Tea Interview: Mr. Geoff Hopkins from Vietnamese tea shop Hatvala

,About two years ago I ran upon a very interesting tea shop – Hatvala. Up until then I didn’t have much chance for trying Vietnamese tea since it is not very well known outside Vietnam. I had a chance to try some of Hatvala’s teas and was delighted by all of them. Every single one of them is special, clearly made with a great deal of love and effort and will get you hooked immediately. So, I was very curious, if these teas are so good, why are they not widely spread among tea drinking population, like Japanese, Chinese and Indian teas are? Mr. Geoff from Hatvala was more than kind to reply to my questions.

About Vietnamese tea

Mr. Geoff, tell us something about Vietnamese tea. Is tea production in Vietnam big? What types of teas are produced in Vietnam?

Although most people associate the origins of tea with China the tea plant itself is also native to a region that includes parts of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and (probably) north-east India.  In the far northern provinces of Vietnam that border China indigenous peoples have reportedly used tea leaves for medicinal purposes for many hundreds of years. There was, however, no organized tea industry in Vietnam until developed by the French in the late 19th century during the Indochina colonial period.  The industry initially saw rapid growth but subsequently became a victim of the years of post WW2 conflict that beset Vietnam.

In recent years the industry has seen a resurgence and tea is now grown in 30 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces.  Today it is 6th largest producer and 5th largest exporter in the world by volume; with approximately 70% of total production exported.  A consequence of this rapid growth has been a focus on quantity rather than quality resulting in generally poor quality and low average prices.  The main markets for Vietnamese tea are Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East.

Domestic consumption is mostly green tea but both green and black teas are produced for export.    In more recent years Oolong tea production has been developed, often in co-operation with Taiwanese companies, providing better value to farmers.  Much of this tea is exported directly to Taiwan; and allegedly marketed as Taiwanese tea. Smaller quantities of white tea and pho nhi (a post fermented tea equivalent to Puerh) are also produced.

A tea shop with soul

I can see big passion in your business, you are not only selling tea, you are sharing passion for tea as well. Hatvala offers around 25 different teas, but every one of them is special and of high quality. Why did you found Hatvala?

Establishing Hatvala was very much a second career for me.  I had worked for many years in IT for an international bank both in the UK (where I am from) and then overseas.  Ultimately this led me to a work assignment based in Hanoi.  I had been a tea enthusiast for many years and yet ironically I was unaware that Vietnam had any significant tea industry when I first came here.  My first introduction was when I took a motorbike tour around the northern provinces and came across numerous tea fields.

After that I started to research in some detail and then to develop an interest in wild tea trees which continue to fascinate me today.  At the end of my 4 year work assignment in Vietnam I decided it was time for a new direction in life and decided to see if I could turn my hobby into a functioning business.  There followed a period of detailed research in Vietnam plus educational visits to tea producing areas of Yunnan, Assam and Darjeeling and so Hatvala was born.

We have been in business for 4 years now and I enjoy the life immensely.  It has been a wonderful voyage of discovery where the highlight is the annual expedition to visit our farmer/ producer friends and to look for new teas to add to our collection.  Many of the tea areas are quite remote, unspoiled and with amazing scenery.

We are very particular about the teas that we select and will only direct source from the producer.  We believe the supply chain should be as short as possible from the bush or tree to the customer.  Hopefully, we can do some of the hard work of discovery on the customer’s behalf.  Other than that we are insistent that all teas have their own distinct character, last well when brewing and are free of chemical residue.  As trust is so important when sourcing teas we must also be satisfied that the producer is someone we can build a long term relationship with and who is open to producing new and improved varieties.

Tea Interview: Mr. Geoff Hopkins from Vietnamese tea shop Hatvala

Source: Hatvala

Do you think Vietnamese tea has perspective in foreign market? Are most of them used for domestic consumption?

As I mentioned above Vietnam is already a major tea exporting country but in all probability the origin of the tea is mostly invisible to the drinker.  The tea will generally be destined for the cheaper blends and tea bags although the oolongs are an exception to this rule.

My experience is that there are good and bad teas from any country and it would be wrong to make any assumption simply based on country of origin.  The best chefs in the world may be French but just because a chef is French doesn’t make him great. It is unfortunate for Vietnam that tea is generally poorer quality and that there are many irresponsible (or inadequately educated) farmers who use chemical fertilizers and pesticides indiscriminately.  This continues to hold the wider industry back in terms of value.

Our own business is targeted at the higher end of the market and one goal that we have is to raise the profile of quality tea from Vietnam.  At the moment I think that there is a great opportunity here as you can find some amazing teas at very affordable prices when compared to equivalent products from China or Taiwan.  There is, as yet, no reputation or scarcity to drive up prices and so it is the perfect time to discover and buy.

Cultural aspect

What are the tea drinking habits of Vietnamese people? Is there a special tea ceremony or some cultural importance to tea?

There is no elaborate tea ceremony in Vietnam equivalent to those in some other countries.  Nevertheless sharing tea is a very important and established social custom for Vietnamese people.  An old saying translates to ‘water first, then the choice of tea, of tea-cups, of tea pots and the choice of companions‘.  It sums up the important elements of tea culture in Vietnam in that tea more than anything else means hospitality and the pleasure of keeping good company with close friends in the appreciation of tea.

If you visit a Vietnamese home you are likely to be invited to drink a cup of tea even before introductions are made and your host may consider it rude if you refuse, even if you are not thirsty.  As long as you drink your cup will be re-filled but beware as the Vietnamese prefer their tea strong and bitter.  As in China, tea is an important part of every meal whether taken at home or in a restaurant.

Vietnam is a country of contrasts and there are regional variations in tea drinking largely driven by geography and climate.  What I have described above is more typical in the north (temperate with four distinct seasons) than the south (tropical with just wet and dry seasons).  Iced drinks are far more popular in the south.

Vietnamese tea

Source: Hatvala

What do you think is the most important thing when buying a tea or choosing a tea? Most of Hatvala’s teas are from wild tea bushes. Why did you choose wild versus estate teas?

When we started the business it was not a conscious decision to focus specifically on wild teas and at launch only 3 of the 8 teas that we offered were from wild trees.  Now approximately 70% of what we sell is wild.  Since launch we have also switched to using wild tea as a base for all of our natural flower scented teas such as lotus, jasmine and others.

There are a number of reasons why the business has evolved in this way but primarily it reflects our priority to source teas of great character.  The wild teas offered much greater and wider variety than the estate grown alternatives.  Alongside this there is a great story attached to wild teas which grow completely naturally in remote ancient forests and are harvested (and in many cases also processed) by Vietnam’s ethnic hill peoples.  We can be very confident that the tea is clean and our arrangement also bring ‘fresh’ money to their lives which otherwise revolves around a system of subsistence and exchange.

Though, we do not ignore estate teas and all of our popular oolong teas are estate grown.  We have yet to find a decent oolong produced from wild leaves although this is something we continue to explore.

The thought process that we go through in selecting a tea to sell is probably quite similar to the one that a customer would use when looking for a tea to buy; the main difference being that we try to put personal preference aside as we look for teas that might appeal to many tastes.  Our starting point is overall character which for me means brightness of the liquor, depth of aroma, briskness, body, sweetness/ aftertaste and breadth/ complexity of flavour.  Well produced tea should also have good staying power and deliver several steepings producing new taste experiences each time.  It is a bonus to have a great looking dry leaf, but my experience is that this is not necessarily a guarantee of excellence.  Sitting above all these requirements, the tea must be free of chemical residue.

For a customer, I would recommend trying to find a trusted supplier. Avoid long supply chains if you want to ensure that you get the tea that you order.  I think that the internet provides an excellent opportunity to try teas from different sources at relatively low risk and is also a great resource with the availability of excellent blogs such as your own providing objective and independent recommendations.

Naturally we cannot ignore the fact that everyone has their own individual preferences and rationale when buying tea.  The important thing is to drink whatever you enjoy personally.

Closure: I would like to thank Mr. Geoff Hopkins on his time and answers. It make me really happy to meet people in the tea industry who are more than willing to share information, knowledge, passion, teas… I wish Vietnamese tea could find its way to cups of many tea lovers. By positive feedback from those who have tried it, I don’t doubt this will happen very soon. You can find out more on Vietnamese tea on Hatvala’s blog

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