Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Our founder Phyu's interview with Eighty Magazine
Tea might have been discovered in China, but many countries around the world have since incorporated it into their own cultures. Over decades and even centuries, they have each created their own unique approaches to growing and consuming tea. Some have attracted greater fame than others, but in every instance, tea has become an inseparable part of people’s daily lives. Phyu Thwe is a native of the Mogok region in Myanmar and a pioneering tea maker. She tells us about her roots, what tea means to her and her people, and how she channels her good fortune to provide a better life for others.
You are based in London but your company is in Myanmar. How did it all start?
Tea has been produced in Myanmar for a long time. Its history is rich, albeit rather homogenous. Tea in my homeland has historically been made with very low standards. There has been no planning; no scientific approach to its production. Across the many villages and areas where tea is grown, each producer — that is a family — does it differently. They go about the process just by feel, rather than with acquired knowledge, and without a concern for or focus on quality. Tea is an everyday affair for the people of Myanmar, but it’s not something we think about in terms of quality. Making tea there is simply a job, it pays for people’s lives. Because of that its production is very disorganised, without any official benchmarks.
I was lucky to be able to come to the UK to study. As a trained accountant in the Western world, I now have opportunities my family and friends back home can’t even dream of. I can allow myself some of the daily luxuries that we all have always aspired to. But as I made progress in my professional life, the disparity became more and more obvious and uncomfortable. While I felt like I could always get more, my friends and family who were less fortunate were still struggling to get access to daily necessities, which severely restricted their aspirations. While I was deciding which fancy restaurant I could try next, my family and friends were worrying about how to get their next bag of rice and whether or not they would go hungry. This was a heavy burden I couldn’t carry. I didn’t choose to give up my life, but I decided to focus more on my country and try to provide its people with some opportunities.
I started Mogok Tea in order to build sustainable conditions for the people of my village to earn their own living. I didn’t want to give them handouts because I know from experience that that approach doesn’t create lasting change. I wanted to empower them; I wanted to give them a purpose and a vision of a better life. With the help of my very experienced tea
master — who lives and breathes tea — and my production manager, who provides the methodology for large-scale, sustainable tea production, we have managed to build a company that now employs twelve people full-time, including some from my immediate family, plus several more on a seasonal basis.
How is your approach different from the general tea-making practices in Myanmar?
I never cared much for tea and knew very little about it. Almost all tea in Myanmar is produced as green tea, although it looks and tastes very different from the typical Chinese or Japanese greens. Little attention is paid to the terroir, to the climate, to the seasons. It’s always done the same way, no matter the conditions. My team approaches production methodically, recognising that the process requires different steps according to the weather, the quality of the harvest, and other aspects. We have spreadsheets with indicators for how to proceed and what each harvest yields in terms of flavour and quality. We build on this and learn from it. It was crucial to understand and agree on what our green tea should look and taste like, because following the current practices of other tea makers wasn’t going to take us far on the international scene.
Is it difficult to work with so many family members?
I am from a small village and many people there are directly related to me. My grandmother had ten siblings and my grandfather had eight, so there are many, many relatives. Plus, we all live in a very tight-knit community, so even people who are not related to each other consider each other family. And yes, this raises many challenges. The older generations always feel that they can contribute with ideas or even organise others. This is especially the case since I am not there in person. But I realised this very early on and so I ensured that basic rules were set. Either I am there to manage everyone, or my production manager has the final say. Both of us are of course driven by our methodological approach. This isn’t about me giving orders, it’s about ensuring that we stick to our plan, learn and improve, and deliver the best possible result.
It’s also crucial to adhere to these rules because the whole undertaking is essentially a business and you must be strict in your business even if your family is involved — perhaps especially if your family is involved. You see, there is no production infrastructure in my village. Setting up the company came at a huge financial cost to me. I had to source all equipment, build up a processing room, and provide necessary facilities to the employees. I had to teach them basic production hygiene and provide them with protective gear. Amazingly, what they learn at work, they take home. They spread the new knowledge and practises around, thus increasing the hygiene habits of the whole village. I am sure there are many people among them who are not interested in making tea, but by working in tea for a while they not only understand the potential of one’s experience and acumen, but they also build their personal financial freedom, which will allow them to pursue their own dreams. If they learn new skills with me and later decide they want to do something else, I will be nothing but happy. Starting a tea business far away in a distant, tropical land may sound adventurous and even romantic, but speaking as an accountant, it is a very risky business. However, it’s a risk I am very willing to undertake because there aren’t many other work possibilities in my village and I am determined to better their lives.
What is the traditional tea that everyone drinks there like?
Although it is always called green tea, its quality, look and taste are rarely uniform. As the tea makers don’t care much for the process, their production is haphazard: they may sundry fresh leaves on the day of picking one time, but another time if it’s raining, they will keep the fresh leaves in bags and wait until it’s sunny again. This yields a very different product. Sometimes this tea is much darker in colour, which an expert might even call black tea. There just isn’t much theoretical knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly widespread drink that is served at any occasion. It’s even given away for free at restaurants. No wonder quantity hugely trumps quality here.
At the beginning, I naively thought that I could easily export this tea because it is Myanmar’s heritage after all and I should be able to find a market for it. But marketing it as green tea didn’t quite work. Tea experts say it resembles an early stage of a raw pu’er and it would be very difficult to sell in the speciality tea world. Basically, they were trying to tell me it is not good enough.
How did your family and friends react when you told them about this?
Oh no, I couldn’t tell them, they would be heartbroken. You see, the traditional Myanmar tea might not be valuable or even interesting on the world tea stage, but it is part of our culture and heritage. I don’t need foreigners to like it as it is, but it is still very important to my people and to me. It is the tea I grew up with and I have an obvious emotional attachment to it. But to make an impression internationally, I realise we need to craft something more aligned with global standards, but with characteristics of tea from my land. We will never be able to compete with certain famous Chinese teas, but we can create something unique to Myanmar that will be liked around the world.
Of course my mother doesn’t understand why we are making something different, she still prefers the traditional tea. And I wouldn’t ever want to take that away from her, but it’s one of the reasons it is important for me to be in charge of the business.
Still, my people are amazed by the variety of teas from other countries. As part of the educational process I brought them various other green and black teas to try. My aunty asked me what they used to make the tea change its colour so much! It was just so alien to them.
Are there any large-scale efforts to produce tea nationally?
There are many small farmers who grow tea on their small parcels of land. Some harvest it and produce the final product themselves. Others sell their material to large buyers who pay very little money back to the farmers. There is a growing demand for Myanmar tea to be used for making pu’er tea near the border with China. The tea trees might be similar to those of Yunnan in China, but the tea itself doesn't have much in common with real pu’er. The vast majority of Myanmar tea is sold for local consumption.
What are the next steps for you?
We already have a good product. It’s constantly being refined according to our experience and with the help of tea specialists who we have consulted since the beginning. We are ready to offer our tea to a wider market through retailers who would like to add it to their selection. In the beginning achieving sales always feels like an uphill battle, but I am convinced that Myanmar tea has a lot of potential and that our story will resonate with many tea drinkers. On the one hand, it is important to deliver an interesting product that consumers will simply like. On the other hand, I think it is crucial to be transparent about the business and to show people that by making our tea we are not just growing a business, we are dramatically improving the lives of all the people involved in the company by giving them opportunities they would never have had otherwise. Thanks to these opportunities, they can grow as human beings without having to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They can finally fulfil their potential and ambitions.
Mogok Tea is available on a wholesale basis. Please enquiry via our contact form
This interview was published by Eighty Magazine - You can buy a copy of this gorgeous specialised publication here