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By Heneage Mitchell

Vietnam produces a lot of black tea, but the drink itself is not particularly popular with the Vietnamese. It is consumed mostly by younger people, usually with sugar and lemon, sometimes with added flavors. Dilmah and Lipton dominate the black tea segment.

Green tea, on the other hand, is hugely popular, and the majority of Vietnamese drink several cups everyday. Taste a good Vietnamese green tea, and you will immediately taste the difference between it and a green tea from anywhere else.

“The Vietnamese tea culture is different in that we prefer very strong tea, with a strong liquor taste,” according to Doan Anh Tuan, managing director of Future Generation, independent tea producers.

“If you drink Vietnamese tea, you will get a sense of Vietnam,” says Nguyen Thi Anh Hong, director of the Vietnam Tea Association (VITAS). “It’s a bit bitter at first, but after a few moments it mellows in your throat… something like our Vietnamese history,” she adds, with a twinkle in her eye.

In fact, the Vietnamese have a green tea tradition with its own social and cultural ceremonies that developed over thousands of years independent of its Chinese neighbors.

“It’s a part of the culture; we drink tea in the morning when we wake up with our family, again when we arrive at the workplace with our co-workers, with our lunch, whenever we entertain someone, and when we get home to our family again,” says Hong.

Vietnam is changing, and western influences are certainly noticeable, especially amongst the young. Coffee shops are sprouting up everywhere

“Many Vietnamese may drink coffee sometimes, they may drink a black tea, now and again, but they drink green tea every day, usually several times,” says Tuan of Future Generation, an independent tea exporter. “You don’t have to go far to get a cup of tea in Vietnam, you can get a cup of good, hot tea on any street corner. And in the coffee shops too,” he adds.

Specialty Teas
Regional preferences certainly exist, diverse aromas and liquors preferred in different parts of the country, but there are some teas that are recognized as being special throughout Vietnam.

These include natural white tea from Ha Giang Province, 100-year-old tea and lotus tea, a North Vietnamese specialty. Lotus tea is made from green tea leaves placed inside a lotus flower for around half a day before being stored in ceramic containers.

“Lotus tea is very special, and very expensive,” says Hoang Cong Minh of Dong Thanh Company (DTC), an independent tea producer. “It is very popular during the Tet Holiday. The rest of the year, most Vietnamese drink ordinary green tea.”

DTC, along with Hiep Thanh Company (HTC), is pioneering the organic tea sector in Vietnam, currently hampered by a lack of clear standards. The government is moving forward with plans to support organics - the Agriculture Ministry held a seminar on the topic on October 9, 2003, in Hanoi and announced plans to set up organic standards and guidelines in the future. Meanwhile, with help of foreign experts such as Koen Den Braber, HTC’s general manager, a small pilot plantation is producing high quality organic tea in Thainguyen Province in the far north of the country.

“You should see this valley where we have our plantation,” says Braber, “it is fantastic, unspoiled, the farmers have never used any kind of chemicals on the land, we are growing tea at exactly the perfect height and climate, and we believe we have excellent quality. The problem now is to get organic certification that is recognized by the countries we would like to export to.”

Vietnam black tea is widely exported, and finds its way into many blends overseas, even if many consumers are unaware of the fact that they are drinking Vietnamese tea.

Vietnamese green tea, on the other hand, is starting to carve a niche for itself among tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs. “Frequently, a tea buyer will taste a Vietnamese green tea for the first time and then want to buy some,” says Hong. “If you want to buy Vietnamese tea, you should come to Vietnam to taste it,” she adds. “It’s a new product, but it’s been around for a long, long time.”

Future Generation: A Force In Vietnam’s Tea Industry
Future Generation specializes in processing and exporting fine Vietnamese teas around the world, both in bulk and packaged. For a relatively small private enterprise in a market dominated by the state-owned giant Vinatea, Future Generation has carved itself a niche in the international tea markets with attention to detail, quality products and a slick marketing strategy that earns repeat orders and attracts new customers. The recent acquisition of an IMA teabag packing machine attests to Future Generation’s commitment to and confidence in the future of Vietnam tea.

The company has built a solid reputation as an exporter of fine teas, both green and black.

In a country with no auction system where export companies dictate the price of tea, knowing where to get the best products is certainly a key element in the success of the company. Most of Future Generation’s green tea is sourced through contracts with growers and producers. This ensures high quality.

“We know which farmers and producers produce the best teas, we know the characteristics of every province,” says Doan Anh Tuan, managing director of Future Generation (confiding that the best teas are found in Thai Nguyen province).

The company operates three factories and each factory has a resident agronomist tasked to work with local farmers. “We have to invest in the farmers,” says Tuan, “Our agronomists give advice to the farmers, and we can help sourcing seeds, fertilizer and supply training and technical assistance.”

With seven years in the business, Future Generation has grown to become Vietnam’s second largest tea exporter after the giant Vinatea. “Vietnam’s tea industry is relatively young,” points out Doan, “perhaps only 50 years old.” Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.S.R. was Vietnam’s only export customer. After the collapse 10 years ago, “Vietnam lost its only market. We had to try to find new markets for our teas,” Tuan recounts. “Privatization has helped the industry grow,” he concludes.

Future Generation exports green tea to Pakistan, Taiwan, Europe, Russia and Japan. Recently, they started making inroads into Africa as well.

Specialty Tea
Not satisfied with their high level of success to date, the company has embarked on several ambitious projects to carry them into the future.

“We are working on a specialty tea project that will take about two years to complete,” says Tuan. “We are using new technology to create a tea with superior aroma and appearance. We are also introducing some new teas to Japan and Germany. These are sophisticated markets that need diversity,” he says.

Vietnamese black tea has a good appearance but is not so strong, with a light liquor. It also suffers from an image problem. While widely regarded as an average tea, exported black tea, often perceived as “cheap tea” in the international markets, is used for blending only.

“In the future, we have a big chance to develop very quickly,” believes Tuan. “We are a young industry with great potential. Ten years ago, no one knew Vietnam produced tea. We have learned from other countries and are developing quality before quantity. In green tea, we have long experience, which is a great advantage, and farmers are striving to improve the quality all the time,” he says, “but it is difficult to compete in the black tea market.

“This needs to change,” he affirms. “We need to invest in new technology and develop new, better strains of tea. This is expensive, and the government has no money to help, so private industry has to invest.”

Future Generation would seem to be leading the way here. “If you buy our tea,” Tuan says, “we guarantee the quality. We visit India to study their techniques, to Japan to buy technology and then try to produce the best quality in our factories.”

Future Generation has installed three Senvec color sorters at their three plants, the only ones in use in the country, and is planning to buy processing machines from Sri Lanka.

Domestic Foray
In 2003, the company turned its attention to the huge domestic market, a significant step that will see it competing against established giants and many small domestic suppliers.

“We want to sell Vietnamese tea to local outlets, using the same style of packaging as Lipton’s and Dilmah, in teabags, a new trend in Vietnam,” says Tuan. Until now, Future Generation was exclusively a tea exporter: tackling the domestic market marks a major watershed in the company’s strategy and serves notice to the big players that they’d better watch their backs!

Tea & Coffee - May/June, 2004


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