Time out for tea

While coffee shops are opening in Bangkok almost by the day, teahouses are quietly going about the business of what they?ve always done: serving tea, properly.

?If you compare the present situation to ten years ago when tea was only to be found in Chinatown, then there has been progress, but it remains very slow,? says Nim?s Tea House manager Yves Pintaud. ?The new coffee shops are trying to promote a stylish, yuppie way of life in a busy city. Tea, on the contrary, has long been associated with meditation, rest and healing – this is a concept far more difficult to sell in our present environment.?

So why follow the sheep? Head to a teahouse instead where you can slow down, choose a tea to suit your mood, and enjoy having it served correctly. Or choose your own to take home, invest in a good tea service, and ingest it at your leisure.

To the uninitiated, selecting from the huge array of teas available – more than 500 Chinese teas are in existence – can be daunting. There?s no standard way of classifying teas, but a common way to do so is based on the processing and appearance of the tea. This method produces six groups:
* Green teas, which are not fermented at all;
* Oolong teas, semi-fermented, lying between the green and red groups;
* White teas, which are slightly fermented and must follow a strict selection process;
* Red teas, which are fully fermented;
* Black teas, which are made from large mature leaves and takes the longest time to ferment; and
* Flower teas, composed of a green tea blended with flowers.

?Tung Ting Oolong is probably the most popular tea served tea here,? says Ong?s Tea assistant manager Woraphong Ong, referring to one of many types of Oolong tea. His family has been selling teas in Bangkok for more than one hundred years. ?But there are a lot of other popular teas, such as Te Kwan Yin and Narcissus [both Oolongs]. Thais tend to like teas that are more bitter, but we also stock special grade ginseng tea, which is sweet ? not from sugar, but from the tea itself.?

A bottomless cup in-house costs Bt100 to Bt300. Take-home teas (loose leaf) start at Bt45 for Thai lemongrass tea (120g), a mid-range price is the ginseng tea for Bt400 (120g), while their best quality tea is Tung Ting Oolong, costing Bt2,500 for 300g. ?This is a very good Oolong tea,? Woraphong says. ?Many of our customers know a lot about teas ? they always ask for grade A [the top grade].?

Tea services range from Bt450 to Bt3000, with price based on the type of clay used, and the artisan who made it.

At Nim?s, prices for in-house tea range from Bt100 to Bt380 per person, with the more popular ones being Korea fruit teas (Bt100) and Kau San Jin Hsuan Oolong (Bt150) tea. To take home, expect to pay Bt150 to Bt500 for 50g of Chinese tea, depending on the quality.

It might seem expensive to drink tea in-house, but the way tea is prepared is just as important as the quality of the tea itself ? and it?s unlikely the novice will get things right at home themselves. The type of water used, the water temperature, the quality of the teapot, the volume of tea leaves used and the steeping time all contribute towards a full appreciation of the tea?s qualities. If buying take-home tea, ask your tea seller for advice on that particular tea.

And when ordering in smaller teahouses, don?t always expect to be told exactly what you?re drinking, warns Woraphong. ?Many tea shops won?t tell you the names in the particular blend they are using. They?ll mix it themselves and use their own brand name.? If you like it, you?ll have to keep buying it from them.

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