Phongsaly young tea trees

In young tea gardens on the green hills of Laos, you encounter something quite special which is not
obvious to the superficial observer. Here is the story about Laotian way to cultivate tea.
24 December

The large tea trees we love so much were once very young and, still earlier, just seeds. The chestnut-like seeds have spread around the Phongsaly neighborhood, by natural processes or with human assistance.
In young tea gardens on the green hills of Laos, you encounter something quite special which is not obvious to the superficial observer.
Laos tea, thanks to its method of planting and cultivation, is noticeably different from the tea grown on plantations in other countries.

The essence of the difference stems from Nature itself. But lack of "progress" is a huge factor, as well. Combine a perfect location and ideal breeding with the low level of technology and high level of attention to detail and connoisseurs of pure tea find a product both rare and marvelous.

Such slowly and carefully produced tea is not an option for large-scale commercial tea manufacturers.  In fact, the whole idea may annoy them as it is not "efficient". But we are very pleased that there is such a place as Phongsaly, and that we have the opportunity to prepare tea there. 

It is important that the tea garden be in harmony with the environment.

Perhaps the primary feature of tea grown as it is around Phonsaly is that well-spaced plants have as much room as they would if grown in a natural environment. The wide spacing allows for full development of the root system of tea bush, which permits it to access deep soil nutrients, minerals and water.
In the 17th century in Japan, tea growers developed a plantation system of tightly spaced rows. This system is now widespread in China, India and Ceylon, because it is very profitable. Bushes planted very close together can be regularly trimmed for easy manual or machine harvest.

On such tea estates, the tea bushes create a monoculture, meaning that at the site, no other plants are permitted to grow.  As with other forms of monoculture, this leads to rapid depletion of vital nitrogen compounds in the soil. As a result, the only option is the application of lots of artificial fertilizers, mainly nitrate.
For the grower, use of tight spacing and artificial fertilizer has major advantages. The tea crop per hectare is increased more than 2.5 times, and that means far higher profits.
When grown in this way the tea bush gives a larger yield, yes, but the leaves lack the deep density of taste found in the naturally produced, old style tea we are offering.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the difference in tea grown in northern Laos. We know the distance between the bushes is rather large so roots develop fully.  In addition, bushes are not pruned like hedges to conform in shape but are allowed to grow naturally. Also, the only fertilizer used is a mulch of natural local weeds, which returns nutrients to the soil between the spring and the autumn harvest.

Laotian tea growers are proud that they do not use manure from animals or humans for fertilizer. Anything assumed to be dirty they see as unacceptable for adding to the tea slopes.

When the tea grows naturally and without fertilizer on bushes that are not pruned into shape, collecting the harvest of young leaves by hand becomes more difficult.

Unlike tea grown on nearly all the world’s tea plantations, Laos tea is never irrigated and does not grow in tight, narrow rows of identical, cloned tea bushes.

In Phongsaly, we have discovered a huge variety of teas, thanks to an incredible amount of variation in the local breeding of Camellia sinensis. Tea is a plant with sexual reproduction. When it blooms, male pollen is carried to the flower’s female ovary, which then matures into pods or bolls, the hard little fruit, each with one to four seeds.

When genes mix through pollination the tea plants acquire properties from both parents, resulting in a new individual, a tree with its own unique qualities. Sometimes the properties of the new tree are very good. At other times, the offspring is weaker than the parents, or has a different appearance and maturation time for leaves. In nature, variation is extremely important as it assures some individuals will survive nearly all environmental challenges.

Tea trees in blossom. Tea is a type of camellia, garden plants famed for  beautiful blooms.  During the flowering of the tea bushes, in the autumn, the delicate sweet scent of tea flowers is everywhere. 

By late spring, the flowers have matured their fruit and are transformed into what look like little boxes of seeds.

Where tea is grown in industrialized countries, to avoid unwanted variation, growers use the cloning method of propagation. When a tea plant has known properties that growers would like to replicate, they take a “cutting” and cultivate this sprig or stalk with the precise genetics of the parent. Once it acquires roots it can be planted in the ground.

Thus, it is possible to produce millions of identical tea plants with predetermined well-known parameters. Planters create the selection of teas found in Japan, Taiwan, India by collecting cuttings with successful combinations of properties and cloning them for future plantations.

The usual industrial approach has the advantage of making pretty good tea accessible to a large population. But Laos tea will never be produced in large volume like the production of Vietnamese, or even Nepali tea.

In Laos tea grows naturally, with minimal but adequate care. Grown from cross-pollinated seeds, the result is a crop that plantation owners see as "unfavorable" in terms of economic efficiency.
It is impossible to make this wonderful, old-style tea cheaply.  It will never be sold in tea bags at the grocery shop. Lao tea has a unique and specific value, a deep taste and aftertaste. At its foundation is the very simple basic reality of fertile soil without chemicals, a clean and natural environment without poisons and the careful, hand picking of tea of the leaves.

Laos red tea. Its preparation requires very careful attention to the process of fermentation. If not done right, the result is mediocre at best. If done correctly by our experienced taste experts, one can enjoy a dense, fragrant, nourishing and simply delicious tea.

In our work, we pay very close attention to the choice of raw materials that arrive for tea production. We know which gardens and plantations produce each small batch. 

Time goes forward, and it is obvious that modern technology will eventually find its place in this "lost world" of ancient tea gardens and tea produced in the old way. Our task until that time is to support the way of life of the local people.  Thanks to them and our unique way of processing, we have a can offer our customers a special kind of Laos tea, available nowhere else.

Two houses on the slope. Usually in such houses, Laotians keep  simple supplies and rest while working with tea.

New tea garden called "Five pines".

Seasons follow one upon the other, and in the Lost Hills, tea keeps growing.


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