In this blog post, we continue our exploration of non-native Chinese teas produced in Asia. Our destination is Laos - a country on the crossroad between China (more specifically, Yunnan), Vietnam, and Burma, among others. Nestled in the area known as the cradle of tea origin, Laos is a country with ancient tea heritage, pristine forests, and age-old tea trees. Let's explore its merits and discover the Laos tea that increasingly draws the interest of tea drinkers by the year.
History of the Laos Tea
According to a number of research, the geographical origin of the tea plant lies within the Yun-Gui Kaoyuan (the mountainous plateau between Yunnan and Guizhou). Today, Yunnan is seen as the cradle of tea origin and culture. At the same time, administrative borders in that region have changed many times, along with the states they designated during the ages. Laos as a state existed from 1353 under the name of Lan Xang Kingdom. However, there are claims about tea entering the former Laos state as early as the 7th century via traders from Yunnan. During the Ming dynasty, the Northern Laotian territories are part of a kingdom in Xishuangbanna, that is a vassal to the Chinese empire. The Lao ethnic minority is a subgroup of the Tai people - a family of 93 million population speaking the Tai language. The biggest ethnic minority groups of Tai ancestry include Dai (one of the main minority groups inhabiting Xishuangbanna, with a long tradition), Lao, and Northern Thai people. Some scholars maintain that the Tai people were a main component of the Nanzhao kingdom - an ancient kingdom within Southern Yunnan. Due to political reasons, they were pushed south, inhabiting today's Laos and Thailand. Thus, they believe the Lao people are their direct descendants. Others, though, deem this theory to be invalid.
Northern Laos remains home to many ethnic minority groups - including Hmong, Khmu, Akha, and Lahu - and native habitat for the tea tree. Today, most of the tea production in Laos concentrates in its Northern regions.
Some of the tea strains found there are 600 years old by estimates. Laos Tea gardens started to emerge during the Ming dynasty. However, few of them have survived till today.
Laos Tea Production
Laos tea production is a growing industry with a promising future. Recently, the government promoted it as a sustainable alternative to swidden (slash and burn) agriculture and poppy cultivation. Currently, over 300 villages and 17,000 households are involved in tea cultivation. Most tea resources are in the mountains, populated by minority ethnic groups. Women play a dominant role in the cultivation, collection, processing, and sale of tea.
The northern provinces make up 85% of tea production in the country, with the town of Phongsaly as an epicenter. There is also emerging tea production in the south on the Bolaven Plateau. Tea usually comes from small producers - households or individual farmers. Household cooperatives exist in some villages. In the last decades, local or foreign producers(mostly Chinese) have managed some areas. They employ local people for harvesting and, occasionally, for processing.
A major asset is that the environment where tea grows in Laos has remained virtually untouched by modern agricultural practices. Most of the tea production is "organic by default", with only a handful of plantations on the Bolaven Plateau certified organic. At the same time, the lack of modern facilities makes it difficult for this outstanding product to reach a bigger market and a wider share of tea drinkers and lovers throughout the world.
Wild tea and ancient forests are among the big advantages of Laos tea.
While the administrative border between Laos and Yunnan has existed for quite some time now, the geography and environment of the Northern parts of the country are a natural continuation of Yunnan's outstanding combination of climate, soil, and topography that shape Pu-erh tea's unique terroir. Deep in the heart of the mountains in the North, you can find forests with wildly growing tea trees up to 6m high, at a visible age of a couple of hundred years. Some of the local tea strains are dated as far as 600 years. The altitude makes the use of pesticides unnecessary - few pests survive in mountainous conditions. Fertilizers are also never used in the forests.
Additionally, the local minorities can neither afford to purchase them nor have the habit of doing so. Instead, the trees are sexually propagated and grow freely in their original state as part of the mountainous ecosystem. Unlike commercially grown bushes in a lowland tea plantation, these trees have a robust root system. It penetrates deep into the soil, absorbing precious nutrients and minerals.
We mentioned some Laos tea gardens that existed from the Ming dynasty times. One such example is the tea garden area around Ban Komaen, a remote mountainous village that hides the oldest tea plantation in the country. Here, tea farmers from the Phunoy minority pick leaves from reputedly 400-years old trees with trunks up to 30cm wide. Local people have a particular way of processing tea into "tea cigars". They dry the green tea leaves, then carefully smoke and press them into hollow bamboo sticks. The finished tea is in the shape of a huge cigar and is deemed a signature local product.
A view from the 400 years tea tree plantation
Other than that, most teas in the Lao PDR are produced according to orthodox production methods. That applies to both individual farmers, as well as factories.
Unfinished Mao cha, used for the production of Pu-erh tea (Chinese fermented tea), holds the biggest share of Laotian tea. However, there are other finished teas, such as white, black, green, and even oolong tea.
The aboriginal tea tree in Laos is Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica. It is used for the production of Mao Cha. In the later years, Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis has also been introduced, mainly in factory-grown and harvested tea gardens.
Tea produced in Laos is highly prized for its ancient lineage and high purity due to the virtually absent use of chemicals. Wild and ancient tea varieties are rare and hold high value, especially in the Chinese tea markets.
Since Laos tea is much cheaper, most of it (85-90%) is exported (often smuggled) to Yunnan Province in China. There, it is mixed and used to produce Pu-erh tea.
The lack of a centralized organization of tea production on a national level makes the farmers heavily dependent on Chinese tea traders and brokers. It is also harder for them to market the tea as an original, local product for its natural advantages, as this means sacrificing the good returns it gives in the short run.
The unique advantage of Laos tea lies in its ancient lineage, organic and chemical-free production, and perceived health qualities. However, the production is organized mainly on an individual level. The minorities are people from impoverished areas that lack organization and protection on a state level. Instead, they rely on traders (often unlicensed) and are pressed to sell their product at a price set by the traders. That limits the possibilities for developing Laotian tea as a unique product with an emphasis on its own origin, qualities, and merits.
What the future holds for Laos tea
The future of tea production in Laos looks promising as the demand for tea of high quality continues to increase throughout the world. Laos tea has the unique advantages of an ancient lineage, wild-growing tea forests, and a clean, chemical-free environment. It is also a powerful tool to help fight poverty in remote areas and among the minority groups traditionally producing this outstanding tea. The local government has recognized the potential of the tea industry. It is starting to support tea producers by promoting organic farming and establishing tea processing centers. International traders also slowly begin to market this tea for its unique advantages, making it stand for itself rather than just a cheaper substitute for a world-famous appellation. These include Chinese traders who have started promoting the origin of Laos tea to customers looking for clean, organic tea. The demand for Laotian tea in other export markets, like Russia, France, Germany, the USA, and other nearby countries in East and south-east Asia, is also on the rise. In recent years, Taiwan has expressed a strong interest in Laotian tea. However, being the well-developed tea market it is, Taiwan requires large supply volumes and consistent quality control - challenges that the tea industry in Laos will need to face.
In 2022, a local tea-producing company (Chinese-managed) acquired an official certificate of origin in Laos. A special product of this company is tea, made from the buds of thousand-year-old trees. That special tea has been selected as a national gift in Laos' diplomatic activities. It has become the "business card", representing high-quality, "Made in Laos" agricultural products. Let's hope for an even brighter future ahead of Laotian tea.