Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Bangkok World of Coffee and Tea Expo

I've seen notices for tea and coffee exhibitions in the past, and always intended to check one out, but only now finally did (the World of Coffee and Tea Expo).  Expos are common here in Bangkok, just an unusual version of a sales event, held in huge conference centers based on all sorts of themes.  We've been to similar ones related to electronics, baby goods, books, and travel.  It's not so similar to the tea conventions people frequent in the US, not focused on just that one theme, and this was just one third of a huge event covering a lot of additional food scope. To make a long story short, the scope was limited but some interesting things came up.

Chang beer!  But I wasn't there for that.

I did go to an organic foods event once that had a dozen stalls with people brewing and serving samples of tea, so I expected more of the same.  Novelty in tea selection is limited in general in Thailand, and I didn't expect a lot of foreign-originated sales to be part of it.  I'll describe some of what was there by vendor, easier for a reader to follow.  When first walking in it looked like any other expo, noisy, with lots of people and lots of presentations, and an amusing use of presenter "pretties" to sell all sorts of things.

Dilmah, commercial Ceylon teas

I must be joking, right?  These teas are sold in grocery stores, essentially no different than Twinings (not all of which is crappy tea-bag tea).  I kind of am, but I wasn't seeing a lot of tea when I first walked around, lots more elaborate coffee sales and brewing equipment, and I started to get nervous that this vendor might be what I came to see.  I didn't stop at their presentation area at first, and really did find a few more interesting places before stopping by here to check it out.

Of course they have a broad range of flavored tea-bag teas, none of any interest to me, but in the past I've tried slightly better loose tea from them.  It was still nothing novel or above average, still the kind of tea you need either milk or sugar added to get down, to soften the astringent character.  Taken with milk and sugar their loose tea is much better than Lipton's tea bags, but that's sort of beside the point.

They had a nice demonstration display that seemed to show the other kinds of teas I'd actually be interested in, better loose teas, but they weren't preparing samples of those.  They asked if I'd like to try a pomegranate flavored iced tea (I think it was--something fruity), which I declined.  Looking around some of their loose tea could've been ok, types like Tie Kuan Yin, which they said was also from Sri Lanka.  It would seem odd if the loose Lapsang Souchong and Darjeeling they were selling were also from that country, but we didn't discuss that.  I would guess that they do make teas that the average loose tea drinker really could appreciate, maybe even better Ceylon teas that they would love to have a chance to drink, but I just wasn't seeing it there.

They did give me a tea-bag version of a Ceylon oolong to try, my first, I think.  It wasn't great, and didn't taste like much at all.  I had a Thai oolong sample that I was carrying around to compare it to (Boon Rawd, a commercial producer here, but one that at least makes reasonable loose teas).  That was a light oolong served in a pyramid-style tea-bag, much better than the oolong dust in the Dilmah tea bag, not that I needed a comparison tasting to place either.  I dumped most of the hot water from the Dilmah cup into the Boon Rawd sample cup to get one more infusion out of that bag, which probably would've went at least one more.

Boon Rawd, commercial volume Thai tea maker / plantation

This was what I was expecting to find; a tea maker producing decent lightly oxidized oolongs, teas I'd appreciate more if I'd not already tried a thousand of them.  They also sold flavored teas, and some herbal teas (tisanes, to some), not that I was interested in that.  There's not much more to tell; that one oolong was nice, but not nice enough it stuck in my mind which type it was (Jin Xuan, Four Seasons, etc.; I think the latter).

As for contact they have a website, but for English language a related article might work better, although there isn't much there.  That says they produce 400 tons of tea a year, a good bit, and this blog post says they have a restaurant at their farm.  A visit might be nice but I wouldn't expect much for any better quality specialty teas.

I thought I'd tried decent osmanthus oolong from them before, one of the few floral infused teas I'd find it worthwhile to drink, but now I'm remembering it was from this other commercial producer instead.  That previous floral infused tea was nice but not interesting enough for me to try another sample of one at the expo.  So there wasn't much to report.  If they make a next level of better tea that would be news to me, but at least decent commercial loose teas are a nice gateway offering, a leap forward from what people sell as lemon tea or milk tea (adulterated low-grade black tea).

Specialized Ceylon Tea Supplier for Wholesale and retail  (SNSS)

Nice to see something slightly different; a vendor selling a broader range of Sri Lankan teas.  I tried a few; they were fine.  Better Sri Lankan / Ceylon tea can be something of a revelation, but this was just pretty good.  I tried a range of their black teas and a green tea, and bought the better black tea they had on offer.  It was an amazing value, 100 baht or around $3 for a small amount of tea, surely enough to brew a dozen cups worth though.  If I only liked standard Assamica black teas more I'd have bought the larger size, a really nice tea to have for daily drinking, but not so much if you prefer other styles.

The most interesting tea they carried, a golden tips, they didn't have with them.  Staff said it was unavailable due to limited production due to flooding in Sri Lanka.  Too bad.  They had two white teas in their product line-up, including another more like a silver needle, and that was it besides the broad range of black tea types.  Most of those I wouldn't be interested in, ground teas or finer broken leaf versions, but the one I tried was probably better black tea than most casual drinkers know exists.  That's not really a high bar to clear for specialty tea, but they were well over it.  I guess I could do a review of this tea since I have some to keep trying, but otherwise that covers it for them.

Big Eye Coffee, Nespresso compatible coffee maker compatible tea cartridges

Something different, to me at least.  I've had Thai tea prepared in espresso machines before, so it's not a brand new idea for me, but interesting to see it go the next step.  It took forever to get them to make me a sample, with a language hang-up finally emerging (my Thai is ok for taxi directions, not good for talking through tea tasting).  I had a tough choice:  compare what I'd already tried related to Thai tea, since I'd have a baseline for how that would be, or try something else (there were a few tea types).  I went with Thai tea.

Of course it was a bit astringent.  Thai tea is normally prepared with milk and sugar, usually referring to a black tea (traditionally Assamica) mixed with different herbs.  In modern forms star anise is prominent, but I've read that there were earlier versions; see this related post.

It was ok, nothing special, the process worked.  It would work better if the tea were served with sugar and milk, how Thais take it, almost always iced.  I never did find out if the other teas would be ok or not since I waited 10 to 15 minutes to get that sample, and with my Thai barely enabling me to request a sample I wasn't going to wow anyone by claiming a privileged status as a tea blogger.  Even without a language gap maybe that would've met with a blank look.

At least it's nice to know some coffee drinkers might find it easier to mix dry leaves and hot water, even if a 15 second brew of ground up tea using boiling hot water probably wouldn't work out as well as dumping the leaves and water in a coffee cup for a few minutes.

Related to cost, their website shows these sell for 135 baht for 10 capsules (about $4), on sale from 150 baht.  Obviously that's a much better deal than Starbucks, the same price as one cup of coffee for 10, and a good trade-up for people buying mixed powdered teas for 30 baht / $1 each.  It looks like those machines cost 2600 to 3900 baht ($80 to $120), but that could save people a lot of money if they could kick a coffee shop habit.

It's a bit of a tangent, but in a sense I really don't get powdered tea.  It is a bit like a chocolate milk version of tea, decent for what it is, so it makes just a little sense, but it's not so much like normal tea, definitely a missed opportunity to drink something much better.  I also don't get people being too lazy to make it themselves, since you pay more for someone to stir powder in water and put it in a plastic cup.  I guess that includes the benefit of participating in what Starbucks started, everyone walking around with their drink in the morning, or whenever, and maybe there is some reason why leaving the house with it doesn't work out. 

Chaidim Specialty Thai tea vendor

It's almost as if I went to this event to meet this guy / vendor, since this was the only specialty tea producer offering unique products there.  I might also include that one Ceylon vendor, since you won't find decent Ceylon in a grocery store or tea shop in Bangkok.  The owner was at the booth, Nedhim Behar, originally from Turkey (cool enough, right?).  He was mostly pitching tea and herb blends, not an unheard of thing here, lemongrass and ginger tisanes or mixes.  Those are nice in their own regards, just not really my thing.  But they did have some decent Thai oolong.

Dong Ding style oolong; looks about right

After trying a nice lightly oxidized oolong--so boring, given that overexposure I already mentioned--I tried a medium oxidized style oolong, a Dong Ding style tea, if that makes more sense (as described in this post).  It was nice; a good feel to it, a good bit of cinnamon, clean flavors, with a decent balance; it really worked.  There was a time when a regional designation applied like that would seem odd to me, but if you mentally add the word "style" it's back to being perfectly fine, so probably as well not to sweat that part.  But then pu'er-style teas sound more interesting as hei cha or dark tea, so maybe it's as well to not use that approach for those.

In retrospect I probably should have asked about buying it, but we got to talking about lots of tangents and then he was busy so I only grabbed the row of sample pyramid-style bag versions and went off.  I could easily say this was the best truly mid-oxidized version of a Thai tea I've tried, but no others come to mind, except one tea that stood out for me hating it, a tea with an off chemical taste.  They just don't do that style here.  I've tried Thai versions of Oriental Beauty (Tea Side and Tea Village vendors sell versions), and that oxidation level is medium, but it's really a different thing.  If more comes up to say about that tea I'll do a separate post, but I'll switch it over to those tangents that I mentioned here.

Dong Ding-style, a little oxidized

The owner, Nedhim, was working on a project to make a version of hojicha, more or less, still sorting out roasting methodology.  It seemed like it needed some tweaking still, that the char was too much, but it's nice when people have cool and innovative ideas that really will work and then they make it happen.  The catch might be building up a demand, but if people are going to be drinking low-grade fairly awful Wuyi Yancha as restaurant tea then they may as well bump that up to a drinkable hojicha variation.  I know, different origins, different flavor profile, probably different restaurants, but to me a comparison makes sense.  If you could try the restaurant-grade Shui Xian I've tried alongside a hojicha it might make sense to you too, or maybe not.

We talked about Thai organic standards, initiated by him selling teas that are certified to US and European organic standards instead.  He said that the US and European standards are more strictly controlled, with much better testing regimens for their certification processes (who would have thought).  The rest of the discussion about organic growing went where you would expect, pros and cons of going that route (teas that are healthier, versus lower production levels, with the added demands of establishing a natural growing environment).

He said that one problem with growing teas organically is that it doesn't really work to mix the two growing styles in a limited area, an interesting line of thought.  One farmer could be spraying chemicals that cross the road to land in the next farm.  It also doesn't mix well having an organic growing environment trying to balance a complete life-cycle of insects and other birds and insects that eat those insects, with the conventional farm trying to wipe out that layer of ecosystem nearby.  Yeah, organic is better.  I wonder how much risk there really is from consuming those chemicals, and I'm not hopeful or naive enough to guess that it's probably none.

As far as cost and offerings of products, the website lists those at retail level.  That Dong Ding style tea costs the same as the others, and at $11 for 50 grams (350 baht; funny translating it back that direction instead), which seems like a pretty good value to me.  The lighter oolongs you might find comparable versions of in grocery stores or Royal Project shops, although many wouldn't be quite as good, but you could waste a lot of time figuring out that mid-roasted Thai oolongs don't come up.

From talking to Nedhim he seems to sell teas in different ways, so if someone wanted to buy kilograms for a different purpose that would probably work out.  For lighter oolongs a trip to the Chiang Rai area--where tea is made in Thailand--would turn up lots of other options, but again the mid-level oxidized and roasted tea might not be so easy to find, even there.

Chaho Japanese tea

One larger display are held Japanese tea dealer in Bangkok; lots of Japanese people live here.  This is a bit of an afterthought, since Japanese teas aren't my favorite.  I actually considered picking up some matcha, as any US based tea lover would have, but I've not acquired a taste for matcha yet, and I'm in no hurry to.  I've bought it before, and since I've participated in two formal Japanese tea ceremonies in the past I'd assume that I've tried ceremonial grade, but I don't naturally love it.  I'm sure if I tried matcha another dozen times I'd stand a chance of acquiring a preference for it, but I've got too much scope to cover now as it is.

I tried a genmaichai there (kind of random--what they had out), and noticed they had an interesting powdered version of hojicha, but it wasn't interesting enough for me to buy it.  I like the idea of hojicha, and the tea can be nice, but I like most other kinds of tea better, so it defeats some of the point of drinking it.  I saw hojicha soft serve ice cream here in a mall not too long ago and probably should have tried that since I'm still curious about it, but it will turn back up again.

I would expect this vendor to sell to commercial customers in addition to direct retail but I didn't discuss that.  Their website mentions some sort of outlet in Silom, near where I work, so that's something I could check out on a lunch break.  I always thought eventually I'd get back to Japanese teas more once I give Chinese teas more of a look, and pu'er has been high on the list but on hold for awhile (I've only tried a couple dozen, barely started as pu'er goes).  Then again I've had an intriguing introduction to teas from Nepal that requires more follow-up, and still haven't ran across better teas from Malaysia, or followed up on better versions from Laos, so maybe it's not time yet.

The rest of the event

Loud!  And crowded.  I only saw half, one of two halls holding the event, and sort of wondered about the other additional food displays event area, but not enough to go over there.  It's a shame that I'm not more interested in food.  I eat it, and I cook, and I'm slightly into regional foods across Asia that came up a lot there, with all sorts of booths covering most of what one could imagine of Asian foods, but I was a bit burned out on the noise and stimulus to try and take it all in.  It would seem to make more sense to only buy foods that weren't already in grocery stores, but such stores cover a lot of range here.  There were probably some really interesting gyoza or sausages or whatever on offer that I missed out on.

I was happy to find as much tea as I did, worth it heading way out to Impact, not really even in Bangkok, instead out in a suburb (Nonthaburi).  Tea awareness and demand here really isn't where coffee is yet, or else there would have been lots more to see and try.


  1. Most expos you need an initial reconnaissance, pick up some cards and some ideas and the guide and then go back with a plan. Still, it sounds like a fun way to spend a few hours. And tea expo is a mix of calm and chaos.

  2. This was different because it wasn't a tea expo, instead a foods expo that included a few tea booths. There have been smaller events here that focus only on coffee and tea that may have had tea better represented but events in Thailand can't come close to related events in lots of other countries where there is more interest in tea. It's getting there, with online groups, new cafes, and limited media coverage helping out with awareness, but very slowly.