Story by Tom Vitayakul
Who would have thought that a soft-spoken Swedish man could wax lyrical about ancient tea trees in northern Thai jungles? Kenneth Rimdahl, the founder and CEO of Monsoon Tea, says of his passion for tea: “The idea started over 20 years ago when I first travelled to northern Thailand to source ceramic teapots for the tea company I was working for in Spain. At that time, I didn’t know anything about tea, or whether it even existed in Thailand. My newfound friend, Vorakarn Wongfu or Aek, introduced me to fermented tea leaves and eventually became a business partner.”
Rimdahl continues, “I was interested to know more about the traditional culture surrounding tea in Thailand. I learned that historically tea had been used for eating rather than drinking. This explained why I had heard of tea from China, Japan, Sri Lanka, India and even Russia, but never from Thailand. I was sceptical about fermented tea leaves used for eating, called miang, seen in the markets and that they came from the same tea plant sold as tea in Spain. I took a journey up to the mountains and realised that it is true. In Thailand, the endemic tea plants were growing in complete harmony with the forest, totally different from how I had seen tea plantations in the rest of Asia.”
So what is miang? Most Thais and visitors have had miang khum, a snack or appetiser made of fresh betel leaves or other kinds of leaves with various components such as toasted coconut flakes, dried shrimps, peanuts, lime, ginger, shallots and chillies, topped with a sauce made from caramelised palm sugar and peanuts. This is a central plains fancy version of the original miang. However, miang is an ancient usage of tea plants in Thailand. Bai miang refers to fermented tea leaves, a traditional food in northern Thailand as well as in Myanmar and Laos, made from the wild tea plant (Camellia sinensis assamica). Thus miang is the true origin of tea.
Miang consists of tea leaves picked in bundles and then fermented in barrels before being consumed. The tradition of eating and using tea for herbal medicines has a history reaching further back in time than tea for drinking. The seeds of wild tea were planted in the forest as miang plantations. Thanks to miang, there is still much “forest-friendly” tea in Thailand as tea plants are free to grow high and harmoniously with nature. Miang production starts by picking tea leaves. Then the fresh, larger leaves are put into bundles and let decompose in an initial stage. Afterwards, these bundles of tea leaves are fermented in barrels for weeks or months, depending on the farmer’s technique. When the fermentation process is complete, the tea leave bundles are transported and sold at local markets.
In 2013 Rimdahl established Monsoon Tea, which specialises in exceptional wild and free-grown tea indigenous to the forests of northern Thailand. He enthuses: “Since that first eye-opening trip, I returned to Thailand many times and finally decided to take a step away from the company in Spain and work full-time on this new venture. Learning more about tea culture and deforestation in these regions, I eventually came to the point where I decided to work only with ‘forest-friendly tea,’ meaning tea growing completely in harmony with its surroundings and independent from herbicides and pesticides, irrigation systems, or fertilisers.”
He explains, “How the tea is cultivated is as important as how it is processed. Unlike the domesticated tea (Camellia sinensis sinensis) on large commercial plantations, Monsoon Tea is grown and harvested from the original Camellia sinensis assamica tea plants, the undomesticated species native to northern Thailand. These wild, free-grown tea plants propagate naturally in the “Home of Tea,” the mountain chains from Assam, India through to Myanmar, northern Thailand, northern Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan, China.
“The original tea plant is stronger than the domesticated one because it possesses natural defences. First, it has much deeper roots. Therefore it doesn’t need watering systems. Second, it has more tannins which is a natural protection against insects and parasites. So there’s no need for pesticides and they grow in harmony with the forest. Moreover, they don’t need fertilisers. Less than one percent of teas worldwide are made using Camellia sinensis assamica, making Monsoon Tea a very rare and unique tea. Wild-picked from Fang district, Monsoon Jungle Tea comes from completely wild tea trees growing four hours away from the nearest road in the mountains between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai at an elevation of 2,200 metres. These trees only produce a limited amount of leaves every year, making these jungle teas our most exclusive teas. The wild teas have deep characters and fully fragrant potpourri of naturally flavoured teas.”
Monsoon Tea’s sustainable approach keeps the forests alive, preserves biodiversity and provides local communities with a stable source of income. They also encourage tea producers to implement reforestation efforts at their existing deforested plantations. To protect nature, Rimdahl developed the Rimdahl Scale to measure how forest-friendly a tea plantation is by studying soil quality and biodiversity among plants and insects. By promising reforestation efforts, tea farmers can progress along this scale and receive higher prices for their tea than they used to, all while acting as guardians of the forest.
In collaboration with Russian entomologist Alexey Reshchikov, The Tea Fauna Project is focused on studying biodiversity associated with the tea plant species across Southeast Asia. By documenting and studying the different species of animals living around tea, they aim to spread information and in the future create a platform where tea farmers and tea lovers across the world can learn about the creatures that live among their tea and how changes in the ecosystem affect interspecies interactions.
Monsoon Tea has two branches in Bangkok, one on Asok and another at EmQuartier. In Chiang Mai, besides the shop at One Nimman shopping centre, its dedicated teahouse and restaurant share a location with its headquarters in the Wat Ket area. Here they source and process high-quality white, green, oolong, yellow and black pure teas and flavour the tea with fruits, spices, herbs and flowers. The whole variety of Monsoon Tea can be consumed there, and teapots and gifts are available for purchase in attractive packaging. The Thai and Western menu is fairly extensive but highlights are dishes made from or infused with tea. Inspired by traditional Lanna Thai flavours and recipes, they are prepared with organic vegetables from the “Monsoon Garden” behind the restaurant. Fresh salad greens, tomatoes, eggplants, chillies and heaps of goodies end up on the plate. Their own hens even provide fresh eggs every day.
Monsoon Tea must-haves include Lahu hill tribe-style salad of fresh tea leaves with minced pork, peanuts, tomatoes, onions and dill; northern-style larb khua of chicken with blood and bile for more robust flavours served with fresh vegetables; and deep-fried chicken with plain mayonnaise and fermented tea leaf-paste mayonnaise, bringing back the old culture of eating miang. All of these flow well with fragrant and refreshing iced lychee oolong tea or Monsoon kombucha, lightly effervescent and flavoured with the signature Monsoon Blend of juicy peach, ginger and rose. Kombucha is a sparkling fermented tea beverage with a slightly sweet and sour taste and contains antioxidants and detoxification abilities. Rimdahl also organises private tea tastings and workshops. A variety of exclusive pure tea, flavoured tea, wild jungle tea and herbal tea from the entire assortment are part of the tasting.
Rimdahl concludes: “Almost 20 years after the original idea started and Monsoon Tea was founded, our company steadily grows in Thailand with orders from all over the world. We have a large number of wholesale customers and create tea pairings together with some of Bangkok’s Michelin star-awarded restaurants. It is truly a blessing to run a business fully focused on creating a product as sustainable as possible, and then being able to offer it to the rest of the world.” Monsoon Tea organically connects tea lovers worldwide with tea farmers in the serene mountain of northern Thailand.
Monsoon Tea Wat Ket 328/3 Charoenrat Road, Wat Ket, Chiang Mai 50200
Tel: 052 007 758
Monsoon Tea Asoke 116, 18 Sukhumvit Soi 23, Klong Toei Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok 10110
Tel: 082 259 5599
Monsoon Tea EmQuartier 693-695 Sukhumvit Road, Klong Tan Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok 10110
Monsoon Tea One Nimman Suthep, Mueng Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200
Tel: 080 491 5353