I had heard about the tea industry in Northern Thailand now for several years. I had even tasted some of the oolong teas that had become famous for its quality (Oolong Number 12 and 17). The oolong type tea plants had been brought in from Taiwan some twenty years before. These teas were very good and matched easily the quality coming out of Taiwan and even Fujian Province of China. So when we recently spent a week in Chiang Mai, I decided to check out some of these teas. We ended up buying five packages of an assortment of Northern Thai teas.
The Thai teas consisted of three oolong teas(I call them red, gold and blue from the colors of their packages), a black tea and a white tea. The three oolongs teas we bought at a local Hmong market (heavily commercialized) and the black I bought in a fake Hmong village on the mountain. The white tea came from the big market in downtown Chiang Mai.
Additionally, on our last day in Chiang Mai we visited two celadon factories which carried some interesting tea cups. The following pictures show the cups we bought to drink our new Thai tea.
The first factory we visited was Siam Celadon, a commercial enterprise that has been around for decades. It had a beautiful show room and had lots of neat and interesting porcelains and pottery. We ended up buying two sets of fairly standard tea cups as pictured below. The cracked celadon finish was especially attractive.
From the Mengrai Kilns, we also bought a set of blue cracked celadon cups plus two similarly shaped cups with different designs. We felt the Mengrai Kilns offered better prices and a lot more interesting pieces from which to choose.
Two unusual cups from Mengrai Kilns which were our favorites
The Red Oolong Tea
The first of the oolong teas I tried was the one in the bright red packages. From what I have been able to find out, these are some minor teas grown by some of the local minorities, hand-picked and hand processed. It is obvious from the looks of the tea that it cannot compete with the teas coming out of China. The read oolong tea was about thirty percent stems and trigs and looked rather shabbily fermented. The smell was just barely noticeable but was not unpleasant.
As one can see, the tea is not very exciting but remember it cost 3 for 100 Baht or just a little over one USD per package. There is not, however, a lot of tea in each of the packages.
This is the first steeping of the tea. I let it steep for about two minutes and then tasted it. It tasted like a cheap green tea from China. The color was barely noticeable and looked rather sick. Not impressed at all!
For the second cup, I let it steep for a full five minutes. The color came out looking more like a traditional oolong but with a weak fragrance. Tasting this second cup gave me hope as I did taste some interesting things it offered. Almost like what one would expect from an oolong.
I did not give up on it and decided to let the third cup steep until it really did look like an oolong. About eight minutes in boiling hot water produced a very beautiful full-golden looking oolong. It was exactly what I expected in a quality oolong. Upon tasting it, I was shocked by the huge hit of bitterness. We are talking about raw kuding cha bitterness here. I think the leaves are old and tough and it takes a lot of coaxing to get anything from them. This tea is definitely not a match for even a cheap bag of Lipton tea which I truly detest. It was, however, worth the dollar just to taste it.
The Gold Oolong Tea
The second oolong tea I tasted came from a gold colored back (both the red and the gold looked like it came from Christmas decorations). The tea looked virtually the same as the red oolong tea above. There was nothing unusual about the leaves except the hug number of twigs I saw. It looked to be processed in the same manner as well.
The leaves look unkempt and irregular. Most of the better oolongs I have tried from Fujian and elsewhere were very uniform in how they are process. This just looked like a bunch dried up leaves and sticks.
This close up shows the irregularity and rather ugly looking mass of branches and leaves. It, like the read oolong above, had very little fragrance.
This is a five minute steep. I did not expect much and I was not surprised. Five minutes seems to be the absolute minimum required by these leaves. Again, it appeared that the leaves were old and tough and just needed coaxing for them to give up any drinkable tea. The taste was mild and just there. Nothing fancy, with no aftertaste or any other sensations. Drinkable but then, so its just plain hot water. Lipton tea bags beats the heck out of this tea.
The Blue Oolong Tea
The blue oolong tea had a more tradition blue wrapping with tea plants as its main design. Too bad the tea appeared to be exactly the same as the above two. Lots of twigs mixed in there with the leaves.
Twigs, twigs everywhere there were twigs.
This close up shows some pretty strange shapes and colors of this oolong tea. It was obviously harvested and processed by hands that were not yet expert and shaping them correctly.
No one can tell the difference between these three teas - NO ONE! They looked alike, smelled alike and tasted alike. I would most definitely choose a tea bag of Lipton over any of these. Leaving them to steep for awhile makes a beautiful golden liquor but also brings out some pretty harsh bitterness. Why drink this tea in its two minute green tea form when one can have a real green tea from China. Not disappointing, understand, because I was expecting a one dollar tea. We will not be buying any more of the red, gold or blue oolongs anytime soon.
Numb Feeling Black Tea
I first saw a package of this black tea at the fake Hmong village on the way to Doi Sutep, the most important Buddhist temple in Northern Thailand. Saw it among some of the same red, blue and gold oolongs we had already purchased. Talked the lady into selling it to us for 40 Baht from its original 50 Baht price. Black tea it stated clearly. Numb Feeling Black Tea. Had nothing to lose except the 40 baht, which made it well worthwhile for this blog.
The tea leaves are almost a reddish black color, more black than red but the red seems to come from the outside of each leaf. These leaves were definitely different than the three oolongs I tasted earlier.
A close up shows the very dark leaves surrounded by some redness coming from smaller leaves and all those twigs. Red twigs still seem to dominate among the black leaves.
A three minute steep brought me this reddish liquor, very nice with hints of a deeper and darker substance. It is very attractive. So attractive that I took a closer shot with my macro to show the depths of the redness.
See the red tones throughout this tea. I have to say I like the color a lot. It is not knock-out red like my great Qimens but a more subtle red that makes things interesting.
So, how did it taste and can it compete with my Lipton tea bags? We are in a different category here. Sunee said it reminded her of a weaker Qimen. I thought it had some really strange and unidentifiable tastes around the edges with a huge after taste of something I have yet to figure out. It is drinkable and very interesting so I would say it beats Lipton. Lipton tea in bags is just boring. This black tea is interesting and has a lot more flavor. I like it so much I finished off the leaves by making enough to put in our refrigerator to find out how it will be cold. Not sure I would buy more since I have lots of Qimen and lots of the Yunnan Gold Tips to drink. It will, however, be a tea that I will drink now and again to try to figure out the flavors I am tasting. A keeper but probably because of its very unique color and taste quality.
Thai White Tea
The last tea we bought was a Thai white tea we found in the main market in Chiang Mai. As Sunee shopped for various items, I was looking over the selection of teas to be had. I began to notice some white teas in the mix and I was interested. All the whites I picked up and asked about were plainly marked in Chinese that they came from Fujian yet all the sales people were telling me they came from Thailand. Not going to buy a lie, thank you very much.
One guy we met had some white from Fujian like the others but he also had some that were marked from Thailand. When I asked about the white teas, he said it all came from Fujian except two that came from the mountains of Northern Thailand. An honest man! Because of his honesty, we bought our final tea from him. Later, I would check on the internet to find that there were, indeed, white teas just now being produced in Northern Thailand. This, then was a tea I had more expectations for than the rest.
Tea leaves were definitely different than the other four. Oh, they were bent and misshapened in no recognizable uniform way but they definitely had less twigs. The darker leaves were not as dark and the lighter leaves were lighter than the other teas. One, however, would never be able to tell (in reality) what this tea really was.
Here you can see the lighter leaves more predominant than the darker ones.
The liquor is light with hints of amber gold. I boiled the water and let it sit for about two minutes before using it on the leaves. I knew that the leaves should not come into contact with boiling water for they are supposed to be very delicate. This proved to be correct as the taste was refreshing and nice. This is better than any Lipton tea bag in the world. This made the whole buying tea process very much worth it. Like the few other white teas I have tasted, this had hints of a grassy green tea but was overpowered a crisp freshness totally different from the great greens I have in my possession. I different but similar taste and certainly a little more bitter and sweet after taste. I can see me drinking this tea over the next month or so until it is gone. I like it. Thus ends the search for a cheap Thai tea to compete with the Lipton tea bags.