Chiang Rai: First Day in Thailand’s Tea Growing Region
When things are meant to happen, they happen. I had my doubts that my tea journey and garden experience was not going to meet my expectations. When I heard that the owner of our first tea garden was going to pick us up at the airport, I figured that it was a good sign. I was even more excited to hear that they would be picking tea at the farm on that day.
When we met the owners at the airport, we were greeted with the largest smiles, you know the ones that is so joyful
that their eyes closed. They spoke good English and we discussed our respective role in the tea industry. The two sisters described how their four gardens of 100 acres each, 2 shops and 260 employees started with humble beginnings. Their father started with just a small plot of land and the factory was not much more than him in a barn. Each processes was completed by his personal experience and formal training in Taiwan for hand tea processing. After decades of farming, their father grew the business to a much larger enterprise that utilizes temperature and moisture controlled rooms as well as large pieces of equipment. The business also celebrates accolades including: USDA Certified Organic, certified Thailand Biodynamic, and One Town One Product Champion.
The factory tour was intriguing. Yes, we’ve read all about the processing steps, but it was another to be in the factory
amongst the workers practicing their craft. We had an opportunity to closely observe the process of making Oolong, the most popular type of tea produced in Thailand. The pickers pulled two leaves and a bud between the tip and knuckle of their pointer finger and their thumb. They would slide the picking to their palm to repeat the process twenty times in 10 seconds before dumping their stock into their basket. After their picking they have an hour to lay their tea out for quality inspection and solar wilting. Then the leaves went through seven steps of wilting and tumbling. The tumbling in bamboo chambers causes the leaves to “wake up” and wilting occurs again after letting it stand in humidity controlled rooms. The tea is let to sit longer to continue its withering. This is the process to ensure that the water component in tea leaves get out as much as possible. Next is another two step process of firing and massaging. Each task is repeated 36 times. The roaster is set at 570 degrees. Final step is the Drying and sorting of leaves of similar size
to ensure uniform infusion.
The tea factory includes a packing room for loose and bagged tea. They chop their finished product to make fannings for biodegradable pyramid tea bags. Lesser quality tea producers will use the tea dust left behind the sorting process or finely chop the machine cut fresh leaves before further processing. These shortcuts produce poorer tasting teas.
In all, the owners picked us up at the airport, fed us lunch, gave a wonderful tour and a broad sampling. When we offered to pay, they sternly refused and said that their customers in the tea business are like family.
And the journey continues…