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Of oolong and orchards
Publication Date : 27-11-2012
Originally developed to grow barley for Boonrawd Brewery's beer, the 8,600 rai of land at Boonrawd Farm in Chiang Rai is now showcasing itself as a spectacular agro-tourism attraction. A visit to the site that's now known as Singha Park reveals that the well-known beer maker is also a large exporter of oolong tea.
About 30 minutes drive from downtown Chiang Rai on Den Ha-Dong Mada Road, Singha Park is impossible to miss thanks to the giant lion sculpture that guards its entrance. Established in 1983, the total area covers four districts of Chiang Rai and is home to 2,600 rai of para rubber trees, a 600 rai tea plantation, 50 rai of jujube fruits, 30 rai of barley fields as well as strawberries, star fruit, mushrooms and salad vegetables. Sunn hemp with its colourful yellow flowers stretches out as far as the eye can see, just begging to be photographed.
"Initially we aimed to cultivate barley as a fermentable ingredient for our beer. But due to the short winter and unpredictable weather conditions, the result wasn't satisfying either in terms of quality and quantity. What we produce now is used for malted drinks and health foods. The highest output of the farm today is oolong tea. Production is about three tons a day and it all goes to Taiwan," says Boonrawd's executive director Rati Panthawi.
Since late last year, the public have been able to visit the farm to learn about agricultural production but only now is it ready to welcome tourists wanting to get closer to nature through a daily farm tour that's free of charge.
While the farm is open year round, the best time for sightseeing is from now until January as the sun is not too strong and the breeze is cool. It's best to take the sightseeing car for the tour, which runs daily from 10am to 5pm and comes complete with a guide.
The highlight is stopping to observe the tea pickers and then later witness the entire tea making process. Rati says the Chinese oolong Jin Xuan (oolong 12) is ideally suited to this climate.
Tea picking is an art in itself. Only a terminal bud and three young leaves are plucked by gentle hands to get the premium tea. Picking begins at 9am and continues until 3pm.
"We plant more than 800,000 plants over 600 rai and they are harvested throughout the year. Each picker gets Bt8 for a kilogramme. The highest skilled can pick 50 kg a day, " says tea master Tawan Bureekaew.
The tea is then sent to the factory where the leaves are spread on wire mesh in a shaded open-air area to remove the moisture. Air is passed over them gently to dry them out - a process that takes about an hour - after which the leaves are sent to the fermentation room.
Here in a temperature and humidity controlled room, the withered leaves are laid out on all 17 floors of a hydraulic device that will twist them mechanically every three hours. During this process, which lasts 18 to 20 hours, the chlorophyll is enzymatically broken down, and its tannins are released, developing a unique flavour and aroma.
"This process determines the tea's colour, taste and strength. The tea picked in each season has different flavours and tastes but with this fermentation room, we can control the result, ensuring the tea is fragrant, refreshing yet strong," Tawan says.
Once the leaves have been oxidised to the desired level, the tea is roasted in a rolling drum at 200 to 300 degree Celsius for seven to 10 minutes.
The leaves are kneaded by machine then rolled into spherical forms, an action which causes some of the sap, essential oils and juices to ooze out, further enhancing the taste. In the final stage, the tea is graded by hand according to size and packed.
"The loose tea is exported to Taiwan and is priced at Bt900 per kg. It's also available at the farm at Bt90 for a 100 gm pack though we don't do local marketing yet," Rati says.
You can tease your palate with the fresh tea leaves by enjoying lunch at Bhu Bhirom, the farm's hilltop restaurant that offers a range of tempting dishes including fried fresh tealeaves and spicy tuna salad with fresh tealeaves.
Digestion is added by another tour on the sightseeing car to admire the organic orchards and sample some fruit. The Malaysia and Sai Nam Phueng species of star fruit trees are cultivated here and produce large and sweet tasting fruit during the winter months. More than 8,000 strawberry plants of the Pharachatan 80 species, developed by the Royal Project in 2002, also tempt with their sweet and soft flesh.
And then there's the jujube trees - all 2,800 of them. The fruit is big - some the same size as a tennis ball - and the vitamin C-packed flesh is crunchy, juicy and sweet. The dry wood is used to produce a vinegar that eliminates pests and helps increase the amount of fruit produced in orchards.
"Wood vinegar is actually a distillate of burning wood. The smoke from the heated wood is collected and condensed. The condensation is the vinegar, which is filtered not less than five times to ensure the highest purity level. This vinegar is allowed to mature for another six months. The final product will be mixed with water and sprayed over the plant shoots," says Rati.
Singha Park is about 10 kilometres from downtown Chiang Rai on Den Ha-Dong Mada Road.
*1 rai=1,600 sqm