London-born Geoff Hopkins spends a few months every year searching for wild tea trees in Vietnam’s misty mountainous regions.
For Geoff is a tea obsessive.
He didn’t start off with a full-blown passion for tea, just your ordinary British appreciation for a good cuppa. But when Geoff was transferred to Hong Kong, he began getting more and more interested in Chinese tea. Then in 2008 his employer, HSBC, transferred him to Hanoi.
“When I first came to Vietnam I didn’t even know Vietnam produced any tea,” Geoff said. “Which, I guess, is a bit of an embarrassing confession to make.”
In Hanoi, Geoff met Nguyen Thu Ngoc, who hails from one of Vietnam’s most famous tea-growing regions, Lao Cai, near Sapa. Together they hatched a plan to open a business based around Vietnamese tea.
Even though Hanoi is closer to Vietnam’s tea-growing regions, Geoff followed his contrarian heart and based their operation in Ho Chi Minh City.
Geoff and Ngoc spent months hunting for wild tea trees around Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai and Son La provinces.
“When we first started, we’d go somewhere and ask around: `who makes good tea?’ When the same name came up two or three times, we’d then pay them a visit. Typically we’d go there, get showed around, drink some tea and end up being invited for a meal, with lots of toasting with rice wine.”
One of the reasons Geoff is so enamoured of wild tea trees is that they are grown organically.
“It’s not a monoculture, not rows and rows of plants in a field as far as the eye can see,” Geoff said.
“When you don’t have a monoculture, you don’t have the problem with pests, with the soil being degraded. It’s what being organic really should be about. There is simply no requirement to treat the plants with chemicals.
“Traditionally in Vietnam these trees have been looked after by the ethnic minority groups, notably the H’mong and Dao.”
Unsure that just selling tea was going to keep them fed, Geoff and Ngoc initially opened a teahouse and restaurant in Nguyen Hue Street called Hatvala. (In Vietnamese hat va la means “bean and leaf”.)
But when Nguyen Hue turned into a giant construction site, Hatvala moved into smaller premises, abandoned the restaurant idea, and focused on the growing retail side of their business.
The Hatvala range of tea currently includes two white teas, three types of black tea, five types of green tea, five types of oolong tea and five flower-scented teas. There are also six roasts and blends of coffee. Because Vietnam is much more well known for its coffee than its tea.
Each variety carries an exotic and evocative name, such as purple rain, tiger monkey or mountain mist.
“Our objective isn’t just to have lots of different types of teas but to have teas that are significantly different to each other that may appeal to different people,” Geoff said.
Tea trading accounts for a large part of Hatvala’s business, with bulk tea sent to customers in Europe, North America and Australia.
The secret to Hatvala’s success, Geoff said, is their commitment to finding clean high-quality tea and farmers who really know their stuff.
“We are looking for the type of people who are creating a tea that is quite special in terms of flavour and complexity,” he said. “Where each time you steep you get a variation of flavour.”
“It’s where art meets science.”
Even though tea is also grown in Southern Vietnam, Geoff continues to only source tea from mountainous tea growing regions.
“It should come from a higher elevation. It does prefer a particular type of soil, a peaty-loamy and neutral to acidic soil. It should be on a slope. Tea doesn’t like to be waterlogged.
“It should have adequate sunlight but the leaves should not be in direct sunlight. It’s best if it’s misty or shrouded most of the year.”
Geoff said he’s really pleased with the products he and Ngoc have developed over the years, working in cooperation with the farmers to improve their techniques and guarantee their livelihoods.
“Ngoc has a much better nose than me and she’s become very knowledgeable about techniques,” he said. “She works with the people we deal with to improve what they make and create products to our own specifications.
“She’s got some very good ideas about producing teas that will have particular characteristics when it’s made and bring greater enjoyment to the drinker.”
The ABC of Tea
There are four main types of tea, black, green, white and Oolong. They all come from the same plant, camellia sinensis.
For green tea, the leaves aren’t allowed to oxidise, so the tea remains relatively green in colour and high in antioxidants. The leaves are picked and very soon after they’re subjected to high heat, which kills the enzyme that causes the leaf to oxidise.
Generally, people will say black tea is fully oxidised. The tea maker tries to speed up the oxidisation process by rolling the leaves, which change colour from green to dark brown. Lots of chemical changes take place, producing stronger malt and chocolate flavours.
This tea falls in the middle of the spectrum. The tea maker decides when to stop the oxidisation process and as a result oolong teas have a much broader range of flavours, from floral to spicy.
Typically white tea is made with only the leaf buds. It doesn’t go through much processing, the buds are just left to whither for a long time. It is simple but time consuming and it generates a much more subtle and elegant flavour than green tea.
To organise a tea-tasting session at Hatvala’s tea studio, email email@example.com