A Monsoon Tea Adventure
I love tea and have been curious about it for some time. So, when I saw announcement for a three part tea work shop at Monsoon Tea right here in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t miss it. I lived in San Francisco for many years, there are many shops in China town that sell tea but few opportunities to taste tea and learn about it. There was one place I used to pass with an inconspicuous door on a side street in the Nob Hill area with a simple sign that said Tea Society. There were no windows and the door was always locked. I could only guess it was a private association for tea purveyors. No admittance for folks like me.
Sometimes when you stop looking for something it appears. Now I am in close proximity to the tea growing region of Thailand, the opportunities are at my back door. Monsoon Tea is neither dark nor windowless. https://monsoon-tea-company.com/ It is a welcoming shop just across the Ping River from the old city of Chiang Mai. Our three part workshop was to start at 10:30. I was greeted with refreshing glass of tea infused with ginger and peach and escorted to a comfortable indoor seating area across the way with an outdoor patio, and a small shop with tea and accoutrements. Inside the air conditioned tea room there were more shelves of tea, a counter for ordering tea on regular days, and more decantered tea for refills. The few people who had arrived ahead of me were spaced out around the room. I spied a table that had three individual seats and took the remaining one. The other two people were seated well apart and not engaged in conversation, so I judged the were not together. As soon as I sat down, they gave me the evil eye. I guess I was wrong about that. All the other tables were larger and I had thought to leave those for groups of people who where together. But now I chose the one most isolated and sat back to observe. It it was an interesting mix of people. I could hear a couple of European languages being spoken, as well as English. This wasn’t going to be an event invaded by cliques of digital nomads. The nationalities and age groups were well divided. Everyone here was interested in tea. There was no scent of trendiness.
After a few minutes another lady who was “on her own,” as they say here, came and joined me. We had an enjoyable chat while waiting for the first workshop to start and shared notes on the workshop activities, which we both enjoyed, as we shared a ride back to the city at the end of the day. When living in a foreign country, you never know when you’ll make a new friend. Just be ready!
The three sessions were to be divided among three different presenters. The participants were divided in three groups and we each attended the three presentations in a rotating order. One of the presentations was to be done by a group from the Miang hill tribe who provides the wild tea for Monsoon Tea company. It’s a long journey from the mountains and they were running a little late. But no matter, this is Thailand. Things usually start a little late. We were provided with more tea and soon it was time to begin.
My group started with kombucha. This is a fermented tea drink that started in Korea. I lived in South Korea for about five years, but had not heard of it until recently. I knew it was fermented but had never tasted it. An entire team was waiting for us in the same room where I was originally greeted. We were served a cool kombucha cocktail of kombucha, soda water, lime, and mint. This was a good way to introduce the drink. We got a taste of it, but it was not too strong for the first time. We were then given the history of this fermented drink. The Koreans are famous for fermented foods, so it was no surprise that they invented this unusual fermented tea. The Kombucha available at Monsoon Tea is non-alcoholic and exported to other countries. Although it is a simple process and some of my group were actually making it at home, I don’t plan on making it in my one room apartment.
Making kombucha is much like making yogurt. You have to either ferment your own starter scoby (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) or acquire one from a store or a friend who makes kombucha. Then you combine it with a mixture of water, tea, and sugar. There are easy instructions on the internet. Start with this one to make the scoby and follow the link on the page to a recipe of the completed kombucha. http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-your-own-kombucha-scoby-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-202596 It’s fairly straight forward. But the shelf life is short, so you have to be a regular kombucha user to make it worth while to make your own.
I do admit I have become a fan. I like the zing of the slight carbonation and the way it adapts well to mixing with other drinks.
Our next presentation is with the Miang people. There was a man and woman speaking in there native language and another man who interpreted in English. We learned that the natural tea tree grows very tall and the top leaves are the ones best for use in tea. They also use the lower leaves in cooking, so the tea tree provides a stable part of their diet. In order to more easily harvest the trees. Some are cut down to about a meter high, while surrounding trees are left at full height to provide forest shade. The top three leaves of a branch are picked for use in tea and lower leaves are used in food. We tasted a traditional treat made from tea leaves and sweetened with coconut and wrapped in palm leaves. I quite enjoyed it and imagined it taking the place of some of the more processed treats I am in the habit of eating. But no, there are no preservatives in their food. So, you can only get it from Miang people. We were also offered three tea dishes at lunch. There was a salad with tomato and cucumber, a tea and rice dish, and fried chicken with a crunchy tea leave coating. This luncheon, too, made this event extra special because the food was from traditional Miang recipes and not likely to be found anywhere else unless you visited a Miang village.
The science and tasting of tea
Tea tasting is akin to wine tasting in so many ways. There are basically two types of tea plants. The natural or original plant commonly known as Assam, is found mainly in India, Myanmar, and Thailand (Botanical name:Camellia Sinesis Assamsica). While, the cultivated or domesticated plant which originated in Taiwan (Botanical name:Camellia Sinesis Sinenis) is the one found in plantations throughout Asia . From these two plants we get hundreds of variations based on climate, location, mineral content in the soil, and fertilization. Different flavors are derived from the way the tea leaves are cured and how it is brewed. Much like wine, there can be a multitude of flavors. For the aficionado, it can become a life time obsession. I was here to learn the basics. I’ve had some favorite teas over the years and know a bit about brewing. But I wanted to know what all these different tea names were all about. Does the name indicate the region where they are grown, as it does in French wines? How does the taste differ from one tea type to another and one brand to another?
During our tasting segment of the workshop, we would learn all this and more. Monsoon Tea is a company specializing in wild teas. They are working with a Miang tribal plantation in the mountains of northern Thailand, where they still process tea the natural way. The tea trees grow in the forest and the entire way of harvesting and processing is different from what happens on a tea plantation. Our host went into detail about these differences in order to explain why Monsoon Tea has chosen to deal in natural tea. The important fact to know is that tea is the second most widely consumed drink in the world, second only to water.
It is exactly because the world tea consumption is so high that we will never a wide spread organic or natural movement for tea. As our host explained, it is simply not possible. Tea trees occur in forest environments. They do not occur in tightly packed rows which are easier to harvest or produce high yield per acre.
So, choose to market Miang tea? It increases the income of hill tribe people, while allowing them to maintain their native culture. Only the top leaves are used for tea. The trees do not need irrigation, pesticides or fertilization. It is saver for the workers. Retaining this type of farming in mountainous areas, also, reduces deforestation, and therefore preserves habitat for wildlife.
“Hey, how about the taste?” We tasted about a dozen teas from both domesticated teas and wild teas. The differences clearly follow what you would
expect with the difference in the way the plants are grown. Domesticated teas are grown and processed with specific flavors in mind. Those flavors are clear and easily recognizable. Wild tea is meant to be enjoyed for its natural flavor. The flavors are more subtle and will vary according to the complexity of their soil as well as the variations in weather from year to year. They do have more tannin than domesticated tea, which is nature’s way of protecting them from insects. So, they require more care in brewing. I have to say, I enjoyed all of the teas we tasted and look forward to additional opportunities to learn about tea. We are told Monsoon Tea offers a two week course in tea!
Please note Monsoon Tea is not a sponsor of this website. Opinions expressed here are my own.