June 05, 2016
The cradle of tea is also in Vietnam
With a history of tea cultivation and processing reaching back more than 2000 years, Vietnam is one of the most ancient tea-producing countries in the world. However, there have been tea trees in Vietnam for a much longer period than that already. Together with a few other countries located in the west of the Tibetan mountain range, with geographic participation in the course of the Yangtze, Mekong, Dranagouta (Assam) rivers as well as the Vietnamese “Red River”, Vietnam also claims the title “cradle of tea”, and this possibly not even wrongfully: studies conducted in Russia in 1960 that compared the catechine components of ancient tea trees from China, India and Vietnam showed that Yunnan tea tree catechine has a more simple structure than that of Vietnamese tea trees, which could point to a later evolutionary stage of the former. Archeological excavations during the 1950s brought tea seeds to light, whose age was estimated at 10000 years. The mountainous, water-rich country’s geology and climate are guarantors of optimal conditions for the thriving of the tea plant, and thereby for its cultivation.
Vietnam’s ancient tea culture – rooted in ethnic minorities
Long before the French colonial rulers, and after them the communist revolution, were to discover, explore and exploit the qualitative and economic potential of Vietnam tea, the tea-drinking habit was already an established part of the Vietnamese culture. Just like in Yunnan, north Thailand, Myanmar and Lao, the cultivation and processing of tea go back to the tending of wild growing tea trees through local ethnic minorities in ancient times and their various individual processing and serving traditions. Until nowadays, a large part of Vietnamese tea is picked and processed by mountain tribes, such as the Hmong or the Red Dzao. From the latter, for example, comes our Pai Hao Vietnam Tea. And just like in many places in China, the tribal people worship their ancient tea trees as powerful forest spirits, holding regular ceremonies and spiritual rituals for them. It hasn’t been too long since preparing freshly picked and unprocessed tea leaves had been the most common variant of tea consumption among the Vietnamese rural population, a tradition that is still practiced in many places in Vietnam today.
Due to the geographical spread of a variety of wild tea tree reserves all over Vietnam and fostered by the pertaining traditions of the mountain tribes, the tea-drinking habit had been disseminated to the general Vietnamese population quite early already. Hence, pictures of people having tea in the most diverse private, business and social contexts were already part of the everyday Vietnamese life, when the French became Vietnam’s colonial rulers in the middle of the 19th Century. Relevant statistics show a continuously high own consumption of tea by Vietnamese households, partially satisfied by own produce, partially through imports.
Vietnam Tea in times of colonial rule
The economic potential of Vietnamese tea quickly got to the attention of the new French colonial rulers. Just like in quite some other places, the European culture and way of thinking also here brought the alleged blessing of organized (mass) cultivation of tea plants in orderly rows and what we call ‘conventional’ tea gardens today. This way, a range of tea production sites and dedicated research facilities were established in Vietnam during colonial rule, both in the country’s south and north. For the first time ever, Vietnamese tea was exported to Europe (mostly France and England), along with other countries in the world, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and China. Public stats from 1945 show that altogether 13585 ha total acreage was covered by tea plants across all of Vietnam in that year. From these, 6000 tons black, green and a tea similarly to Pu Erh tea were produced.
Until today, the French approach of a market-oriented (mass) tea production is reflected in a major segment of the Vietnamese tea industry: conventionally’ operated tea gardens that are used for CTC production, among others, are neighboring ancient tea tree forests and reserves, whose tea leaves are still handpicked and widely manually processed until today, in order to adequately realize the incredible qualitative potential of these tea trees.
Vietnam Tea in times of revolution
Initially, the communist revolution brought much the organized cultivation and processing of tea to a standstill again. Former tea bases were used as hideouts and retreat areas, and the country’s tea exporting activities dropped to about zero, until the north’s complete liberation in the year of 1955. However, the new revolutionary rulers should soon recognize the importance of tea as a valuable trade and export good of Vietnam, along with the huge potential of Vietnamese tea for development. Vietnam now received Russian support with the further exploration of its tea reserves and the development of its tea production. Russian tea experts came to Vietnam for advisory activities, tea factories were established with Russian technology, and state-run tea enterprises were supplied with advanced equipment. In addition, Russia became the new number one customer for tea exports from Vietnam, for example importing altogether 700 tons of Vietnamese black tea and 500 tons of Vietnamese green tea during 1957.
Vietnam Tea in times of war
Due to the impacts of war, the Vietnamese tea production experienced only little technological improvement between 1955 and 1975. Nevertheless, the country’s total acreage covered with tea plants especially in the north expanded to a total of 65000 ha, from which a dry weight of 35000 tons of tea was yielded annually, 18000 of which went into export.
Vietnam tea today – great quality and diversion
After the war, tea from Vietnam experienced a new boom, mainly due to dedicated efforts of the Vietnamese government. Public development programs effected the expansion of total acreage used for tea cultivation to altogether 131000 ha in 2007, relating to an output of 167000 tons of tea, dry weight, 30000 tons of which were consumed domestically. At the same time, the role of tea cultivation as a means of income generation for poor rural households increased significantly. Most recent numbers speak of 675 small production sites and 400000 tea-producing private households all over the country. The share of black tea on the total production is estimated at 50%. Another 40% fall on green tea, and 10% on scented teas, with jasmine- and especially lotus-scented tea being considered as national tea specialties of Vietnam. Today, Vietnam is a member of the World Tea Association and Vietnamese tea is exported to altogether 80 countries worldwide by 200 registered domestic small exporters.
Vietnamese tea research institutes have established a list of 150 local varieties, among them fine Oolong tea cultivars and a number of ancient tea tree varieties, led by the “Tra Thuyet Shan” (“Snow High Mountain Tea”) variety, which is at home in the central Vietnamese ‘Tay Con Linh’ mountain range and provides for our complete offer of Vietnamese Artisan Arbor teas.
‘Tra Shan Thuyet’ – ‘Snow Shan’ Vietnamese Tea
Yield and profit maximization, conventional tea cultivation and nice-looking rows of small tea bushes paid their due honor, Vietnam’s greatest wealth when it comes to tea are ultimately the country’s diverse and various reserves of ancient tea trees and their pertaining surviving processing traditions. The most ancient variety, Tra Shan Thuyet (“High Mountain Snow Tea”), at home in the higher altitudes of the central Vietnamese provinces of Suoi Giang and Ha Giang, is not only as old as the tea tree itself, but also stands out from the tea trees known from Yunnan, Assam and other “cradle countries” with a range of fabulous individual characteristics.
The up to 15 meters tall tree is characterized by an unusually thick trunk, large, long leaves and particularly big, tightly haired buds, giving the variety its name: in Vietnamese, ‘Thuyet’ = ‘snow’, ‘shan’ = ‘high mountain’ and ‘tra’ = ‘tea’. The trunk is typically covered with white moss and spots of a white mold, while the leaves are deep green and of impressive natural beauty.
Traditionally, the young spring buds and leaves of the ‘Shan Thuyet’ tea trees are mainly processed to green tea, black tea and scented teas (especially jasmine and lotus flower tea). Our producer partner in Ha Giang, who exclusively processes tea from more than 100 years old Shan Thuyet tea trees growing on their tea base located at 1400+ meters, additionally produces a Vietnamese “Snow Shan Silver Needle” tea, most probably representing the world’s largest-budded silver needle tea, and the so-called “Pai Hao” tea, another Vietnamese black tea specialty based on a particularly complex and sensitive processing method. All teas are picked by hand, an effort that is not be underestimated given the extraordinary height of grown Thuyet Shan tea trees: in order to pluck the young buds and leaves, the pickers will not only have to climb up those trees, but all the way to their most distant tops. All teas are picked with a picking standard of 1+1, i.e. one young bud with the adjacent youngest leaf is picked respectively. The exception to this, of course, is the Snow Shan Silver Needle, for which only the pure buds are picked. While with most tea plants, the bud will be small compared to the leaf, the opposite is the case with Snow Shan Tea, where the young bud proudly raising against the sky makes the pertaining leaf appear rather inconspicuous, an impression that will also reflect in the dry leaf material. At our partner in Ha Giang, also most of the processing steps are done by means of manual processes until today.
I will never forget the experience of the first opening my bag of “Snow Shan Green Tea”. The visual impression of the half green (leaves), half white (hair-covered buds) tea leaves, rolled to big, half-open curls, had already made me quite curious about this tea, but the overwhelming fragrance, tantalizing all senses, exuded by the freshly opened package, exceeded even my boldest expectations. This – and the fact that the immediate impression that this had to be at least one of the best green teas I had ever tried so far – should not remain the only positive surprises of that very day. Much rather, the so-gained impression should repeat and reconfirm itself with undiminished intensity in my subsequent trials of “Snow Shan Black Tea”, “Snow Shan Silver Needle” and “Pai Hao” Vietnamese Tea. Especially the “Pai Hao” tea goes another extra mile, and many tea lovers will – just like myself – won’t be able to help themselves but playing with the idea that this could possibly be the best black tea on earth.
I cannot remember deciding on selecting a tea – or a whole range of teas – for Siam Tea Shop that spontaneously and without any doubts or second thoughts ever before. With great pride, we’ve been offering Snow Shan teas from Vietnam ever since in our dedicated category “Vietnam Ancient Arbor Teas” at Siam Tea Shop, and since that day, I am fully convinced that not only tea from Vietnam in general, but especially Ancient Artisan Snow Shan Teas from Ha Giang and Suoi Giang are looking at a great and famous future. In the meantime, friends of Siam Tea Shop will already be privileged and get to enjoy the best teas Vietnam has to offer:
Vietnamese Thuyet Shan (‘Snow High Mountain’) Teas at Siam Tea Shop