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These two subjects came up recently in an online social meetup with Rajiv Lochan – about teas made from “wild”-origin forest-source plants, and that of producers adopting and interpreting foreign styles of tea.  Problems can occur with both themes and approaches.

The range of both of these ideas and cases is all a bit complicated.  It can be hard to map out what is occurring or might occur related to using different types of natural growth plant sources or drawing on local tea processing styles, and draw clear lines in what is typical or acceptable and what goes too far in violating some type of norm.  We didn’t get very far with that discussion, so to be clear all of this is my own framing of a complex set of ideas, that we didn’t discuss in detail in that meetup.

Wild Origin Teas

It’s well known that wild-growing tea plants are common throughout Assam and other areas in India and in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.  These Assamica-variety plants aren’t closely related to Yunnan Assamica, or maybe even to plantation Assamica versions of Indian teas.  Due to interbreeding with other species of Camellia Sinensis, the range of what is growing can be inconsistent.  The typical understanding is that these plants are remnants of past use and intended planting by earlier people; not necessarily in ancient times, but at some point in the past.  Within that context the tea plants could be seen as feral versus truly wild: Untended but not completely naturally propagated.  All that could be clearer, and to some extent it doesn’t really matter.

Wild grown tea tree in a forest in Thailand

a forest-based tea tree in Thailand

One influential tea blogger has claimed that wild-tea-plant-produced beverages are better regarded as a tisane, not as true tea.  To me that goes a little far with applying category judgment; but I get it, and there’s a lot to that.  Processed version results are often inconsistent, just less so for Yunnan-based versions (or those represented as such).  Two of the main versions I’ve tried in Thailand ended up being quite sour, and then more other versions presented as such were not atypical of Yunnan Assamica plant based sheng pu’er.  I recently tried an Indian newly-created version of sheng, which was very unusual – as close to black tea in character as sheng pu’er.  It’s not “pu’er,” which is a region-specific type, but then sheng means “raw,” so as I see it using that term as equivalent to calling any tea black (relatively fully oxidized) – just a general description.

The Problem

So again, what’s the problem with “wild origin tea,” beyond someone preferring to keep the term and range of “tea” narrowly focused?  Inconsistency can be seen as a problem, for products to vary with changes in whatever happens to be gathered.  Some of the plants could really be Camellia Taliensis material, a version that’s around in Yunnan, or Camellia Formosensis, a “wild tea” plant in Taiwan.  Or something else, or a hybrid or mix of types.  It doesn’t seem to pose a significant safety issue (that a producer might be poisoning you) but just not knowing what a product essentially is can seem unusual.  Maybe to some extent there is a health risk to be considered; I can’t exclude that.

A table of different Taiwan tea cultivars

Maybe “Shan” versions come up most, not the Formosensis “wild teas” listed (source)

Adopting Foreign Tea Styles

Importing styles from one country or region to another is something else, raising a different concern.  Rajiv expressed how Indians producing something called Longjing or Matcha could be deceiving, whether or not location-based designation protection deems that unacceptable or not.  I completely agree.  

This reminds me of a very early experience with tea when visiting Vietnam, trying a version of Japanese green tea there, produced with Japanese support.  I’d be a better judge now of how close the style match was, but I bought some and drank it, and it seemed fine, or maybe just a little rough edged.  At the time I thought it was great that countries and cultures could influence each other like that, to share experience and technology.  Later, after thinking it through and being exposed to more background, I realized that it was likely that the tea was destined to be sold as being from Japan, regardless of where it was finally consumed.  That’s different.  The knowledge sharing and alternative product development steps still seem fine, but that last step not so much.

Can we say that Vietnam should not produce Japanese-style tea?  It’s not as easy to conclude that.  The toothpaste is definitely out of the tube in relation to Vietnam producing Taiwanese-style oolong, a lot of which is understood to return to Taiwan to be sold as Taiwanese tea back there.  It would be all the easier for Vietnamese-Taiwanese versions to be misrepresented in other countries.  In the North of Thailand you can buy the same Thai tea packaged as either from local production (what it is) or as being from Taiwan (what it isn’t).  That’s a hearsay-based account, to be clear; related to what has been passed on to me second-hand as vendor communication.  It doesn’t conflict with how other types of branded products are sold here.

Let’s set that aside, and consider that if every product is sold as exactly what it is, should India produce Japanese-style green tea or not?  It’s hard to find a broad enough justification to say no, but there are clear reasons for seeing that as a negative thing.

What about sheng (“pu’er”)?  As I see it we are onto a different kind of case, because at least based on my single related experience the resulting product from India couldn’t be presented as Yunnan true pu’er, even if one wanted to do so.  It’s too different.  Of course a variation of sheng made just across a border from China could be exactly the same as teas made a few kilometers away.

Hybrid Styles

So now we are talking about hybrid styles: About one region borrowing processing steps and final tea styles from another.  Is that ok?  To me it is, but I can relate to why some “purists” wouldn’t think so.  My favorite Indonesian tea producer, Toba Wangi, has moved to produce tea plant types from other places, made by drawing on foreign processing styles as novel new tea types.  I think that’s fine, but maybe not everyone else would.  It could depend on how the tea plants were obtained, and of course on branding / marketing claims.

Nepal tea being sold as Darjeeling is something else altogether; now we are back to a sort of counterfeiting case.  What about a Nepal tea being based on a Darjeeling clone, borrowing as much as possible from Darjeeling processing, grown in conditions chosen to duplicate results, but still sold as Nepal tea?  That seems less clear, and not as clearly ok.  And that seems much closer to what Vietnam is doing with Taiwanese oolong, since all of those steps and factors match in that case.  Even Taiwanese people are brought there to process the tea, per my understanding. As Chinese people are now, and have long since been, training people in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar to make pu’er-like tea.

Vietnam is different in this case; the tradition of making what they tend to call “sun-dried tea” is not new to them (or maybe really just translated to dried tea, per what I’ve been told).  Those teas have long since been bought and brought back to China to be blended into Yiwu pu’er versions.  Mind you Vietnam also makes a broad range of local styles that don’t exist anywhere else; their tea tradition is very diverse and developed.  Some of it is rustic and rough-edged, and some refined, distinctive, novel, and very high in quality.  Vietnamese teas don’t get the credit they deserve, but the more awareness and demand spreads the more pricing inflates, so it’s probably not a completely bad thing.

Concluding to Not Conclude

It’s hard to end either subject with a clear “in conclusion…” summary.  Varying experiences bring up different combinations of circumstances and final outcomes.  I’m probably a lot more open to producers using different kinds of tea materials and processing styles than some others would be.  I see it as a natural evolution.  The sustainability issue related to using currently growing, forest-based plants isn’t lost on me; one main (frequent) alternative is for producers to clear-cut forest sections for mono-culture tea production.  That’s not better.  Then, right up to the edge of tea version counterfeiting I’m fine with producers borrowing styles.

Borrowing tea type names is almost a different subject.  Should Thai producers be able to call teas Oriental Beauty?  If a type based on Yunnan sheng pu’er is made elsewhere, which is common, and pre-dated the current borders of China and the conventional name “pu’er” per my understanding, what should that be called?  Opinions would vary.  The point here was to raise these issues for consideration, for limited discussion, more than proposing my own take on resolutions or limitations tied to any of these themes.