A beautifully kept tea garden on the slopes of Doi Mae Salong. Credit pics: Thomas Schmid/duk
Chockchamroen Cheewinchalearmchote (left), proprietor of Doi Mae Salong’s largest estate, tends to a foreign buyer (right) during a tea tasting session.
Local girls parading their traditional Yunnanese costumes.
Due to its year-round subtropical climate and comparatively few high elevations, Thailand has never been among the world’s big tea producers; though thanks to a large ethnic Chinese population the country is an avid consumer of the aromatic brew. However, travelers are in for two surprises when venturing up the steep, serpentine road into the mountain range locally known as Doi Mae Salong and straddling the Thai-Myanmar border northwest of the northern provincial capital of Chiang Rai.
As lush subtropical vegetation gradually gives way to deciduous trees, the first smaller tea gardens will appear almost as soon as the 1,000-meter elevation mark has been passed. Eventually, sizeable tea estates, their carefully pruned plants arranged in neat rows, take over here and there, making it unmistakably clear that tea growing is an important business on Doi Mae Salong.
Once the vehicle (preferably 4WD) enters Santikhiri, the mountain’s main town, the world changes, literally. Rows of Chinese-style shop houses bear signs in Chinese radicals. The few restaurants tout guests with Chinese dishes, while a grandiose mausoleum overlooking the township is decked out in red and gold, carved Chinese granite lions guarding its broad staircase. When listening carefully one can even hear Chinese being spoken among the locals. This clearly is not a lowland Thai town but a community seemingly transplanted straight from southwestern China’s Yunnan province. There is a good reason for that impression, too [see side bar].
The perfect microclimate for tea
According to the “Amazing Thai Tea Handbook”, published by the Thailand’s Department of Agriculture, a tea planting program was initiated in Thailand’s mountainous northern regions along the border with Myanmar in 1975 as a measure against widespread opium poppy growing. The project was supported by the Taiwanese government which provided hybrid seeds and experts to pass on knowledge about tea cultivation and production. By 1978, a demonstration farm had been set up, followed in 1982 by the founding of a cooperative in Chiang Rai. Plots were set up followed by establishment of a cooperatives in 1982 in Chiang Rai, whose members received both financial and advisory assistance to help improve tea crop yields.
Though tea growing was impossible in the hot and humid lowlands, the climate and soil conditions on some of the higher mountain ranges proved suitable enough. One of these locations was Doi Mae Salong.
“The tea gardens there are generally situated at elevations above 1,000 meters on plots with sloping less than 45 degrees,” explained Asst. Prof. Dr. Piyaporn Chueamchaitrakun, head of the Tea and Coffee Institute of Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang University. “The soil has high organic contact with a pH of between 4 and 6, while the average annual air temperature ranges between 15 and 20 degrees [Celsius].”
This, she said, made the microclimate on Doi Mae Salong very reminiscent of that prevalent in tea growing areas in Taiwan. In fact, the Taiwan-developed cultivars Oolong no. 12 and Oolong no. 17 (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) are the only tea varieties commercially grown on Doi Mae Salong to this day. However, the crop wasn’t an immediate success, with farmers initially being quite reluctant to switch. A catalyst was needed.
That catalyst materialized in the shape of local entrepreneur Chockchamroen Cheewinchalearmchote, who joined the Department of Agriculture initiative in the early 1980s and established Doi Mae Salong’s very first plantation. Besides numerous smaller “household” plots, the mountain today boasts around 30 privately owned tea estates cultivating a combined 5,300 hectares, according to Dr. Piyaporn. Among these, Chockchamroen’s pioneering Chock Chamroen Tea Co. Ltd. remains the largest and – arguably – commercially most successful. But since there unfortunately is no reliable reporting system in place, reliable crop production data are rather hard to come by. However, during an interview conducted by the Tea and Coffee Institute with Chockchamroen in 2020, he divulged that his factory processed about 650 metric tons of oolong tea and 350 tons of other tea types that year.
Only partially fermented and then machine rolled into tight balls, oolong continues to make up the bulk of Doi Mae Salong tea. Its general sensory characteristics were described by Dr. Piyaporn as “floral and fruity aromas with pronounced natural sweetness and mellowness and a bright to dark yellow color in the cup.” However, due to rising demand the mountain has also begun producing increasing volumes of green tea from the Taiwanese cultivars, as well as smaller batches of unfermented white tea, the heavily oxidized red tea, and a few other specialty teas.
Appreciated in China and Taiwan
About 80% of Doi Mae Salong teas are exported almost exclusively to Taiwan and China, according to Dr. Piyaporn. The remaining 20% are either available in small, nondescript teashops around the country or being retailed online on various shopping portals under a variety of brand names. A few supermarket chains also carry the products. As far as Europe and North America are concerned, Doi Mae Salong are almost entirely unknown. Importers and retailers are difficult to identify as they are far and between. And they are tight-lipped, too. The proprietor of a small specialty tea company in Germany that offers several of the teas as single-origin products, declined an interview with STiR, expressing concerns that his business interests might be affected if we “exposed” Doi Mae Salong to a wider readership.
Western markets remain largely elusive
One reason for the obscurity of Doi Mae Salong products in western countries simply might be the often very complicated import and customs regulations, including the provision of the required paperwork.
“To me it seems that most manufacturers simply don’t bother as they are content with their already existing business relationships [in Taiwan and China],” said Dr. Piyaporn. But, she also added that it also could be down to taste preferences. Western end-consumers are more used to fuller-bodied and stronger black tea, while partially fermented – thus weaker in the brew – oolong teas are appreciated only by comparatively few connoisseurs. If it hadn’t been for a handful of enthusiastic Europeans and Americans who “discovered” the mountain’s teas and resolved to introduce them to a niche market back home, Doi Mae Salong would likely still be a white spot on the tea map, at least outside of China and Taiwan.
But then again, the green tea and organic tea craze that is sweeping western nations could well provide Doi Mae Salong’s producers with a future foot in the door – if they’re able to play it right.
“Organic tea production has recently become one of the fastest growing new agricultural segments in the north of Thailand and should be acknowledged by the government so we can market organic quality tea on a broader scale in the world market,” Dr. Piyaporn pointed out. However, she also said that in order to achieve that a strategic plan was needed that would address not only a considerable increase in tea growing acreage but also more efficient production cost management, the stringent implementation of organic tea standards and – perhaps most importantly - organic certification. At present, only two Doi Mae Salong companies have successfully obtained such certifications: Chock Chamroen Tea holds a USDA certified organic certificate, while the other firm, Prasert Tea Co. Ltd. has been awarded both EU and CORESTA organic certifications.
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