Saying Goodbye to 2020, with a Look at Tea from Vietnam

My recent posting frequency hasn’t been stellar as of late. Along with many of you, I’m weary.

Of loss. Of grief. Of the long winter stretch ahead of me, with little to motivate. The holidays, such as they were, are behind. And ahead? Anything? Anything at all? Some nights it seems there is little incentive to even set a morning alarm because who cares when I get up. I’ve entered winter, metaphorically and literally.

snow_sm copy

So what better time than to have a little caffeine boost in the morning? Besides, tomorrow begins a new year—bringing all that that symbolizes. Time carries us along, whether we go gladly or not.

Therefore, if you can identify with my 2020 weariness, I’d like to suggest that you break out that expensive tea you’ve been saving. Today. Or brew a cup of your favorite tea, perhaps paired with a good book or a view of snow-covered trees. Savor the experience. Contemplate the tea leaves, aroma, flavor, moment.

Consider where your tea came from. And what lives have been impacted by your drinking it.

Here, today, I have a tea that’s new to me and to TeaHaus, Vietnam Ban Lien Red, a black tea. These sienna to dark brownish-black leaves are long and wiry, and were produced in Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam. This mountainous region abuts Yunnan Province, one of China’s top tea-producing provinces, so it stands to reason that both areas would have suitable environments for tea plants.

ban lien red leaves

Like in China, tea has a long history in Vietnam, having been consumed for several thousand years. And since Vietnam’s economy is agriculturally based, and the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of tea, clearly the tea industry is critical for the Vietnamese. In 2015, over eighty percent of all the tea produced in the country was exported, an amount worth US$200 million in export value each year (Khoi et al. 2015:1).

Still, the tea industry has struggled, something I’ve addressed previously. Besides rectifying the current lack of branding, the entire industry needs upgrading. High-quality tea—free of contaminants and fair trade certified—might well be a desirable goal, but that requires money and education (which also requires money). Currently, profits are unequally enjoyed, meaning many industry workers remain impoverished.

You might think that because tea has been established for centuries, there wouldn’t be such problems, but as has happened in other parts of the world, an earlier collapse of the industry set everything behind. In Vietnam’s case, commercial tea plantations, begun by the French in the the early 1900s, were abandoned after the market collapsed in 1945–1954. Several decades later, tea production revived, suffering again during the Iraq War in 2003 (Dasgupta 2007:19).

Today, Khoi et al. (2015:3) explain that:

The country’s main export is low-quality black tea processed using orthodox technology. Most of this tea is sold wholesale, without labels, branding or packaging.

As Khoi et al. explain, the supply chain includes not only the tea farmers and producers, but all those involved in selling the processed tea: traders, wholesalers, retailers, and exporters. Of all these entities, the farmers and producers fare the worst as far as profits.

The authors of the study recommend that farmers increase both yield and quality—which are admirable goals to be sure, but as I said earlier, require investment and education, especially if the industry is to be nudged toward organic methods.

ban lien red lvs close

Today, quality remains uneven, but some superb teas have been produced, including those from leaves plucked from plants that continue to grow wild. In the past, TeaHaus carried an absolutely stunning example of such a tea, but apparently politics intervened and production ceased. Over the years, TeaHaus has had only a few teas from Vietnam, mainly because few of them meet the quality and purity standards set by Germany.

This Ban Lien Red tea, however, met all such standards! It was produced from an autumn harvest, with most of the leaves very small (but not delicate appearing), as seen after brewing.

ban lien brewed lvs 1

The leaves yield a gorgeous copper red cup that has a delightfully smooth and lovely flavor. This is certainly a tea to enjoy.

And to contemplate what it means to Vietnamese tea growers and producers as they try to bring their industry into alignment with what global consumers now demand. This Ban Lien Red meets those goals, but it continues to be a rarity rather than the norm for Vietnam.

The pandemic hasn’t helped the situation, as you may imagine. Although the country experienced fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths than most countries, those results were due to restrictions that also limited the opportunities for people to earn a living—which hits particularly hard in an agricultural-based society that has many undocumented workers and ethnic minority groups.

According to the director for Plan International Vietnam, Sharon Kane, in an interview this past October:

Farming communities in rural Vietnam that travel to Ho Chi Minh city to find work to supplement their income are no longer able to do so, and a number of girls have not gone back to school, . . . There’s a real risk that some of them have gone to do farm labor instead of going back to school, or entered into early marriage. (Ravelo 2020)

The pandemic has left few untouched, and those of us with the means ought to do what we can to alleviate pain in whatever way we can. For tea drinkers, part of our effort can be to patronize local tea shops; to buy quality tea, so as to encourage countries that are still developing their industry to continue to produce high-quality tea that will bring in decent profits for all the workers involved; to support our favorite aid organizations; to make good lifestyle choices ourselves.

Yes, we are weary of 2020, and the beginning of 2021 doesn’t look all that promising, but with some resolve, we’ll make it through. And remember, a cup of your favorite tea will help.

ban lien red brew copy

–Dasgupta, R., ‘Tea in Vietnam,” International Journal of Tea Science 6(2):19–20. 2007.
–Khoi, N. V., C. H. Lan, and T. L. Huong, “Vietnam tea industry: An analysis from value chain approach,” International Journal of Managing Value and Supply Chains 6(3):1–15. 2015.
–Ravelo, J. L., “Behind Vietnam’s COVID-19 success story,” Devex, October 9, 2020.

Vietnam Ban Lien Red available in TeaHaus’ January Monthly Brew sampler.

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