“Bai Yai” – The Old Tea Tree of North Thailand
Though north Thailand has only recently, after the import of selected Oolong tea cultivars from Taiwan in the 1990s, begun to earn itself a reputation for its tea production on the international stage, tea had already been harvested, produced and consumed in the country’s mountainous north with altitudes up to 2000m hundreds of years before that, even before the area became a part of the old Siam, the country nowadays called Thailand.
The Camellia Sinensis Assamica tea species has been growing wild in the form of trees in most south east Asian countries for centuries. Already at the time of the old Lanna kingdom, the various ethnicities settling in north Thailand, mostly mountain tribes people that have moved here from the north (e.g. Yunnan) used to collect the tea leaves from the trees that used to (and still) grow dispersed in loose bunches in various places across the northern Thai mountains, particularly in the nowadays provinces of Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. However, though all of them collecting the same kind of tea leaves, the different tribes had different traditions of processing them, influenced by the traditions of each individual tribe, the places the different tribes had been coming from, and the individual experiences gained during generations of collecting and processing tea leaves.
Though the production of green tea was the prevailing method in those times, the processing methods varied regarding drying and heating procedures, in particular the production of post-fermented tea produced in a way similar to Pu Errh tea can be tracked back for many decades, e.g. with the Shan ethnicity (see ShanTea in Siam Tea Shop). This tea was drank by the extended tribal families after a hard day’s work on the fields or hunting in the forest, sitting around the fireplace with a big iron kettle on the same, in the middle of the central room of their traditional bamboo and wooden shacks. Actually, when visiting a more remote northern Thai mountain tribe village today, we can still see that same old scene today. In other places, though, the development of road networks, along with the ensuing arrival of electricity, television, and finally the internet, has changed not only the appearance of the shacks (having changed to what we would call houses), but also the old social habits, so altogether the appearance of an extended family sitting around that fireplace with that tea kettle in that bamboo or wooden shack might have become a rarer one today.
During the 1960s and 70s, the opium poppy held its victory march over the area known as the Golden Triangle, and for a while also dominated the agricultural activities in north Thailand’s main tea province, Chiang Rai, home to a range of settlements established in a most recent “migration” wave, namely that of the Chinese Kuomintang army and its baggage during the 1950s. However, when the cultivation of opium poppies and drug production and trade were outlawed and banished starting from the 1980s, and tea was suggested as a suitable cash crop alternative, especially the new Chinese settlers, who had been playing a key role in the outlawed trade, started getting back to those old assamica tea trees and took up a more commercial production of green, and now also Oolong tea from the leaves of those old trees native to north Thailand. In and around the Chinese KMT settlements, such as Doi Mae Salong, they no longer collected the tea leaves only from the wild growing trees, but also started cultivating the plant in tea gardens. It is common today to let the trees grow to a height of ca. 2m only, cutting them back on an annual basis, in order to maximize the formation of new branches and thereby leaves, leaf tops, and the yield altogether, and keep them easy to harvest.
Supported by the Thai Royal Development Project, they were enabled to bring their tea to the greater national and even parts of the international market. After the import and introduction of selected Taiwan Oolong cultivars in the beginning of the 1990s, however, the teas produced from the assamica trees more or less lost the center stage to the new teas yielded from those fine and internationally reputed Oolong tea cultivars. Due to the relatively large leaves of the assamica tea trees, compared to those of the Taiwanese cultivars, tea growers in north Thailand started referring to the native assamica species as “Bai Yai” (large leaf).
Indeed, there are times I am thinking ‘maybe theses teas are just too cheap to be bought’, and I need to admit that I have repeatedly been playing with the idea of significantly raising their price, only to see, whether that would help. But that might just not be the right approach. These teas, namely our ShanTea, our DMS Bai Yai leaves green tea, and our DMS Bai Yai leaves Oolong tea, are often referred to as “good everyday teas”, and that is surely something they are, however, just recently having re-discovered a fancy for those teas myself again, I find there’s definitely some more to them than just this benevolent, but nevertheless somewhat belittling “everyday tea” attribute.
There are many different approaches to judging a tea’s quality, but one that is quite omnipresent in relevant online and hard copy literature about tea is the potential for multiple infusions. O-tone is ‘the more infusions you get from a green or Oolong tea, the better quality the tea’. Now, judging to that standard, north Thailand’s assamica derivates actually even beat some of their Taiwanese cousins. If you prepare ShanTea the proper way, as you would prepare a Pu Errh tea, with very short infusion times, you will end up with virtually countless infusions! I once made it to ten, which was when I gave up, though not, because the tea leaves in the pot would not have produced another tea, but rather, because I just had drunk enough tea for the time being. Similar things can be said about the assamica “Bai Yai” green leaves tea from Doi Mae Salong: even if prepared in the Western way, with infusion times of 2 minutes and more, it will produce 3 – 4 full infusions, with none of them being any less worth it than the one before. The DMS “Bai Yai” Oolong tea, with 2-3 full flavor infusions is only very little behind that.
Then, ‘good taste – bad taste – better taste’? Taste, as we could say, without taking a risk, taste is always a question of taste. It is true, I do not think of the assamica “Bai Yai” teas from north Thailand as “fine” teas. Rather, I think of them as “honest” teas. They work much better than the mild Taiwan Pouchongs, when it comes to drinking tea to get you through long work hours, or if you are up to giving your taste buds a simple, but unambiguous, and if you want so less subtle impression. When people start describing the taste of these teas, they will often use attributes like “earthy”, or “grassy”, all centered around the element “earth”, once more hinting at that character of “honesty” that I can’t help relating to this tea in my mind. It might in fact be just this honesty of taste that has contributed to the image of a “good everyday tea” even more than the social roots of its consumption here in Thailand or its comparably low price.
So, really, these are GREAT teas, and sure, why not ‘everyday’? But if these teas used to be drunk by common folk such as tribes people, field workers, and people, who make a living as hunters and collectors in the forest, and if you can even today buy them from the petty cash, does that make them any less precious? In fact, sitting in my (arguably) middle class environment in Chiang Mai, and enjoying a few good pots of ShanTea, knowing that the filling will last all night, I indeed get a sense of tasting the life, the work and the sweat of these people, who used and use to drink this tea in north Thailand, in my own cup. This, I think, the ability to create or reproduce a whole world just out of aroma and taste, is indeed one of the greatest virtues (say: qualities) a tea can possibly have to offer.