I grew up in the north of Vietnam. In the North, they drink tea every day. And of course, I observed my father and uncles drinking tea, so I started drinking tea. And it’s good to have a hot tea cup in the winter there, in the North. The way we have green tea is with very hot water, boiling water. We keep it so long in the pot. So very strong, bitter. And the taste is too stringent, too harsh. We believe it’s a good style for tea, but it’s not. You cannot control the taste - every time you boil it, it’s different. I never knew that. I drank a lot of tea when I was in university. Later, when I graduated, I got a job and a chance to travel overseas.
I think it was 1998 I dropped by a tea shop in Malaysia and this is the first time I learned about seconds, times for brewing teas, temperature not too hot, the time should be 45 seconds for the first time, the second time 30 seconds… something like that. I realized that oh, this is so different. I realized that every kind of tea should be served at different temperatures, different brewing times - of course this depends on the person, but always there should be some temperature and some time, rather than putting tea in boiling water and keeping it there until you finish it.
Every time I go abroad, I see some kind of tea and bring it home and try different ways of serving. I have my own company, but at the time my interest in tea was growing and I thought I should someday open a tea shop, like they normally do in Taiwan, or Malaysia, or Singapore, or China. But I think changing Vietnamese habits is difficult, so instead of opening a tea shop I opened a tea house - we serve other things here too, like coffee and cake.
Tea Maison's Tea and Cake
You have white tea from ancient trees here. Where is this from?
It’s from Yen Bai, a province in North Vietnam. The tea trees there grow at about 1,700m. It’s not a plantation, the trees naturally grow on the mountains. The H’mong just collect the leaves. It’s organic tea.
What should the temperature of water be for brewing tea?
Tao’s staff brings a water boiler, a small teapot, a small glass serving pitcher, some white tea and three cups. You see the water here in the boiler goes down from 100 Celsius to 95, then goes down to 85 when poured into the teapot. We don’t focus on difficult gestures, we want something simple. We just focus on timing and temperature, just to tell the visitor that these are the two key points. To tell the customer that any accessory can serve good tea.
In the teapot the temperature goes down to 80. When poured into the pitcher, it goes to 70. And in the cup, I think it’s 60 or 55. This is the best temperature to drink tea. The average temperature in Vietnam for brewing tea is boiling water, 100 Celsius - then it’s too hot so it’s left in the pot too long and the tea is bitter.
Vietnamese Boiling Tea
The way we’re being served in small cups - this is an Asian method?
Yes. If you put it in a bigger cup, the aroma fades. For tea you need to use your five senses. If you use a small Asian cup, you feel the heat. If you put it in a regular cup, there is a handle so you cannot feel the heat, and the cup is too big so you lose the aroma.
How would you compare Vietnamese tea with teas from China, Sri Lanka, India and so on, in terms of taste and quality?
When we think about quality we think about two things: the taste, and hygiene and consistency standards. For taste, I can tell you Vietnamese tea has a very specific taste. Of course, the Chinese have a thousand different types of teas, but I have to tell you that the taste of Vietnamese ancient trees is very different. I have Chinese friends who find the tea outstanding.
Quality in terms of hygiene, how clean the process is - or how consistent the tea is - this is a different story. Japanese tea is very consistent. For our Vietnamese teas, this batch is different in quality from the next batch. However in tea, if you have some level of experience, you know that you have a quality process, the quality of tea you have still varies. Because it depends on the weather, the time you harvest tea during the year. Even very famous brands. It’s like wine - you harvest in autumn, it’s different from springtime. And that year it rains too much - it will also lower the quality.
In Vietnam, if you compare the tea to other countries, we can get that quality. But quality and quantity go together. Here we serve really good tea, but if you ask me for large quantities, I cannot provide.
Tea Plantation in Dalat
How can this change? How can we have both quality and quantity for Vietnamese tea?
It’s changing. First, it’s the market. Most tea produced in Vietnam is exported. Many famous brands in the world have Vietnamese tea. This is the strongest drive for improvement.
The second drive is people like us, who are serving tea. People go here and realise, when you’re hungry and you drink the tea, you don’t feel uneasy. But with tea with residues of chemicals, you feel uneasy. People are used to low quality tea, now they are served good quality tea. Then you have less demand for low quality.
Tea plantation owners are investing more. They don’t just tell farmers they want this quality of tea. They gather them, educate them, teach them practices.
How can you tell the quality of the tea?
Younger leaves on top of the tree are higher quality. You get lower, the quality is lower - it’s bitter and less fragrant.
It’s not always like this - it depends where the tree grows. For oolong tea or green tea, the lifetime - if you grow it - the lifetime is about 10 years. After 10 years you have to remove it and plant a new one. For ancient trees it’s important you don’t exploit it too much. You leave them some time to produce. In terms of health, tea from these ancient trees is very good for you.