I presented about Thai teas at an unusual type of expat meet-up event in Bangkok a month ago, described here, and I just realized that I’ve never discussed Thai teas here on TChing.
I’ve been living in Bangkok for nine years now–the time just flies–and blogging about tea for three years. I was drinking loose tea for longer than that previously, with Thai oolongs as one cause for getting further into tea. The full story of Thai tea is too much to cover but here goes a start on it.
Modern Thai tea production relates to a government and Thai Royalty initiative to replace opium production with tea around 25 years ago, importing cultivars from Taiwan to be grown in the Chiang Rai area in the North. Those are typically processed into lightly oxidized rolled oolongs, as in Taiwan.
Most common are TRES cultivar #12 / Jin Xuan or #17 / Bai Lu (which somehow are typically marketed as Ruan Zhi, even though that’s a different plant type). More recently they also make some green and black tea versions from those, and Bai Hao / Oriental Beauty, and just a little hei cha, but not much else.
The older tea tradition is also interesting. Tea plants are growing here that are old; how old or related to what earlier cultivation history being a bit of a mystery, but I did go into that a bit researching a pu’er-style tea I reviewed from Myanmar. Chinese immigration to this area started some time ago, perhaps thousands of years back, so tea really could have been native to here or cultivated here a long time ago. Per an article cited in that post a trade route from China to India through this region went back to at least second century BC, maybe earlier.
It’s my understanding that Assamica-type based teas, mostly made into black tea, are most typically grown in the Chiang Mai area, representing most tea production prior to those recent oolong related initiatives. Of course, black tea is considered a newer development related to earlier forms of green tea, compressed tea, and powdered teas when one goes back far enough into tea history.
The typical question people ask is “what is Thai tea like; how good is it?” That’s too broad for one simple answer, but to oversimplify by a lot it’s ok (the oolongs), like tea from Taiwan, just typically not as good as lighter oolongs from there. Beyond that summary, things get complicated. The demand for tea is much higher in Taiwan, and it’s my understanding that some of the best Thai teas go there to be sold counterfeit as tea from Taiwan since the style is similar.
How do I know that? From hearsay, of course. It’s an idea that comes up a lot, related to both Thai and Vietnamese teas. One anecdotal confirmation came in the form a Tea Chat thread; someone visiting the north of Thailand recently saw Thai teas being labeled and sold as tea from Taiwan, with the vendor there openly confirming the true source. Odd, right, counterfeit tea being sold right where it was from, sold as from somewhere else? It would seem more natural for the teas to make that trip to Taiwan, and be sold from there, but of course I can’t even guess to what extent this does go on.
Part of the explanation for the limited range of teas produced is that Thais don’t drink much loose tea. That’s a very broad generalization, since some do, but most really don’t. People here typically have some idea what “oolong” is, so might be that slight margin ahead of many Americans in terms of exposure, but they tend to drink coffee or bubble tea instead.
Thai iced tea is an exception, a spiced blend not completely dissimilar to masala chai, just not the same. The characteristic orange color in the modern “Thai tea” version comes from food coloring. Per research more traditional versions might not be based on star anise, as they are now, but instead on blending crushed roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms with Assamica black tea (more on how to make a version here, and the history here). The other “traditional” Thai tea is black tea brewed and served with sweetened condensed milk. Again it’s hard to say what pre-dated that, before sweetened condensed milk became common; maybe just black tea with milk and sugar.
Conventional Chinese teas can be found in Chinatown, and of course, other people from other countries that live here bring their own traditions. Thailand has longstanding close ties with lots of countries and cultures, especially Japan. Lots of sections of Bangkok serve as immigrant neighborhoods and cultural centers, with the degree of influence limited by distance (not much of a “little Mexico” here).
Along with China, India influenced Thai culture the most, related mostly to Buddhism, and language and culture development, but that didn’t seem to carry over into much related to modern tea consumption. Beyond that, there is a wave of modern, new tea cafes opening in Bangkok, really only beginning in the last few years. To some degree, various floral and herbal blends are leading a new discovery of tea here along with matcha, but those are limited at this point, with matcha flavored ice cream a good bit more common.
Secondary concerns like diversity and selection of physical tea shops, online tea vendors, or number of tea bloggers all progress gradually. I post a good bit about new tea sources and cafes as I run across those but there’re not lots to tell. I found two sources for Sri Lankan teas in the last year, and although there aren’t many Thais drinking better Ceylon just yet it will continue to go like that, with greater exposure and demand leading to more options, with better domestic Thai tea production going along with that. Every new cafe pushes those boundaries a little bit more. Peace Oriental helped introduce high-end matcha appreciation and a Zen theme cafe environment (and the idea of a $20 pot of tea), Seven Suns is trying to expand on what’s going on with blends and “ordinary” specialty tea, and Peony is trying to make it all mainstream with mall shops. It’s an interesting time for Thai teas.
The evolution of Thai tea seems to run a similar course as it had in the U.S. It takes time for people to get comfortable with whole leaf tea. Once that happens however, the world will shift on its axis and never be quite the same. Thanks for keeping us updated about Thai tea in Thailand.
One interesting difference I didn’t develop in this post is the influence of Chinese culture here, which makes it all the more unusual that loose tea drinking isn’t common. It’s hard to estimate how many people are one or two generations removed from original Chinese immigrants but it would be a lot. In terms of deeper roots the Thai language is based on Chinese, and also Sanskrit, older Cambodian languages, and more original sources. There is a chance specialty tea demand may not get to where it is in the US now any time soon; wine, microbrew beer, and better ice cream essentially never did, although there are options for those here, and limited demand. Coffee is ramping up in parallel fashion, and international foods options are extensive, so it just depends.
I look forward to seeing how this will unfold.