and then, the best feedback you can receive is a returning customer. We have a great rate of returning customers, which speaks for our teas and sourcing method and the way we do our trade on the one hand and for teas from north Thailand in general on the other.

DMS Teagarden
What do you think is unique or special about these teas? What is their particular story?

As of now, great handpicked and processing quality is still a standard at least for the mentioned small family-level tea garden operators. Considering the leaf and picking quality and the high processing standards here, this tea is (still) coming at comparably low prices, making the ratio between price and quality worldwide quite unique, at least for the time being.
What is next for you?

I have experienced that being limited to teas from Thailand, with more and more competitors coming up that are doing more or less the same than I do, but without having to do much of the ground work, I have started exploring and venturing into teas from China. My current goal and activity is dedicated to the sourcing and offering top qualities of the most famous and popular Chinese teas, the “Great Teas of China“, at affordable prices. As a result, our offer of exquisite qualities of “Great Teas of China” is growing by the month. Then, of course, I will monitor the developments in Thailand, being convinced that this is still far away from reaching its zenith. As an example for this, I can already tell that some of the tea-producing Chinese communities in north Thailand have started venturing into Pu Erh teas, with quite promising results,  e.g. in Doi Wawee, a development that will soon feature at Siam Tea Shop.

 

It has been good for me to begin this conversation with Thomas, and of course I have many more questions I would like to ask. It is one thing to accidentally find oneself in a tea producing area, quite another to set up a business with the local tea community and promote their teas. If you want to find out more about the teas, there is a wealth of information on the website: www.siamteas.com

 

All images supplied by Siam Teas, and not to be used without their permission.

  1. Stephen says:

    It is good to hear of pockets of success in what must have been challenging circumstances.
    As for the tea, I am a fan of green oolong and this one has not disappointed although I think my wife is a little tired of listening to me slurping away.
    What has surprised me is last weeks tea, the Dong Ding Oolong. I was not expecting it to be my cup of tea but after only one brew I am wondering where that expectation came from. I do not think I have recognised cocoa nibs in tea before and it is just as the tasting notes say, intriguing.

  2. faizlimra says:

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