Southeast Asia Teas and the Monsoon Effect

tea in clouds
Reposted from T Ching!


There are many ways to appreciate tea, and for some what starts as the enjoyment of an occasional cup turns into an obsession, a vocation, or both. As one continues along the path of tea knowledge, somewhere along the way, if fortunes and time permit, a pilgrimage to a commercial tea estate might be made.

Through unexpected opportunities and friendships, very early in the process of learning more about teas, I was able to visit tea farmers in China, Japan and Thailand. Although wonderful experiences, the timing of some of the trips was not ideal with respect to the tea growing and harvesting calendar. This year planning began early for another trip and yet somehow the spring harvest months slipped away. Then summer became impossible to schedule and the best that could be arranged was a trip in September. We would be in time for some early fall harvests but we would also be straddling the rainy season in Southeast Asia.

Calling it a “rainy season” is rather quaint, depending on your location, it is typhoon/cyclone/hurricane season or monsoon season. The first three are all the same, intense storms over a body of water; east of the International Dateline they are named “hurricanes”, west of it “typhoons” and on either side of the Indian subcontinent “cyclones”. Monsoon season is a low-pressure system over a landmass that creates an extended period of rainfall and typically, flooding in many countries across Southeast Asia.

For tea growers affected by these conditions, managing the optimum times for tea harvesting and processing around significant periods of rain is critical. Tea leaves plucked before the heaviest rains will usually have a different flavor profile than harvests during or just after monsoon season. In some regions, monsoon harvest teas, weaker in flavor, are some of the lowest priced teas produced by tea estate.

Our travels began in Bangkok, Thailand the first week in September and then headed south for a few days before making a long trek to the northern border and Myanmar. More through dumb luck than careful planning we managed to avoid any heavy rain, just the occasional afternoon or evening thunderstorm. As morning mists lifted, we had the opportunity to walk among rows of carefully cultivated tea bushes just before plucking began. On some estates larger “wild” assamica varietal bushes were interspersed among the manicured rows, the debated third botanical category of tea bush found in the Golden Triangle region.

Eventually, our luck ran out as we returned to Bangkok for a short side trip to Singapore. One person who was to join us from Hong Kong was grounded when a typhoon cancelled all flights out of the airport. In Singapore, with each passing day the afternoon storms became longer in duration with apocalyptic levels of rainfall. On our return to Thailand, flooding was already a problem in the central provinces.

For tea lovers, it pays to keep an eye on the global weather, especially in the growing region of your favorite teas. Bad weather may mean having to modify your expectations for a tea until the next harvest cycle. It also becomes important for some teas to know which harvest during the year is being sold. To say a tea is a “2013 Harvest” isn’t enough information as spring or early summer teas will be distinctly different than late summer or autumn.