I presented about Thai teas at an unusual type of expat meet-up event in Bangkok a month ago, described here, and I just realized that I've never discussed Thai teas in a TChing post.
I've been living in Bangkok for nine years now--the time just flies--and blogging about tea for three years. I was drinking loose tea for longer than that previously, with Thai oolongs as one cause for getting further into tea. The full story of Thai tea is too much to cover but here goes a start on it.
a Thai oolong made in a Dong Ding style
Most common are TRES cultivar #12 / Jin Xuan or #17 / Bai Lu (which somehow are typically marketed as Ruan Zhi, even though that's a different plant type). More recently they also make some green and black tea versions from those, and Bai Hao / Oriental Beauty, and just a little hei cha, but not much else.
local brewing gear (photo credit)
It's my understanding that Assamica-type based teas, mostly made into black tea, are most typically grown in the Chiang Mai area, representing most tea production prior to those recent oolong related initiatives. Of course black tea is considered a newer development related to earlier forms of green tea, compressed tea, and powdered teas, when one goes back far enough into tea history.
The typical question people ask is "what is Thai tea like; how good is it?" That's too broad for one simple answer, but to oversimplify by a lot it's ok (the oolongs), like tea from Taiwan, just typically not as good as lighter oolongs from there. Beyond that summary things get complicated. The demand for tea is much higher in Taiwan, and it's my understanding that some of the best Thai teas go there to be sold as tea from Taiwan, counterfeit versions of it, since the style is similar.
How do I know that? From hearsay, of course. It's an idea that comes up a lot, related to both Thai and Vietnamese teas. One anecdotal confirmation came in the form a Tea Chat thread; someone visiting the North of Thailand recently saw Thai teas being labeled and sold as tea from Taiwan, with the vendor there openly confirming the true source. Odd, right, counterfeit tea being sold right where it was from, sold as from somewhere else? It would seem more natural for the teas to make that trip to Taiwan, and be sold from there, but of course I can't even guess to what extent this does go on.
Thai iced tea, made in an espresso machine
Thai iced tea is an exception, a spiced blend not completely dissimilar to masala chai, just not the same. The characteristic orange color in the modern "Thai tea" version comes from food coloring. Per research more traditional versions might not be based on star anise, as they are now, but instead on blending crushed roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms with black tea, Assamica based (more on how to make a version here, and the history here). The other "traditional" Thai tea is black tea brewed and served with sweetened condensed milk. Again it's hard to say what pre-dated that, before sweetened condensed milk became common; maybe just black tea with milk and sugar.
Conventional Chinese teas can be found in Chinatown, and of course other people from other countries that live here bring their own tradition. Thailand has longstanding close ties with lots of countries and cultures, especially Japan. Lots of sections of Bangkok serve as immigrant neighborhoods and cultural centers, with the degree of influence limited by distance (not much of a "little Mexico" here).
with the Jip Eu shop owner, a 90 year old Chinatown shop
Secondary concerns like diversity and selection of physical tea shops, online tea vendors, or number of tea bloggers all progress gradually. I post a good bit about new tea sources and cafes as I run across those but there's not lots to tell. I found two sources for Sri Lankan teas in the last year, and although there aren't many Thais drinking better Ceylon just yet it will continue to go like that, with greater exposure and demand leading to more options, with better domestic Thai tea production going along with that. Every new cafe pushes those boundaries that little bit more. Peace Oriental helped introduce high end matcha appreciation and a Zen theme cafe environment (and the idea of a $20 pot of tea), Seven Suns is trying to expand on what's going on with blends and "ordinary" specialty tea, and Peony is trying to make it all mainstream with mall shops. It's an interesting time for Thai teas.
with deepest respect to the King of Thailand, 1927-2016, a truly great man