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A story of one tea pilgrim.

Popularity 8Viewed 5719 times 2015-7-7 16:00 |Personal category:Culture|System category:Life| tea, ouer, Laos tea

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea”, states one of the characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “Notes from Underground”. Believe it or not, tea is a story, with its tellers and listeners. It can be romantic and warming like red tea, soothing and calming like green tea, or mysterious and refreshing like pu-erh tea. People drink tea differently in various countries, and choose different kinds of tea due to their preferences. The only thing doesn’t change – drinking tea is an international habit. China, being a Mecca for tea lovers, has attracted many a tea pilgrim, who, in pursuit of the fragrant beverage, drove here in stocks. Alexander Zhiryakov, one of the tea pilgrims, has been living in Beijing since 2008, and it was tea that got him to this place. However, it’s not China where he grows his tea. It is Laos, Phongsali.

 

On a fine April morning we met with Alexander Zhiryakov, a Moscow-born tea pilgrim, production director and author of the project “Laos tea” in the Buddhist Temple near Caishikou subway station in Beijing to talk about tea production, tea consumption in the world, nation’s tea preferences and other topics all wrapped around tea. We took a seat. As a tea connoisseur, he dragged the thermos and a couple of bowls out of his rucksack, and poured the Laos tea into the them. “I was every bit successful middle-class man working for an American company in Moscow”, Alexander, now a prosperousbusinessman, started. “At that time I frequented the Moscow tea clubs where tea lovers gathered to have a chat and drink tea”, he proceeded. The atmosphere and talks about mysterious China captivated him so much that eventually he decided to venture into China. He was 25 when he started the two-year language program at Peking University. When the course was finished, Alexander returned to Moscow only to leave it for China again. The idea about tea making first occurred to him in Moscow, developed in Beijing and bloomed in Laos. During his travel around East Asia, he ended up in Laos, as a matter of chance. He was shepherded by his friend around the Lao villages where he had a chance to sample their tea. Surprisingly, grown and cultivated in the right climate and zero pollution environment, the tea didn’t taste that delicious. “It is the right fermentation process that makes the tea taste good”, Alexander found out. And that’s where the idea about having a tea factory in Laos got its beginnings.


        

- Why was the preference of tea making given to Laos and not China?

- It is because of the complications of getting access to the high-quality raw material. The most important thing in tea-making, apart from the way it is processed where the Chinese are masters, is the basic material for tea, fresh leafs. For me, the absence of chemical fertilizers plays a big role. Organic tea is good. The higher the altitude, the more rarefied the air, the better for the tea. The high-quality tea does exist in China, but it’s incredible expensive. In Laos it’s possible to make it by your own, with full quality control on every stage of tea-producing. More than that we were attracted by 400-year old tea trees in Laos.

 

- Do you own the tea farms in Laos?

- No, Laos is a socialistic country and as a foreigner you cannot own the land. Tea plantations belong to the villages. It is called municipal property. We cooperate with the villagers and ask them to collect tea leaves so that after they are finished we send the trucks and take the leaves to the factory. We rent a middle-size factory in Laos. Anyway, it is not easy to negotiate with the locals. Every decision is made collectively in Laos, and if you are talking business with a villager, you talk with the whole village, not just him alone.

 

- To which countries do you export your tea?

- The USA, Europe, Russia, Taiwan. Actually, tea preferences are not the same in different country. For instance, tea culture in the States is different from the Chinese or Russian. The Americans like drinking ice tea and packeted tea. We had a very interesting experience in selling tea in France and Taiwan. After the tea is gathered and processed, we give it a number and send to tea dealers in different countries. France and Taiwan have both their own unique tea culture. We send them the same tea samples. In Taiwan they praise it, in France they grade the tea very low, or vice versa. It turned out, the difference lies in the way they brew tea. The Taiwanese like to drink tea in several brews, while the French brew the tea only once which adds a different flavor to the same tea leaves. Besides, the French like it sweet, while the Taiwanese prefer it bitter as they believe in the health-giving qualities of tea in accordance with the Chinese medicine. Moreover, the tea popular in China like Da Hong Pao tea or Tie Guan Yin tea do not enjoy the same popularity in the Western countries.

 

- How much tea do you produce in Laos?

- We have a rather small volume of tea production, from 5 to 10 tons per year. A lot of tea is produced in China and Vietnam, in Laos the whole annual production is only around 500 tons a year, the volume of one decent factory in China. And as tea is grown in the ecologically clean environment and all plucked by hand, the price is higher. A big part of our tea goes to China where it is mixed with Yunnan pu-erh tea. The rest of tea goes to other countries.

 

- What teas do you grow in Laos?

- First, it’s raw tea for pu-erh, mao cha. We have green tea, red tea (or, as it is known in the West, black tea), white tea and pu-erh. Actually, we don’t produce pu-erh in Laos we only supply the raw material for it. We are short of pu-erh experts in Laos, that’s why we send the raw stuff to Yunnan for a further procession.

 

- Why is the red tea in China known as black tea in other countries?

- That’s historical issue. The Westerners judge the color of the tea by its leaf appearance, its either black or green. But the Chinese look at the color of the tea liqueur.So, in China they distinguish six main tea types, and in the West it’s only two.

 

- According to the preferences of you clients, what is the most popular tea among the teas you produce?

- Europeans and Americans like drinking black tea, and the Asians more like green tea.

 

What about tea production in other countries?

- In Russia, its Southern regions, there are around 400 tons of tea, black and green, produced every year. Russia has good potential of growing tea. In France tea is not cultivated, the climate doesn’t suit: it’s too cold in the North and too droughty in the South. In the USA tea production is in the process of developing. They cultivate mostly oolong and black tea. In India, Kenya and Ceylon there are tea auctions to sell tea. The biggest tea auction is in Kolkata. The second biggest is in Mombasa, Kenia. Indian tea in general is cheaper than the Chinese, which makes it very marketable.

 

- What is happening in tea industry now?

- Tea industry is developing rapidly and tea consumption in the world is increasing.

 

To top all the questions, I asked what Alexander’s favorite tea was. His answer was presumable: the one he made himself, high-mountain and grown in the blessed land of Laos. After our interview was finished, he left for another meeting and waved us goodbye. A tea story to be continued.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report Chengking 2016-4-19 19:48
I visited the island nation of Seychelles last year. They also produce some tea locally. I bought some fruit flavored (lemon and strawberry) tea as gifts for friends. They actually tasted rather good.

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