Vietnam – ancient tea culture and “cradle country” of the tea tree
Vietnam’s Identity as one of the evolutionary “cradle countries” of the tea tree surprisingly is still not common ground in western tea lover circles. Similarly unknown is the fact that – without any exaggeration – some of the world’s best teas come from Vietnam. The country’s ancient tea culture – rooted in the tending of wild tea tree resources through ethnic minorities, had to defy quite some challenges and time and again adopt to new situations.
In particular, the long Vietnam’s colonialization through the French, the communist revolution and the Vietnam War have left their stamp on the tea cultivation and tea production in Vietnam and influenced them lastingly. You will find more general information about Vietnam’s history as a tea producing country in our relevant article at Siam Tea Blog,
In Vietnamese, tea means “Trà”, which – spoken correctly – sounds a lot like “Cha”. Today, besides the maintenance and cultivation of ancient tea tree reserves, tea is also conventionally cultivated. This applies especially to a range of Oolong tea cultivars imported from Taiwan. Nevertheless, when it comes to tea, the ancient tea tree reserves remain the country’s most precious treasure. Particularly sticking out here is the “Thuyet Shan” (“Snow High Mountain”) tea tree variety native to the mountainous central Vietnamese provinces Suoi Giang and Ha Giang.
4 Snow Shan Teas – excellence in picking and processing standards
Trà Thuyet Shan – Snow Shan Tea
The Vietnamese “Thuyet Shan” tea tree (thuyet = snow, shan = high mountain) is growing up to 15 meters tall. The extraordinary strength of his trunk, tightly covered with moss and mold, the long large leaves and the possibly record-breaking giant buds additionally advocate the idea that the Thuyet Shan could belong among the most ancient tea tree varieties in the world. In the old times, the Vietnamese used to preferably consume tea leaves fresh, i. e. without any “further” processing after picking. Meanwhile, however, the production of green tea, black tea, white tea and a Vietnamese black tea specialty called “Trà Pai Hao” from the leaves of the “Snow High Mountain” tea tree also looks back on a long reaching back tradition.
The variety has its name from the white color of its buds, tightly covered with long white hair. Even after processing the buds and leaves to green tea, these are still well visible in the resulting leaf material. They’ll remain white with green tea, while appearing slightly yellow-colored with Snow Shan black tea and Tra Pai Hao.
‘Bach Shan Tea’, our producer partner in Vietnam, exclusively processes tea leaves and buds from the family’s own tea plantation. The same is located in altitudes of 1400+ meters in Ha Giang province and accommodates quite a proud reserve of 100+ years old Thuyet Shan tea trees. The plantation adheres to biodiverse and organic cultivation principles. This way, the tea trees benefit from the input and the regulating mechanisms of a naturally grown, biodiverse environment. Moreover, the use of pesticides becomes unnecessary.
Ancient Artisan Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea – Harvest Time and Picking Standard
Ancient Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao tea is a Vietnamese black tea specialty characterized by its 1+1 picking standard and particularly complex and meticulous processing method. Like other Snow Shan teas, it is produced from leaves of the Thuyet Shan (= “Snow High Mountain”) tea tree. The picking and processing of this special tea is a tradition of the “Red Dzao” mountain tribe native to Ha Giang province.
The tea leaves for producing Ancient Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea are picked from March to the middle of May and then from September to November again. Picking standard are only the young buds plus the youngest adjacent leave (1+1). For picking, no rain must have fallen for three days. The preferred picking times are the early morning hours, due to the prevailing cool temperatures at that time, which not only soothes the pickers, but also benefits the tea. The Vietnamese method of processing black tea resembles in principle that of Chinese Arbor Black Teas from Yunnan.
However, what really sticks out with all Snow Shan teas is less the theoretic framework, but rather the virtually unparalleled diligence and passion for detail. This applies both to the picking and the processing. Whether in China, Japan or India, you’ll rarely find such a consistently realized picking standard and such fabulously preserved whole leaf in a ready processed black tea. Also the aesthetical overall impression – the dry leaf material pleases with an overly attractive and mouthwatering appearance – owes a lot to the love for detail infused in the processing of Snow Shan teas.
4 Snow Shan Teas – wet leaves showing picking/processing excellence
Ancient Artisan Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea – Processing
The processing of Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea takes more than just the right equipment. Know how, good technical skill, rich experience, lots of empathy and focus, and a set of appropriately sharpened senses are all factors that are crucial for an optimal outcome. And the right weather! A large part of the processing is still done manually today.
Tea leaves withering on bamboo trays
Step 1: Withering
After their arrival at the tea factory, the freshly picked tea leaves are thinly distributed on large round bamboo trays. These are initially stored in a well ventilated room with low humidity and temperatures below 36°C for a period of 12-16 hours. Then, they are brought outdoor, where they are exposed to sunlight for about 6-8 hours. At the end of this withering process, the residual moisture is reduced to ca. 30%.
Tea leaves withering outdoor
Step 2: Roasting
Once the residual moisture in the tea leaves has dropped to a level of about 30%, it’s time to start the roasting. The roasting of Ancient Snow Shan Pai Hao tea is done on high stoves erected over charcoal hearths. 3 to 5 roasting runs are required, between each of which a break of several hours must be observed. This gives the tea leaves time to cool down. It is important for the resulting tea’s quality that the tea leaves are still completely unbruised at this point. During this process, the further lose residual moisture. Also, this phase is quite decisive for shaping the aroma, color and taste of the resulting Trà Pai Hao tea.
Step 3: Oxidation
Once this process is completed, the tea leaves are first heated up in a pan. At this, they are consistently moved and the leaf surfaces are broken up without destroying the actual tea leaf. During this phase, the leaves and buds will already take on a slightly curled shape. Subsequently, and back on the bamboo trays, they are transferred to the cooling room, where they are stored until the desired degree of oxidation is reached.
Step 4: Interruption of the oxidation process
Once the tea master decides after thorough visual, haptic and olfactory examination of the leaf material that the desired degree of oxidation is reached, the oxidation process is interrupted through heating the tea leaves in the roasting pan to high temperatures.
Step 5: Final drying
For the final drying procedure, the tea leaves run through several cycles in a dryer machine. At this, the temperature in the dryer is gradually reduced from run to run, based on the decreasing residual moisture in the tea leaf.
Taste and Preparation
The taste of the ready prepared Ancient Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea reflects 100% the efforts invested into its processing. There are few better examples for how only best processes can lead to best results. The general taste pattern of this tea is strongly reminiscent of that of Yunnan black teas: deep sweetness, with malty and cocoa notes and a pronounced, but nevertheless pleasant roast aroma. In the cup, the tea is of crystal-clear transparency and intense bright red color. In orientation on the Chinese tea color code, the tea referred to as black tea in our culture in Vietnam is referred to as a “Red Tea”.
For the preparation of Ancient Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea, we recommend to employ a general standard for black tea preparation. Pour 200ml water of a temperature of 90-100°C (boiling hot) over 4g of tea leaves and let infuse for 3 minutes for a highly delicious first infusion. What is definitely not standard and a strong quality feature of Ancient Snow Shan Trà Pai Hao Tea is its incredible potential. 2-3 more infusions can be yielded by adding one additional minute to each steep’s infusion period. At this, the second infusion hardly falls back behind the first in terms of body and taste, with a third and a forth infusion still being well worth it.