Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tea in Thailand, Thai tea types and local sourcing options

Sen Xing Fa Chinatown shop tea jars

This post is based on an article written for the website, which appears here.

The initial form of that article was edited to reduce citations to sources, shops and cafe options, with the original form appearing here.  Editing down that content transitioned the material more to an introduction of Thai teas, de-emphasizing the commercial "where to buy" focus, which may be useful to some.

Of course this advice is only based on my own experience and preferences, not a comprehensive guide to what is out there.  And that section focuses mainly on Bangkok shops and cafes, with limited mention of a few places in Pattaya and Chiang Mai, since I live in Bangkok.  It doesn't go into online options, which is really another broad sourcing avenue, in many cases a better set of options if you already know what you are looking for.

In order to balance not adding links for specific options I won't add links to any, only mentioning vendor names.  In a lot of cases reviews of cafes or teas from different sources were covered in other blog posts appearing here, but I also won't reference those directly.  A search function in this blog could turn them up, if that is of interest.

Thai Royal Project Jin Xuan (#12) rolled light oolong

Thai teas and tea types background

This article covers two overlapping topics related to tea in Thailand:  which teas are produced here, and where to find different types of better teas, mostly related to Bangkok.  

The main category of tea made in Thailand is lightly oxidized rolled oolong, a tea style common in Taiwan.  These are produced mainly from two separate plant types from a number series of cultivars / hybrids from Taiwan, Jin Xuan (#12) and Bai Lu (#17).  Tea is produced in the North, with most oolong grown near Doi Mae Salon, an area outside of Chiang Rai.  Most of the following relates to specialty or orthodox tea, with a brief mention of other popular forms of teas first.  Oolong and black tea are the two main types produced.

Ready to drink (bottled tea) is popular, with most styles originating from Japanese influence, so mainly based on green teas.  "Bubble tea" is also a popular, a trend imported from Taiwan; these are flavored black teas with milk.  Traditional Thai tea is a reddish colored sweetened and flavored milk tea, often made from black tea powder.  Other versions are made from loose black tea with sweetened condensed milk added.

Already these descriptions have referred to three of the main categories of tea:  black, green, and oolong.  These categories relate mostly to degree of oxidation in processing.  Black tea is "fully oxidized," green tea is at the other end of the spectrum, least oxidized, and oolong spans the middle range.  There are other main types (white and pu’er, or hei cha, which is typically compressed tea), but this article won’t go further into tea types differences or processing.  A lot of the shops mentioned in the following also sell a range of Chinese teas, in addition to Thai teas, with less from other countries.

Thai Royal project black tea

commercial Thai tea in a Tops grocery store

So far this reads as if you could only find Thai tea produced as black tea or oolong, and for the most part that is true, but there are plenty of exceptions.  Tea is also commercially produced as green tea, it's just less common.

I've tried a number of other types, which I won't go into further, except to add as a list here:  pu'er-like tea (pu'er is only from Yunnan, but the same tea type is made in Thailand, just not much of it), Oriental Beauty (a specific style of oolongs from Taiwan), Liu Bao (another type of hei cha), white tea (mostly silver needle, but not only that).

Where to buy tea, in general and in relation to specific shops

Teas are sold in a number of types of shops, in malls, or in stores in Chinatown.  Tea themed cafes are a different thing, with only a few mentioned here.

It’s best to never buy tea sold from open air bins, and avoid large jar stored teas, since air exposure removes flavor from teas.  Rolled oolongs might endure poor storage better than teas that are more sensitive to air contact, like versions of green teas.  I would try teas sold in large jars myself, out of curiosity to see what they are like, but I'd be careful about which types I would buy that way (with more details on that in this post about tea shopping in the NYC Chinatown).  I wouldn't expect to find the highest quality level teas being sold that way, which would factor into my purchase choices. Chinatown shops will sometimes keep Longjing--a popular Chinese green tea type--in a separate refrigerated location, since local Bangkok temperatures isn't good for maintaining the freshness of green teas.

No listing could be complete, and options change year to year, but this following list is a good starting point, representing both the best local sources and the general types of main options.  Purchasing tea online is the best option for buying very specific, known versions of rare teas, with standard vendors in producer countries the best resources for that (for example, Yunnan Sourcing for pu’er, for a type of Chinese tea).

I will mention two online (website) sources that represent good options for higher and lower to middle level quality tea purchases, but these aren't intended to describe the best online sources, just the ones I've had the most success with.  Tea Village (also a Pattaya physical shop) sells a range of basic to upper-mid-level quality teas online (bearing in mind that as a tea enthusiast I tend to be conservative about what I describe as "good quality" tea).  Tea Side sells rarer and higher quality level Thai tea versions, teas that tend to be hard to find, but some are considerably more expensive.  They sell Thai versions of pu'er (teas like pu'er; that's really a regional designation for Chinese teas), which already means something to people that would be interested, and is difficult to explain to others.

Local shops are a good alternative for browsing, tasting, and learning more about types by talking to vendors in person.  Grocery stores do sell tea but in general it’s best to avoid buying any teas there, since much better quality options in the same cost range can be found elsewhere.  Royal Project teas sold at some higher end grocery stores are a possible exception to that rule, described further following.

Chiang Mai / other

Airport shop:  an outlet at the Chiang Mai airport sells Thai produced teas, described as a relatively direct-sales outlet, along with a Royal Project shop there that sells Thai oolongs.

Monsoon cafe "wild" sourced white tea

Monsoon teas:  a café specializing in selling “wild” local teas, flavored teas, and blends, with some plain tea types available.  You might wonder what wild tea really refers to, and it's probably as well to ask them that.  There are other cafes and tea shops in Chiang Mai, perhaps not offering the same range and depth of options as in Bangkok though.

the Tea Village tasting room (with scones)

Tea Village (Pattaya): this isn't in Chiang Mai or Bangkok but they do sell online, and it's a nice shop for basic or mid-level teas.  Tea shops can be found throughout Thailand selling basic Thai produced versions (part of their range) but few would focus on better specialty loose teas, or cover alternatives from China.

I'm mixing what I refer to as medium and better quality levels here, a vague category description that's hard to be consistent about.  Comparing the Tea Village and Tea Side websites could provide some input about what teas fall into one category but not another, still leaving the problem of determining the quality level of types common to both suppliers, which really needs to be experienced through tasting to be determined.  In some rare cases it's conceivable that both suppliers could be selling identically sourced teas.

Bangkok tea shops (dry tea take-away)

Thai oolong in the Central Embassy grocery store

Royal Project stores:  a good resource for buying ordinary grades of Thai oolong (really located throughout Thailand, not just in Bangkok), great options for someone new to tea.  I've seen a Royal Project store version that sells a basic type that I like in the Future Park and Paradise Park malls, in the lower level grocery store of Central Embassy, and in the Suvarnibhumi airport, beside the Airport Link train entrance on the lower level there.  I just reviewed a basic Jin Xuan oolong from one, which I'm making an exception to link to since this tea essentially defines what Thai oolong options are like.  The teas can be quite good, relatively speaking, and a great value.

Mall shops:  small booths sell tea in grocery store complexes, with more extensive stores in some malls (for example there are two shops in the Paradise Park mall).  Ong’s in the Paragon Mall is a higher profile option, focused on more traditional types and the higher grade range (just a bit expensive, per input from a well-informed tea friend, but somehow I've never made it there to shop for tea, even though that is one of the two most well-known malls in Bangkok).

Paradise Park mall shop (way out on Srinakarin road)

Tea Dee Zhang in the Thanya Park mall: one of the best standard shops in Bangkok, for different types, located on Srinakarin road.  This shop specializes in and sources their own pu'er brand (a Chinese type of compressed tea).

Twinings / TWG:  perhaps fine for “high tea,” an afternoon meal, and they do sell commercial loose teas.  These two chains are probably best avoided related to sourcing the most interesting, highest quality, and best value teas.  Twinings does carry some really exceptional tea, per a web-based search of everything the company could potentially sell, but per limited browsing and hearsay their shops would be more likely to level off related to selling decent Earl Grey and region-specific teas that don't identify individual supplier details, teas like "Darjeeling."  A tea sold as "Darjeeling" might be ok but tea enthusiasts tend to source versions that relate to specific plantations and harvest seasons, with branding sub-types within those relating to minor processing differences and sourcing from more limited growing areas within a plantation.

at the Jip Eu Chinatown tea shop

Jip Eu, my favorite Bangkok Chinatown shop: this shop specializes in Wuyi Yancha (Wuyishan, Fujian roasted oolongs), but they do sell Anxi area Tie Kuan Yin (Chinese light rolled oolong), Dan Cong (another oolong), and some other types as well.

other Chinatown shops: there are many.  Sen Xing Fa has a broad selection, including Chinese types, Thai teas, pu’er, and compressed white teas, a subject I did a lot of writing about this year (shou mei and such).

Teeta Talk shop

Teeta Talk Tae Tea outlet: formerly in the Belle Condominiums, beside Central Plaza Rama9, this shop was closed and vacant during my last visit, and seemed to be out of business.  I'll leave this mention here as a tribute to Bangkok's tea past, I guess.

Other factory pu’er / Tae Tea outlets: two are located beside the Don Meuang airport and in IT Square Laksi, with some pu’er available in the Central Embassy specialty grocery store.  I'll mention a link to the local Tae Tea website, since it's not as easy as a vendor page to find in a search, but the page is only available in Thai.

Cafes / other (all of these also sell loose tea)

Double Dogs:  the main Chinatown cafe, with a broad selection of dry loose tea.  The quality of the loose teas is above average but the relative cost level is also well above online pricing levels.

Luka Cafe / Marou teas: a higher end Ceylon carrier (Sri Lankan tea) in Sathorn, a unique range since Chinese teas get more focus here.

Seven Suns cafe owner doing a tasting event

Seven Suns:  an Ekamai café that sells standard range Mei Leaf supplier teas.  This shop is unique for bridging the gaps between selling quality loose teas (by the pot or take away), matcha, and cold versions of blended teas for take-away (what Thais drink most often), and even tea-ware.

Peace Oriental: an Ekamai café (with a separate newer second branch), focusing on specialty, higher end teas, including matcha; one of the costliest places to buy tea in Bangkok.

Peony:  a chain of cafes and loose tea stores, including one in the Silom Complex.  They sell inexpensive mid-range plain teas and blends, options best suited for those newer to tea.  It sounds judgmental put that way, doesn't it?  It's normal to move through some sort of a preference curve and as well to not rush that process, so that you can keep discovering and experiencing better and better teas as what you like changes.

Japanese green teas / matcha:  matcha booths are turning up in lots of places, with better matcha versions harder to find.  Japanese grocery stores like Fuji could work as a starting point for both.  There are other sources for matcha around, besides booths and grocery stores, and I'd probably have more to add about those if I drank more matcha.  As with most of these other tea types once you move through a learning curve online sourcing for matcha would be likely to make more sense, after your preferences become clearer and you know what you are looking for.


  1. Dear John, thank you so much for sharing all of the above information! I have moved recently to Bangkok and I was wondering where to shop for good teas here and I found your article and blog. This is great! will go through in details but I can already tell it is super useful :) In case I have a few questions for you... would it be ok for me to message you directly? Well done on your blog and thank you. Joelle

    1. Sure, you can message me through a page related to this blog in Facebook, of course based on the same blog name.

  2. Pretty descriptive!
    Do most of them speak English, or is it Chinese/Thai mostly?

    1. English use is relatively common throughout Bangkok. There are exceptions, and that doesn't help out much when you run across one. In Chinatown tea shops the problem isn't that vendors don't speak much English but instead that limited English combined with culture issues can complicate a process that shouldn't be complicated. Vendors might just ask you what you want, and it's normal for a customer to ask what a shop has, and it might not work well to bridge the gap between the two lines of questions. Everyone would have access to some English use though.