Dorothy Chats with Phyu Thwe, Founder of the Five Trees Tea Garden and Mogok Tea Company
Phyu Thwe, the founder of Mogok Tea, is a native of the Mogok region in Myanmar, hence the name of the company. Phyu came to Britain to train as an accountant and as her life in London took on the trappings of a wealthy Western lifestyle see looked to her small family village where life was harsh and decided, rather than giving up her life in London, how she could help her village and family from England. The choice for the men of the village was mining, dangerous and environmentally destructive, and once old they were unable to work. For the women the only choices were travelling abroad to be maids, if they had passports, or to work extremely long hours in retail for very little return. As Phyu explains she didn’t want to give them handouts as that is a short-term fix but “I wanted to empower them; I wanted to give them a purpose and a vision of a better life”. She decided on tea to do this.
Traditionally tea growing in Myanmar was very casual. Tea was made in each village for family consumption and very little attention was paid to quality. Phyu knew if she was to reach an international market the quality would have to be consistent and excellent. This is where Beverly Wainwright of the Scottish Tea Factory steps in. Her superb knowledge on tea growing, gleaned over years of working in Sri Lanka, America and Scotland, and her meticulous approach helped Phyu to achieve her goal. Entirely at Phyu’s expense in 2019 in just 6 weeks a small factory was built, equipment bought and strict training in hygiene and tea making as well as meticulous record keeping was done all under the supportive and brilliant eye of Beverley.
Through the growing season much experimental work was done until by the end of 2019 the teas had been refined and a superb product developed. Since then, Phyu and the people in her village have had to battle covid and then the civil war in Myanmar but they are all determined to push on as the tea estate provides a future and hope.
Traditionally in Myanmar only green tea is drunk and so introducing the production of white and black tea, something the villagers had never seen before was a huge learning curve. Phyu says upon one of her relatives seeing black tea “my aunty asked me what they used to make the tea change its colour so much!”
Phyu wanted to respect her culture and heritage and felt her family history was invaluable in telling her story and the story of the tea garden- Five Trees Tea Garden. Phyu’s mother had 10 siblings and one of her many jobs was to collect fire wood from the forest before electricity came to the village. She would travel an old route which connected all the villages and took her past 5 banyan trees. Her mum would love to rest at the 3rd as the shade was just perfect there! Underneath these ancient trees are tiny temples dedicated to the tree spirits and to which small gifts are given. These beautiful trees are the inspiration for some of the names of the tea as well as having an immense meaning to her family and the village, and of course giving the tea garden its name.
The tea bushes at The Five Trees Tea Garden are organically cultivated and allowed to grow semi – wild, growing comparatively tall and spindly with tiny leaves. They are not pruned in the same way as on a large plantation and therefore only a small amount of leaf is produced. Just two leaves and one bud are taken and the bushes are not stripped of their leaves each time which means the pluckers have a long walk to get any volume of leaf. But the leaf quality is excellent and is a great starting point for all the teas. This all leads to an excellent quality.
The Five Trees Tea Garden consists of 100 acres of old tea bushes and 80 acres of newly planted tea bushes. All the tea is entirely plucked by hand and one of the major priorities is to work in harmony with nature, diverting employment away from mining which has destroyed the local environment causing landslides and flooding, and towards a more sustainable future. The small tea factory now employs 3 men and 9 ladies ranging in age from 21 to 60 plus. Their lives are very different now with a safe and constant purpose and income.
When I spoke to Phyu she left me with an analogy which has run through my mind many times and I think is beautiful. Here it is: One good tree can provide 10,000 birds with security and a home - one person can help and make a difference to many people. That is certainly what Phyu is doing – and her teas are just amazing too!