Let’s talk about tea. It’s that amber liquid, (ice cold and sickeningly sweet), that offers relief from a Savannah Summer. The ectoplasmic green goop frothed by a whisk, handcrafted with an almost unfathomable amount of precision. It’s the fuel for conversation in countless Middle Eastern speak easys. To call it a “beverage” would be selling it short, and it would also be entirely correct – but really, “ritual” is a better word for what tea is.
In a broader sense, tea is a drink brewed from the top three leaves of the Camellia Sinensis Sinensis plant. Or in the case of Monsoon Tea the Camellia Sinensis Assamica plant, but we’ll get to that later. This is a plant that has been co-evolving with humans for as long as the Han Dynasty. Subtly changing itself for us, or is it that we’re changing ourselves for it. This may sound weird, but anyone who’s read “The Botany of Desire” or most any Michael Pollen for that matter will be nodding their heads in agreement.
To me, tea is a way of doing things. A ritual one takes part in. A way to escape for a moment. The path of kinship via the most easily understood sign of community – consuming the same thing as your peers. For consuming the same thing is what makes you peers. It works for lao khao, cigarettes, and sweetbreads; same thing goes for tea.
Tea is a community. community is what it takes to make tea after all. The bacteria in the soil that makes the land palpable for the plant. The picker, the sorter, steam table operators, purveyors, packers, postmen, proprietor, and patron. Each a link in the chain that leads from seed to sip. Not unlike the one on that mesh basket refusing to let the steeping leaves adequately separate beneath the lid. This is what connects Betty Lou in Baton Rouge most with Pi Pet in Prae.
Kenneth at Monsoon Tea seems to understand this, or at least that’s what I took from our conversation (not to mention the plethora of information on Monsoon’s website). He was working in the Spanish tea business, still does, during his first trip to Thailand. This is where he heard stories about tea plants in the mountains that grew 80 feet tall and were as think as trees. After heading up there to see for himself, it was indeed true. Although, these plants were primarily used for herbal medicine, or for fermenting into miang to make the leave’s nutrients more bioavailable.
The difference between these tea plants and the ones used for large scale agricultural is the genus (or is it family? I was never a very good biology student). The domesticated version of the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis Sinensis, is just that; domesticated. Planted in large open fields with little in the way of biological diversity. These are akin to the American broiler chicken. Groomed to fit a standard for ease of production at maximum output. They are manicured like a fat cat’s front lawn, and just like his lawn, need consistent care and diverted resources to thrive.
On the other hand Camellia Sinensis Assamica, or the un-domesticated version of the tea plant, is still at one with nature. The symbiotic relationship between jungle and tea leaf is as intertwined as it’s ever been. Growing along bamboo, on hillsides, and under the foliage canopy, this “wild” version is still in harmonic balance with nature as it was before Ghangis was a Khan or when Alexander was yet to be great.
This is more than just a good thing for you, the tea drinker. It is also great for the environment as monocropping can have some nasty biological side effects. When there is only one type of plant dominating a plot of land the nutrition of the soil is essentially a ticking time bomb. In some countries the soil only has about 60 more harvests left until it’s left completely barren. Reintroducing a more diverse set of plants, not to mention forgoing the use of pesticides can help break this cycle. This is the main goal Kenneth and Monsoon Tea are after.
If you ask Kenneth he’ll tell you that the difference between the two plants is like a dog and a wolf. The dog being the domesticated commercial variety, and the wild tea being the wolf. I don’t think this goes far enough though. Anyone who’s walked alone through a village (or even side soi for that matter) at night know dogs can survive just fine without humans. The chicken analogy is more apt here. The American Franken… I mean broiler chicken, unable to stand under the weight of it’s own genetically modified breasts, wouldn’t last a minute alone in the jungle. But if you’ve ever seen how dark the meat on a Gai Pa (jungle chicken) is you’ll know it ate well it’s whole life.
At Monsoon Tea, you’ll find only the finest teas that Chiang Mai has to offer. All the tell tale signs of a good tea shop are here. Are all of the teas stored in air tight tins that keep out the sunlight? Check. Are the staff able to answer specific questions about said tea leaves, such as origin, date of picking, and best brewing method? Check. Do they have a variety of blends and natural tea? Check. Do they brew the tea in house for you to drink there? Check.
At the riverside location, they also do a very interesting eating menu. All items of which are either made with tea or made to compliment a freshly brewed pot. The fresh tea leaf salad was particularly interesting to me. As I said before tea leaves are usually fermented if they will be eaten. But in this dish they are served unfermented. This lets their natural bitterness really come through. Although the levels of sour, salty, and sweet in the salad kept the dish in a harmonic balance. Great with a hot cup of oolong too.
All in all the only thing that would keep you away from buying your tea from Monsoon is the price. It takes a lot of effort to do produce this kind of quality product and comes with a slightly steeper price tag. If you’re used to making your tea from a little sachet, the thought of a 300+ baht tin of tea might be a bit eye opening. But it really is worth it for the flavor and the positive effect they are playing on the environment.
Price: This varies greatly but a 100 gram tin will range from just under 300 baht to around 600.
Open: 10:00-20:00 Everday for the Riverside location
10:00-22:00 Everyday for the One Nimman location
The Good Stuff Chiang Mai